Like most places, America has always had potent strains of anti-Semitism — crude and polished, KKK and country club. But unlike many places, we have always had important strains of philo-Semitism as well; there is a long American tradition, with both Protestant and Enlightenment roots, of really liking Judaism and the Jews.
And so the story of the Jews in post-World War II America is the story, not just of anti-Semitism’s marginalisation, but of philo-Semitism’s triumph. Jewish Americans weren’t just integrated, like other ethnic and religious groups. They also attracted a particular sympathy and admiration, rooted in Holocaust remembrance, affection for Israel, and a distinctive pride in the scope of their success.
For American philo-Semites, the Jewish experience wasn’t just one minority experience among many, but a signal and elevated case. The outsize success of Jewish intellectuals and scientists and artists and businessmen and activists was an especially good thing, a unique proof of American exceptionalism — because ours was the one country where a people so long persecuted could not only survive but triumph. And attacks on Jewish success and influence, like attacks on the state of Israel, were treated as particularly dangerous, particularly un-American, because they threatened to undo this great achievement, and return the Jews to their historic state of constant threat and peril.
This history supplies one way to understand the stakes in the controversy over Ilhan Omar, the Muslim congresswoman who keeps using anti-Semitic clichés in her criticisms of the American-Israeli relationship. The part of the American left that’s defending her, or at least mitigating her offense and accusing her conservative critics of bad faith, doesn’t see itself as defending Jew-hatred, and since many of those defenders are Jewish — including the arguable front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders — it’s reasonable to take them at their word.
But the defend-Omar project is a project that seeks to push us away from the age of philo-Semitism, the age in which both American Jews and the American-Israel relationship were considered special cases among the range of minority groups and foreign policy partnerships.
This is what the left seems to want in the Omar controversy, and what I suspect it will eventually get: a left-of-centre politics that remembers the Holocaust as one great historical tragedy among many, that judges Israel primarily on its conservative and nationalist political orientation, rather than on its status as a Jewish sanctuary, and that regards the success of American Jews as a reason for them to join white Gentiles in check-your-privilege self-criticism, ceding moral authority to minority groups who are more immediately oppressed. (This last shift was helpfully distilled by James Clyburn, the Democratic House whip, who defended Omar last week by basically saying that the Holocaust was a long time ago and her personal experience as a refugee and Muslim immigrant was more immediate and relevant.)
The shifts here would not just be, as is sometimes suggested, a reaction to Israeli politics, to the right-wing Netanyahu government or the cruelties of occupation. If the occupation ended tomorrow, Israel would still have a nationalist and religious identity at odds with the left’s broadly post-nationalist and post-religious vision. Secularisation would still be separating the left from any specifically Christian sense of guilt over the Holocaust — which was an important spur to postwar philo-Semitism. Many American Jews would still enjoy advantages that expose them to the left’s intersectional critiques, and the Orthodox Jewish population (growing apace relative to more secular and liberal forms of Judaism) would still have religious beliefs and practices that are the very opposite of woke.
Finally, a great deal of the new anti-Semitism — from the recent wave of hate crimes in New York City to the anti-Jewish violence befouling Europe — would still be coming from minority and immigrant communities that are seen as essential to left-of-center and especially radical-left politics going forward, making them more difficult than right-wing anti-Semitism for the left to full-throatedly condemn.
Of course right-wing anti-Semites haven’t gone away either — which is part of why anti-anti-Omar Democrats can tell themselves that by downgrading Jewish exceptionalism, trading a specific philo-Semitism for a general politics of all-bigotry-is-bad, they are asking liberal Jews to make a sacrifice that’s essential for the greater good of defeating the greater enemy, which is still the reactionary right.
Whether this argument works depends in part on what the post-Trump right ultimately becomes — whether there’s a way to marry nationalism and philo-Semitism, perhaps wooing Jewish voters rightward, or whether any form of right-wing populism inevitably brings anti-Semitism roaring back.
But it also depends on whether the assumptions of Omar’s left-wing defenders are justified — whether anti-Semitism can be contained if it’s treated as one form of bigotry among many, or whether the perverse resilience of Jew-hatred is such that cultures choose between philo-Semitism and anti-Semitism, with only a swift downward slope lying in between.
© 2019 New York Times News Service