American Jewish Leaders Must Address Internalized Anti-Semitism In The Community


The anti-Semitic turn the American left has taken recently, especially over the past few months, has been dramatic and frightening.

creating change anti israel protesters
Anti-Israel protesters at Creating Change

At the LGBTQ movement’s national Creating Change Conference in January, for example, protestors overtook and shut down an event sponsored by A Wider Bridge, a group that connects American LGBTQ people with their peers in Israel. One conference attendee wrote of the experience, “I was reminded of the stories I’ve heard and read about the European ghettos being stormed by torch-wielding anti-Semites, blaming our ancestors for countless horrors.”  At Vassar College, several academic departments recently sponsored a speaker who promoted the modern blood libel that Israel is harvesting organs from dead Arabs. And at Oberlin College, while the Holocaust was being called “white on white crime,” a Jewish student had a rock thrown through her window.

All the while, the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel spreads its slanders among both students and left-wing faculty on America’s college campuses, calling Israel’s self-defense measures “apartheid,” “genocide,” or “extrajudicial executions.”

What’s most remarkable, however, and most disturbing, about the anti-Semitism that has been infecting the American left, is the role that anti-Semitic Jews are playing in propagating it.

Jewish Voice for Peace
Members of Jewish Voice for Peace

The libels that are being spread about Israel would not be able to take root in the same way that they are, were it not for the complicity of Jews. The charges of “pinkwashing” that provide the cover for the LGBTQ left’s crusade against Israel were popularized by Sarah Schulman, who describes a somewhat bizarre “Jewish” upbringing in her book, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International. The Vassar lecture at which the modern blood libel was promoted was sponsored by the Jewish studies department. Perhaps worst of all, the “Rabbinical Council” of the so-called Jewish Voice for Peace kosherizes anti-Semitism at church groups such as the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Another symptom of the problem of internalized anti-Semitism is Jews who, in any case of disputed facts, automatically disbelieve the Israeli side of the story and reflexively impute the worst of motives to Israelis. For example, in the fall of 2014, a Jewish group legally purchased eleven apartments in the historically mixed Jewish and Arab Shiloach neighborhood in Jerusalem. The Arab residents of the area were not exactly welcoming to their new Jewish neighbors, to put it mildly. Yet Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, slammed this group of Jews in the Washington Post, writing,

In this case, Elad [the group that purchased the homes] claims to have purchased the apartments legally, via a U.S.-based shadow company. The Palestinians dispute these claims. While it will take some time to sort out the legal issues, we can say this: A person who has legally purchased a new home does not generally move in under cover of night, flanked by riot police. . . . In its use of subterfuge, shadow companies, and dead-of-night incursions, Elad represents the worst kind of thief.

Downplaying or rationalizing anti-Semitism is part of the problem as well. At Oberlin College, even Jewish students say that “the only reason people care about the Holocaust is because it happened to white people.” A Vassar student recently wrote in the Forward that the blood libel accusation, as well as numerous other incidents on that campus recently, meant nothing in comparison to the many students who turned out for Shabbat dinner and a cute-sounding mezuzah-decorating project.

Gaza protest
Gaza protest

Most rational people, even on the left, still recognize that stereotypes about a cabal of Jews controlling the world or making matzah from the blood of Christian babies are anti-Semitic. What so many fail to understand, however, is that saying “Israel massacres children in Gaza,” or “Israel is an apartheid state,” is a difference only of degree. Those types of statements are still counterfactual, and they are made for the purpose of demonizing Jews, specifically a subset of Jews known as Israelis. Those statements then are used to justify discrimination, and even violence, against that same group.

For the sake of comparison, it’s worth looking at a definition of internalized homophobia. Dr. Brian Mustanski, Professor of Medical Social Sciences, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Psychology at Northwestern University, wrote in 2010,

One of the most widely studied topics in the decades of research on LGBT health has been the concept of “internalized homophobia.” Although definitions of IH differ somewhat depending on the theorist, the concept generally refers to the internalization of society’s homophobic attitudes within a lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) person. Over the years, researchers have found internalized homophobia to correlate with a variety of psychological, behavioral, and medical outcomes like depression, substance use, and sexual behaviors that put one at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Like gay men and lesbians, Jews have been objects of discrimination, bigotry, and bigotry-based violence for literally centuries in both Europe and the Middle East. This history is too pervasive to imagine that American Jews do not carry its effects with us. It’s been pointed out, for example, that Sarah Schulman’s own account of her childhood offers a “glimpse into the psychopathology of Israel-hatred.” Memorably, Max Blumenthal, the author of Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, has chased a German politician into a bathroom stall, video-recorded the chase, and bragged about it, because the politician disagreed with his positions on Israel. Readers can easily form your own conclusions about that incident.

While these may be some of the more prominent examples, the phenomenon of internalized anti-Semitism is far-reaching. Many Jews today accept and repeat baseless allegations against Israel, such as, that it engages in genocide or apartheid. Many more, including many community leaders, blindly accept that Jews should not be permitted to live in a future state of Palestine, and that therefore those who, today, settle in Judea and Samaria are the “obstacles to peace.”

Jewish Voice for Peace
Jewish Voice for Peace

While these ideas are seriously damaging to Jews in Israel, they are also damaging to Jews in North America. As Ben Cohen wrote, the BDS movement, while a concern for Israelis, is a “domestic form of anti-Semitism that attacks local Jews through the demonizing of the Jewish state.” Diaspora Jews are also in the line of BDS’s fire, and, distressingly, it is other Jews who are leading the charge.

In 2014, in a Jerusalem Post op-ed, Ariel Chesler wrote,

I suggest that in the same way we talk about internalized sexism and racism and homophobia we must talk about internalized anti-Semitism. The pervasiveness of prejudices ensures that we have internalized the messages we see about women and minorities. This may manifest in many ways, such as when women dislike gender non-conforming women, or when African-Americans uphold white privilege.

It is the same with the Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. All people have internalized age-old prejudices against Jewish people and it is revealed when the topic of Israel is raised, and especially when Israel dares to defend itself with physical and military force. This observation is not meant to shut down dialogue and debate about Israel. Rather, it is a call to be mindful of how internalized anti-Semitism plays a significant role in how we react to Israel’s actions, how we judge the Jewish state, and how we analyze the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. . . .

Internalized anti-Semitism encourages ferocious rage against Israel and Israelis, a level of rage expressed against no other people. It permits the viewing of Israel as uniquely racist and oppressive and evil, instead of being seen as ordinary or all too human. Even what I would call “soft” or “positive” anti-Semitism encourages double standards and unfairly heightened expectations for Israel which faces extraordinary challenges from an enemy lacking morality.

Unfortunately, Chesler’s call has not been heeded.

I’m not a psychologist and I can’t speculate as to the causes of this phenomenon. Whatever the reason, we’ve known for some time that this problem exists, often going under the name “self-hatred.” In Jews Against Themselves, Edward Alexander discusses how this problem has existed for centuries. Those who suffer from this infirmity are now, as they have historically, causing problems for the wider Jewish community.

It is high time for our community leaders to recognize that, while disagreements among Jews will always exist, there are boundaries of acceptable discourse. It is time for our community leaders to recognize and address the internalized anti-Semitism that causes Jews to lead the way in bigotry against their own people. It is causing too much damage to Jews, both in the US and in Israel, to be permitted to continue unexamined.

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