When the New York Times finally reported on the plague of nationwide street vio-lence against Jews in the spring of 2021, more than a week after the attacks began in the wake of Hamas using rockets to strike Israel, the tone it took was less one of outrage than of bewilderment. “Until the latest surge,” read a May 26 story, “anti-Semitic violence in recent years was largely considered a right-wing phenomenon, driven by a white supremacist movement emboldened by rhetoric from former President Donald J. Trump, who often trafficked in stereotypes.” This was nonsense: The most common street violence against Jews took place in New York and New Jersey, and it had nothing at all to do with Trump or “right-wing” politics. Par for the course for the Gray Lady, perhaps, but far more concerning was where the reporters seemed to be getting the misinformation. “This is why Jews feel so terrified in this moment,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt told the paper. “For four years it seemed to be stimulated from the political right, with devastating consequences.” At the scenes of Jew-hunting that began in May, during the war between Israel and Hamas, Greenblatt lamented, “No one is wearing MAGA hats.”
If there’s one organization whose responsibility it is to prepare not just the Jewish community but the wider United States public and its government for emerging anti-Semitic threats, it’s the ADL. Instead, the head of the ADL has been spreading a cynical left-wing myth about anti-Semitism while threats to the Jewish community fester.
And it’s even worse than it looks, because while there’s long been a willful blindness toward anti-Semitism from the left, the ADL and other partisan groups aren’t the ones experiencing this blindness. They’re the blinders.
THE ADL TRACKS various kinds of anti-Israel extremism when Israel is at war. It issued a list during the latest flare-up with Hamas on May 20 titled “Prominent Voices Demonize Israel Regarding the Conflict.” Demonizing rhetoric, the ADL warned, can “enable an environment whereby hateful actions against Jews and supporters of Israel are accepted more freely, and where anti-Jewish tropes may be normalized.” One category the list featured was of those “Accusing Israel of ‘Attacking al-Aqsa,’” a hoary libel falsely claiming that Jews want to destroy the central Mosque in Jerusalem. It has been used to incite anti-Jewish riots for a century. What was notable here was one name missing from the list, and arguably the worst offender.
On May 12, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had castigated President Joe Biden on Twitter for expressing Israel’s right to defend itself while noting what supposedly was to blame for the violence: “the expulsions of Palestinians and the attacks on Al Aqsa.” Her name and her statement were missing from the ADL’s list of slanders and slanderers. The Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov asked Greenblatt why.
He answered: “We’ve been speaking out pretty regularly, calling out individuals and examples of these crazed—the things I’m talking about right now.”
“Any members of Congress, lately?” Harkov responded.
“I’ll have to go back and look,” Greenblatt said.
He didn’t have to go back and look. It’s likely that the omission was at his explicit direction. He came to the ADL after serving in the Obama administration. His fellow ex-Obama official, Halie Soifer, who served as a national-security adviser to Kamala Harris before she became vice president, took over the flagship Democratic Jewish organization, the Jewish Democratic Council of America. The JDCA’s executive committee is loaded up with current or former presidents and executives of such mainstream Jewish groups as AIPAC, the Jewish Federations, and the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. After pressure built to respond to AOC’s tweet and the others like it, Soifer wrote: “Proud to be a Democrat in this moment when leaders recognize there is no binary choice to be made between Israel’s security & right to self-defense, and Palestinian rights & safety. We can do both at the same time, while rejecting the forced false dichotomy & narrative of divide.” Thus did Soifer give a seal of approval to the effort to dress up hateful anti-Zionism as merely legitimate criticism of Israel’s government.
As Harkov noted, “the ADL’s voice hasn’t been heard on some of these members of Congress who have been calling Israel an apartheid state, who have claimed that Israel has raided al Aqsa, who have also said that Israel is killing too many children, implying that it’s intentional.” Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet was just the opening salvo. A day later, on May 13, came a chilling session of the House of Representatives, with dark echoes of Jewish history.
Several Democratic members of the House took turns standing next to blown-up photos of bloodied Palestinian children and gave fiery speeches denouncing Zionist perfidy—the sorts of words and charges that, since the age of the czars, have been followed by the spilling of Jewish blood. This time was no different, except it wasn’t a Russian backwater or a Munich beer hall. It was on the floor of the United States Congress.
One by one, these members of Congress, Democrats all, sought to make the Jewish state the stand-in for “systems of oppression here in the United States and globally,” as Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts put it. Everyone in the world, according to these diatribes, had something to fear from Jerusalem. Ocasio-Cortez, whose family is from Puerto Rico, talked about the U.S. naval exercises held on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for decades until the Navy left in 2003. The Navy stands accused of testing bombs and other weapons using napalm, depleted uranium, and Agent Orange, sickening the local population. Ocasio-Cortez offered a bizarre conspiratorial accusation: “When I saw those [Israeli] airstrikes that are supported with U.S. funds, I could not help but wonder if our communities were practice for this.”
