Whose Fault is Antisemitism?

Where does anti-Jewish prejudice come from? And how can we stop it?

First off, I wanted to thank all of you who watched and shared the first installment of my explainer video series about antisemitism. The early reaction has been very encouraging and spanned the ideological spectrum.

To be fair, not all the reviews have been positive:

Can’t please everyone, I guess.

But more seriously, a key goal of this series is to reframe our antisemitism conversation in terms of principle, rather than partisanship, so I’m gratified to see that the work has spoken to people from different backgrounds. Now the real test begins, because the next videos tackle more controversial questions, like the latest one: Whose fault is antisemitism?

This question is constantly used to derail serious efforts to fight antisemitism, because partisans inevitably answer it by pinning the prejudice on their opponents. By offloading blame for anti-Jewish bigotry onto their enemies—religious, political, ideological—many people avoid dealing with the issue among their friends and allies. By making antisemitism someone else’s problem, it’s no longer their problem.

But as this video documents, antisemitism does not have one simple source, and no community is immune to its ideas. The best way to beat the bigotry, then, is to focus on rebutting antisemitic sentiments regardless of their source, and to confront them in your own community where you have influence and credibility—not just in someone else’s where you don’t.

I hope you’ll watch the whole thing and share it with those who need to see it. And here’s the first video, in case you missed it:

The Smear Campaign Against a Biden Administration Muslim Nominee

You may notice that I keep referencing the “toxic partisan discourse” surrounding antisemitism. But what exactly do I mean by that? Here’s an example from the headlines.

You’ve probably never heard of Dilawar Syed. He was nominated months ago to serve as deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration by President Biden. You might think that the appointment of a little-known bureaucrat to a largely technocratic position would be uncontroversial. But you would be wrong, because Syed is a Muslim and has been involved in Muslim political advocacy groups.

As a result, as Politico reported today, Syed’s nomination has been held up for over five months by a group of Republican senators over his alleged anti-Jewish and anti-Israel animus. These guilt-by-association allegations are sourced not to statements made by Syed, but to a moderate Muslim political group he has worked with.

Now, if you read the Politico article about this antisemitism controversy, you will be somewhat confused, because not a single Jewish organization is quoted making any such complaints. That’s because no significant Jewish group has done so, but many non-Jewish Republicans have.

In fact, mainstream Jewish organizations have explicitly come out in defense of Syed, who by all accounts seems to have a healthy personal relationship with the Jewish community. In a rare public intervention, the American Jewish Committee declared back in July:

American Jewish Committee (AJC) does not normally take positions on nominees requiring Senate confirmation. However, accusations around Dilawar Syed’s nomination based on his national origin or involvement in a Muslim advocacy organization are so base and unamerican that AJC is compelled to speak out.

Syed has been an active partner of the San Francisco Jewish community, including taking part in a program for the national Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, co-convened by AJC. He traveled to Israel with the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco and has been involved in other Muslim-Jewish dialogue efforts.

The unsupported accusation that somehow Jewish businesses or those with ties to Israel may not fare as well under Syed’s leadership in the Small Business Administration (SBA) has no factual grounding. Indeed, he has specifically disavowed support for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks the dissolution of Israel. In a question for the committee record, Syed stated, “Let me unequivocally state that I do not support BDS. Throughout my career, I have supported engagement with Israeli business. I have personally conducted business with Israeli companies and have mentored entrepreneurs based in Israel.”

Syed is also being attacked for his involvement with Emgage, an organization with which AJC has made common cause on a number of shared policy issues. While AJC often disagrees with Emgage on matters related to Israel, its advocacy is done in the great American tradition of respectful public debate. AJC rejects the charge that simply an affiliation with Emgage would reflect negatively on an individual, organization, or agency.

The American Jewish Congress also put out a bipartisan statement along these lines. Many other Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, have weighed in similarly.

In other words, what is actually going on here is that partisan Republican legislators are using manufactured charges of anti-Jewish animus as an excuse to hold up a Democratic nominee. What most Jews actually think is immaterial to them, because this was never about Jews in the first place. For these Republicans, as for many partisans, antisemitism is not a malevolent force to be fought, but a convenient cudgel to be used to bash political opponents. Of course, there’s a term for people who use antisemitism for their own advantage, and it’s not “friend of the Jews.” Maybe they ought to watch my videos!

Elsewhere…

I talked to Jewish Insider about the goals of my antisemitism video series, and what we often get wrong about anti-Jewish prejudice.

Michael Pershan, last seen as the author of the hilarious “The Talmud Responds to Alice Walker,” has a thoughtful essay today in Tablet about how witnessing the public kosher slaughter of a lamb as a high school student helped him talk to his own kids about death many years later.


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