the national interest

Can Anti-Semitism Split Democrats Like It Split Labour?

British protesters denounce anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, Rachel Shabi, a left-of-center British journalist, warned American progressives that anti-Semitism could one day tear apart Democrats just as it is now doing to the Labour Party. When I read her essay, just ten days ago, it seemed fantastical. Today, after watching progressives floundering about in the wake of Ilhan Omar’s smearing of pro-Israel activism as a form of dual loyalty, Shabi’s diagnosis looks prescient. It can happen here.

Shabi’s argument is that three conditions exist to help spread anti-Semitism among even progressives who are not inherently predisposed to it. The first is the right uses hyperbolic accusations of anti-Semitism to close off legitimate criticism of Israel. Second, the right is comprehensively more bigoted than the left. And third, the left itself is divided, so that when a member of the more radical faction is identified with it, “anti-Semitism quickly became part of an ongoing factional battle.”

All these conditions drive many leftists to form a protective cordon around their allies who promote anti-Semitic tropes. Only the most hard-core members actually defend anti-Semitic ideas on the merits. Most of them instead are driven into this position by polarization, defending anti-Semitism as an act of defiance against political enemies inside and outside the party.

The source of their ire at the moment is a new resolution by House Democrats denouncing anti-Semitism. It defines the term. In an implicit rebuke to Omar, to include ‘‘accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.”

If Omar merely spoke clumsily and didn’t intend to question the legitimacy of Jewish participation in the foreign policy debate, they could happily endorse the measure. It does not censure Omar, or even name her. The resolution also cites “the post-9/11 conditions faced by Muslim-Americans in the United States, including unfounded, vicious attacks on and threats to Muslim-American Members of Congress” as a form of unacceptable bigotry.

So, what is it about the resolution they object to? They resent a rebuke of their political ally. One viral tweet scolds Democrats for proposing a resolution against anti-Semitism while ignoring the much worse racism of Steve King. In fact, two months ago, Democrats also introduced a resolution denouncing King (by name, unlike Omar.)

The main theme of the defenses of Omar is deflection. Mehdi Hasan’s pro-Omar column lists all the anti-Semitism on the Republican side that has gone unpunished, and devotes not a single word to defending or even minimizing her offense. This has been a running theme of pro-Omar commentary on social media:

All these people are making the same argument: We must choose between condemning the greater evil of the opposing side and condemning the lesser evil of our own. We cannot do both. Obviously, this kind of logic is not peculiar to arguments from the left or arguments about anti-Semitism. It is a broadly popular form of deflection.

Daou’s phrase — “the problem,” which is also sometimes expressed as “the real problem” — is usually a tip-off that this kind of deflection is being employed. The very term “the problem” primes you into thinking there can only be one kind of problem. And since we know the other side is worse, it follows that our side cannot be the problem. Therefore, to criticize one’s own side is to ignore “the problem” (or “the real problem”). To rule out the possibility of multiple problems is to preclude internal criticism altogether.

In the Israel debate, like most issues, there are multiple problems. One is anti-Semites smuggling their biases into criticisms of Israel. Another is Israel supporters using hyperbolic accusations of anti-Semitism to shut down criticism of Israel. (Progressives sometimes use hyperbolic accusations of racism and sexism to shut down criticism also.) The trick is to navigate a middle ground that allows both calling out real bigotry and permitting open debate.

Contrary to Omar’s insinuation, at least some Democrats do criticize Israel and its domestic supporters in harsh terms without leaning on anti-Semitic tropes. An easy way to do this is to recognize that advocating for a strong American alliance with another country is not a form of disloyalty. The United States has some strong alliances (Canada, the United Kingdom, NATO). The term “special relationship” is often used to describe both the alliance with Britain and the alliance with Israel.

Because the former is largely uncontroversial, or at least nonpartisan, you don’t see politicians beating their breasts to defend it very often, and you also don’t see much lobbying to maintain it. And so when British prime ministers deliver speeches on the floor of Congress, or when American politicians promise to stand “shoulder to shoulder” or allow not “one inch of daylight” between us, most Americans understand this rhetoric as normal advocacy of an alliance. It’s only debate surrounding the Israel alliance that brings out suspicions of subversion of national sovereignty by a disloyal minority.

Whether or not the United States should treat Israel as that kind of ally is a completely legitimate subject of political dispute. The place to make the argument is in the facts of the case — specifically, whether Israel merits such a level of support. Over the last decade and a half, as Israel’s rejectionist right has cemented almost permanent control of its foreign policy, I have grown more skeptical of the merits of the alliance. There is plenty of room to be much more critical than I am without falling into the trap of anti-Semitism.

Shabi’s advice analyzes the dilemma from the perspective of a party in a much more advanced stage of crisis. “Viewing American progressive politics today is like seeing the beginnings of a slow-motion car crash, one we’ve already been through,” she writes. As the Labour Party has embraced Jeremy Corbyn, acceptance of left-wing anti-Semitism has become a kind of totem of ideological virtue. The addictive pull of factional partisanship has produced an outbreak of anti-Semitism so deep and wide, the Jewish community is abandoning the party en masse.

The Democratic Party is far more resistant to anti-Semitism than the Labour Party ever was (which is why, even as recently as ten days ago, Shabi’s warning struck me as overly pessimistic). But the speed at which the virus has spread among progressive activists in the wake of Omar-gate has been a depressingly illuminating experience.

Progressives are right to object to bad-faith charges of anti-Semitism closing down questions about Israel. But defending anti-Semitism as “just asking questions about Israel” is not a solution. It is the opposite of a solution. Casting harsh condemnation of Israel as a stalking horse for anti-Semitism is easier if anti-Semitic insinuations are routinely smuggled into the debate.

Progressives are also right to object to the implication that bigotry should be thought of as a Democratic Party problem. The Democrats are a multicultural party that has built a strong culture of tolerance. This is of a necessity: The party could not survive without finding a political language that creates respect for religious and racial minorities as well as the majority. Those high standards can only exist if they are maintained. To change the subject to the lower standards of the Republican Party is eventually to adopt those standards as your own.

Can Anti-Semitism Split Democrats Like It Split Labour?