Pressley equated crowd dispersal conducted by Israeli police at a riot on the Temple Mount to “students protesting to end poverty and oppression in the streets of Bogota [being] shot dead,” white supremacists storming the U.S. Capitol, and “police brutality and state-sanctioned violence” against black Americans.
Missouri Representative Cori Bush made a point of referring to the holy city as “Jerusalem, Palestine,” and suggested that the U.S. was following an Israeli playbook when it “brutalized” black protesters.
Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, who has in the past accused American Jews of disloyalty and shared anti-Semitic content on social media, insisted that the source of the conflict was Jewish settlers uprooting Palestinian Arabs and taking nearly all their land—in 1948, in the “Nakba.”
Rashida Tlaib, the Michigan-born congresswoman of Palestinian descent who has also relentlessly targeted Jews during her few years in the House, spoke that day, but she had laid the groundwork for it at an anti-Israel protest two days earlier. “What they are doing to the Palestinians is what they are doing to our black brothers and sisters here,” Tlaib told the crowd May 11. As she left the stage, the crowd chanted, “Long live Palestine, down down Israel.”
In the days and weeks that followed, even after an Israel–Hamas cease-fire was in place, Jews in America were physically attacked with abandon—diners at restaurants in Los Angeles and Manhattan, Jews on the streets of New York, families in Florida attending synagogue services. The ADL saw a 75 percent uptick in reported incidents. In one typical attack, a group of men reportedly drove around Brooklyn assaulting Jews in the open while yelling, “Free Palestine!”
When called out for their silence, progressive Democratic lawmakers condemned “anti-Semitism and Islamophobia” as one, knowing that their audience would interpret any specific denunciation of anti-Semitism as a statement in support of Israel. That’s what happened at Rutgers University, the school with the largest Jewish undergraduate population in the country. Its provost and chancellor put out a statement decrying anti-Semitism and then were bullied into apologizing for it by a pro-Palestinian group on campus that claimed the statement was insensitive to Palestinians.
Throughout this whole affair, not a single congressional Democrat would criticize any of his colleagues by name. That includes Chuck Schumer, now the Senate majority leader (whose former top aide is also on the executive committee of the National Jewish Democratic Council), who couldn’t be roused from his cowardly torpor even when explosive devices were thrown at Jews in his own city.
The closest anyone came was Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey. He and three other Jewish Democrats wrote a public letter to their leadership referencing the types of hateful comments made by their progressive colleagues—without naming them—in an attempt to get support from Democratic Party leadership. The bid failed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stuck with the purveyors of anti-Semitism in her caucus and threw the Jewish Democrats under the bus. Neither the ADL nor the JDCA uttered a peep.
As usual, one exceptional voice in all this was that of the American Jewish Committee, whose young leadership director, Seffi Kogen, noted in Newsweek that “while anti-Zionist gangs beat up Jews in her city, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was providing a quasi-intellectual basis for their actions.” But for a large part of the organized Jewish community, the outburst of violence was met with inexcusable surprise.
As I wrote in these pages in March 2020, after watching mainstream Jewish organizations and political figures bash President Donald Trump’s peace proposal because they deemed it too biased in favor of Israel’s security: “What’s happening here is more than a skirmish over a peace plan, or a distressing glimpse into the way American Jewry’s leaders privilege their partisan leanings over the fact that their leadership roles in American society are due to their Judaism and not their Democratic Party membership. What we are seeing is the way American Jewish leaders fail to take seriously the rising tide of anti-Semitism that masquerades as ‘anti-Zionism’—and even the way progressive groups enable it.”1
Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib, I explained, elevated leftist Jewish groups such as IfNotNow to new prominence by using them to shield the Squad from accusations of anti-Semitism. With their endorsements, in turn, IfNotNow and the New Israel Fund launched a frontal assault on the Jewish Federations because the latter wouldn’t accept a donation earmarked for IfNotNow. The Jewish establishment was trying to hold the line on support for the Jewish state even as progressive politicians were helping foment a rebellion against these very basic Jewish values. The Squad entered a similar alliance with Jewish Voice for Peace, which had pushed one of the anti-Zionist conspiracy theories that reportedly motivated the perpetrators of the 2019 shooting at a Jewish shop in Jersey City.
Nothing has changed. In May 2021, IfNotNow used the occasion of the outbreak of anti-Jewish street violence to launch an invitation to a seminar on “Zionism and Apartheid.” Jewish Democrats in Congress who made general statements against anti-Semitism were accused by Jewish Voice for Peace of “using anti-Semitism as a political weapon to shield the Israeli government from accountability.”
