What is anti-Semitic and what isn’t? Who gets to define anti-Semitism?
As the public affairs voice for Minnesota’s Jewish community since 1939, we believe the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) is well positioned to offer clarity to both questions. For those less familiar with our work, the JCRC strives to combat the cancer of anti-Semitism as it metastasizes and infects the margins of our political discourse on the left and the right.
As described in Adam Platt’s thoughtful Star Tribune commentary (“The Jewish identity: Reassembly required,” Nov. 25), ours is a challenging, if not ominous, time to be Jewish. Locally, the JCRC has seen a steady rise in anti-Semitic incidents reported to our office since 2015. Educating diverse communities within Minnesota and the Dakotas about anti-Semitism and combating hate is what we do.
Our friend, Yossi Klein Halevi, who is internationally well respected for his efforts to build bridges between Jews and Muslims, recently described the paradox of anti-Semitism as a historical constant that mutates from generation to generation. Halevi observes that anti-Semitism turns the Jews: “ … into the symbol of whatever it is that a given civilization defines as its most loathsome qualities. And so, under Christianity — before the Holocaust and Vatican II — the Jew was the Christ-killer. … Under Nazism, the Jew was the race-polluter. … Now we live in a different civilization, where the most loathsome qualities are racism, colonialism, apartheid. … The Jewish state is the symbol of the genocidal, racist, apartheid state.”
Halevi’s understanding is consistent with the U.S. State Department’s working definition of anti-Semitism. Defined by a series of examples and first promulgated under President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the State Department definition was also embraced by Minnesota elected officials from both parties when our state overwhelmingly approved legislation to bar Minnesota from contracting with businesses that discriminate against Israelis.
What many of these State Department examples have in common is that anti-Semitism often reveals itself in hateful rhetoric and violence that targets Jews or the Jewish state as being singularly powerful, manipulative or evil. Hate speech and bias crimes do not merely impact the victim(s); they intimidate entire communities.
We have seen such anti-Semitism in Minnesota.
For example, leading up to the 2018 midterms, the JCRC publicly criticized demonization of George Soros, a Jewish philanthropist, by the national Republican Party in a Minnesota campaign ad. Similarly, the JCRC is appalled by white nationalists who claim Jews are uniquely responsible for polluting our nation’s “white identity” because we champion the rights of refugees and immigrants.
At the same time, anti-Semitism regarding Israel is also very real. This is why “[d]enying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” is one of the State Department’s examples of modern anti-Semitism. Additionally, “[d]rawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” is another example of anti-Semitism cited by the State Department.
Under this framework, it is absurd to take guidance about anti-Semitism from fringe groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which opposes the Jewish right to self-determination in our ancestral homeland.
Similarly, it was perverse for this newspaper to publish commentary by Mary Bader on the subject of anti-Semitism (“Fight anti-Semitism, but not by suppressing Jewish voices,” Dec. 1) when Bader, a close ally of JVP, has compared Israel to Nazi Germany.
The JCRC welcomes U.S. Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar’s recent commentary in solidarity with our Jewish community as hate incidents against Jews and Muslims mount (“Let us stand together as Americans in rejecting hate,” Nov. 27). However, Rep.-elect Omar’s ability to fight anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry would be immeasurably enhanced if she would acknowledge the wound caused by her 2012 tweet that “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”
This statement, which used symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism to characterize the Jewish state, offended many of Omar’s Jewish constituents and still, to this day, is a source of pain even as we welcome her efforts to be an ally to the Jewish community. By acknowledging this pain, Rep.-elect Omar can also educate her constituents and hundreds of thousands of social media followers about fighting bigotry in all forms.
We also agree with the State Department that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” This is why the JCRC publicly criticized legislation passed by Israel’s government this year that weakens pluralism and democracy. It is also why we bring Israelis such as Halevi, who speaks hard truths about the necessity of compromise, and author Sarah Tuttle-Singer, an outspoken progressive, to address hundreds of Minnesotans to offer diverse views of Israel’s democratically elected government grounded in an unshakable love of the Jewish homeland.
In conclusion, we ask Minnesotans to recognize that anti-Semitism is a hatred not exclusive to a single political party or ideology and to be wary of commentators who claim that anti-Semitism is strictly a threat from the left or the right. If you are willing to oppose anti-Semitism from wherever it may arise, we welcome your support in the fight.
Steve Hunegs is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.