Has the activist left decided anti-Semitism doesn't exist?: Neil Macdonald

Neil Macdonald explores the world of social activism, where nuance and history are often just annoyances, to be marched past, or over. There's no other way to explain why many activist progressives now seem to regard anti-Semitism with indifference, he writes.

History, detail and nuance often ignored in modern political discourse

Anti-Israel demonstrators led by the protest group Code Pink wear masks of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they sit at the entrance to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference at the Washington Convention Center on March 1, 2015. (REUTERS)

The earnest, solipsistic world of social activism is not terribly fond of nuance, and even less so of irony.

Its members, especially students burning with righteous youthful anger, tend to see victims and oppressors, and nothing in between.

History matters only insofar as it's convenient. If necessary, it gets a determined backhand.

There is no other way to explain how anti-Semitism has become an insignificant phenomenon in the collective mind of the activist left.

To deny that Jew-hating exists, or to casually minimize it, is delusional.

And yet many activist progressives now seem to regard it with indifference; to them, anti-Semitism seems to be at best an exaggeration, at worst a shield for Zionist oppression.

The plight of Palestinians is a prominent cause in the activist portfolio, along with victims of sexual assault, black rights, gay rights, transgender rights, immigrant rights, Indigenous rights and a slew of other causes, all of which are deserving of attention and concern.
Palestinian and Jewish groups supporting the Palestinian cause stage a rally walking from Times Square to the United Nations Building in New York on Sept. 15, 2011. (The Associated Press)

But because victimhood is such a potent form of modern currency, the activist left seems to have decided that hatred of Jews should be downplayed, or even submerged, for the greater good.

Jonathan Weisman, a New York Times journalist, wrote a compelling piece recently about a wave of blatantly anti-Semitic tweets directed at him by self-described supporters of Donald Trump.

They portray him as a hook-nosed Jew, and potential gas chamber material.

"I was served an image of the gates of Auschwitz, the famous words 'Arbeit Macht Frei' replaced without irony with 'Machen Amerika Great.'"

Such clear racism, you would think, would provoke the fury of progressives everywhere.

But, no.

While they certainly despise Trump (some students regard even the appearance of his name on campus as an offence requiring official intervention), their main concern is attitudes in Trump Nation toward Latinos, or black Americans, or Muslims, or women.

'Recoiled from her words'

"A Jewish 17-year-old, inflamed by the Black Lives Matter movement and the cause of LGBT rights, told me recently there is no anti-Semitism," wrote Weisman, "certainly nothing compared with the prejudices that afflict other minorities."

Weisman, who describes himself as disconnected from Jewish life, wrote that he surprised even himself when he "recoiled from her words and argued passionately that Jews must never think anti-Semitism has been eradicated."

At Oberlin College in Ohio, one of the most liberal campuses in America, a black professor of rhetoric named Joy Karega recently posted on Facebook that the Mossad was behind the 9/11 hijackings, and that "Rothschild-led bankers" were responsible for the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in 2014.

Students rallied in her support. And the college, eventually, ruled that her views were personal and did not represent the institution. Karega remains on the faculty.

It's not hard to imagine what would happen if a professor had posted equivalent calumnies about, say, blacks or Muslims.

'You could never understand'

The New Yorker quoted Aaron Pressman, an Oberlin student, as saying he was told by one angry progressive: "You could never understand — your culture has never been oppressed."

"I'm like, 'really?'" said Pressman. "The Holocaust?"

On various university campuses in recent years, including in the University of California system, activists set up mock Israeli checkpoints where Jewish students complained they were openly intimidated.

B'nai Brith reported a 30 per cent rise in what it termed anti-Semitic incidents on Canadian campuses in 2014.

A Jewish student at Stanford seeking a position in student government was sharply questioned about squaring her Jewishness with social activism: "How do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?" a fellow student demanded.

Unbiased about, um, what?

The irony here is leaden, especially given that Jews were charter members of the civil rights and rainbow coalitions in the '60s and '70s. If any bourgeois group has shown a willingness to have bones broken for social justice, it is American Jews.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

At the core of all this, of course, is the conflation of all Jews with the policies of Israel, a classic form of anti-Semitism.

But — speaking of indifference to irony — that conflation is nowadays driven at least partly by the government of Israel itself.

The Palestinians, having been told for decades to embrace non-violent resistance, finally came up with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
French demonstrators and supporters of Palestinians hold a "Boycott" banner during a demonstration in Paris in this file picture from Oct. 31, 2012. (The Associated Press)

It has been embraced by progressive groups worldwide, and Israel and its supporters have counterattacked.

The Israeli foreign ministry has urged Western governments to treat BDS, which is essentially a decision about how not to spend your money, as anti-Semitic, criminal hate speech.

It has had some success with that approach: in France, protesters who urged supermarket customers not to buy Israeli products were convicted of inciting hatred.

Several U.S. states, most recently New York, have passed anti-BDS laws and regulations. As Gov. Andrew Cuomo tweeted last week: "It's very simple: If you boycott against Israel, New York will boycott you."

In Canada's Parliament, the Liberals and Conservatives voted to denounce BDS.

In Ontario, after the provincial legislature voted down a Progressive Conservative bill titled the "Standing up Against Anti-Semitism in Ontario Act," Premier Kathleen Wynne promised to introduce something similar.

The explicit message in all this is that a boycott of Israeli goods is perforce anti-Semitism, and that any organizations supporting boycotts or partial boycotts, including the likes of the United Church of Canada and the Quakers, are anti-Semites.

But the notion of economic boycott is, ultimately, a personal choice.

Scorched earth

Sweden, the Netherlands and Ireland have all characterized it as a matter of free expression. Or, as the Irish foreign minister put it, a legitimate political viewpoint.

The conflation of all supporters of BDS with Jew-hating is as scattershot and sweeping as the conflation of all Jews with Israel.

It ignores the inconvenient truth that some pro-Israeli Jews are embarrassed by that country's current government, as well as the fact that some of the strongest proponents of BDS are Jewish.

But it is all of a piece with the scorched-earth nature of modern political discourse.

There is us, and them, and no-man's land in between. Detail and nuance and history are just annoyances, to be marched past, or over.

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Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.