Last year, Sean Cooper of Tablet exposed how the Jewish organization Bend the Arc deliberately turned the group’s work away from the Jewish community and toward various liberal and Democratic Party causes, shaping the activism of its member synagogues along the way. Rabbi David Saperstein, who for years led the Reform movement’s political arm, was listed as a Bend the Arc board member and served as President Obama’s religious-freedom ambassador. During the recent spate of violence, Bend the Arc’s political arm took the time to oppose police protection at synagogues on racial grounds, while also blaming the increase in anti-Semitism during the conflict on “white nationalists.”
Perhaps the most consequential of the progressive left’s alliances has been with Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont and former presidential candidate who arguably has achieved more political success and visibility than any American Jewish politician other than near-miss vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman. Sanders is a mentor and trailblazer for young progressives in Congress, and he made a point of putting the Squad and other anti-Israel activists in visible roles on his 2020 presidential campaign. His moves have scrambled the Jewish community’s response to Sanders’s politics and those of his protégés. That is a feature, not a bug, of this alliance, as far as Sanders and the Squad see it.
“What does it look like when a national Jewish community understands what’s at stake?” I asked here last year. My answer then was the united front the UK Jewish community put up to oppose Jeremy Corbyn, the since-deposed Labour leader who had turned his party into a thoroughly anti-Semitic organization that harassed the Jews in its ranks and incited London’s streets against its Jewish community. Nearly nine of out ten UK Jews agreed that Corbyn was an anti-Semite, and before the election that finally sealed Corbyn’s doom, the country’s chief rabbi was moved to speak out against him.
Sanders and Corbyn were mutual admirers. Ocasio-Cortez backed Corbyn in his election. The warnings that Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez were openly modeling the future of their party on Corbyn’s Labour went ignored or dismissed. The events of May have made the Democratic Party’s Corbynization indisputable.
Events in early June then gave the dwindling band of Democratic anti-Corbynistas one more bite at the apple. On June 7, Omar tweeted a summary of a question she had for Secretary of State Antony Blinken: “We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity. We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban. I asked @SecBlinken where people are supposed to go for justice.”
The comparison of the U.S. and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban seemed a typically gratuitous demonstration of Omar’s untouchable status. Twelve Jewish Democrats wrote a letter finally naming her while refraining from calling her an anti-Semite.
The response to the letter revealed the depressing reality at the core of American Jewish life: the complete abandonment of the Jews by their own supposed watchdogs and the merger of those groups into semiofficial arms of the very political party now enabling their torment. Greenblatt merely retweeted one of the signatories’ tweets of the letter, adding his own comment: “Well said.” His me-tooing of the statement added insult to injury: Not only were the congressmen given no cover by the ADL, but once they ventured into the breach they were given no reinforcement by it. The following morning, the JDCA tweeted: “Jewish Dems will be meeting with Rep. Omar during our Week of Action to discuss her recent comments on Israel, as well as other priorities of Jewish Dems in Minnesota. There is no equivalence between Israel and terrorist organizations such as Hamas.” The organization sounded more annoyed at having to say something than outraged by what Omar had said.
The final blow came from Pelosi, who told CNN days later: “We did not rebuke her. We thanked—acknowledged that she made a clarification… Congresswoman Omar is a valued member of our caucus.”
What happened in between the release of the letter and Pelosi’s public declaration of Omar’s righteousness was instructive: The Squad went nuclear. Ocasio-Cortez accused her Jewish colleagues of “targeting” Omar and putting her in “danger.” Cori Bush said her Jewish colleagues were motivated by “anti-Blackness and Islamophobia.” Jamaal Bowman, who ousted the pro-Israel stalwart Eliot Engel in a 2020 primary and who represents a New York district with a large Jewish contingent, likewise suggested that the complaints from his colleagues were due to Omar’s being a Muslim black woman. Omar herself complained of the “constant harassment and silencing” by her Jewish colleagues and the “Islamophobic tropes” they supposedly used.
It was an astonishingly vile and aggressive coordinated attack against the Jewish group. The ADL was silent. JDCA was silent. The Democratic Party sided with the Squad. The Jewish community had been abandoned to the rise of the dominant left-of-center ideology according to which Jews are part of a white power structure of which Israel is a prime example.
Corbyn’s attempt to separate the Jews from the Jewish state in the UK failed miserably. But the Squad’s efforts to do the same here are not failing. And it’s not just in the halls of Congress. The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner suggested it would be a good tactic not to beat up Jews, as part of an overall strategy to undermine Israel’s legitimacy. (This after the New Yorker’s union put out a statement of solidarity with the Palestinians that included the phrase “from the river to the sea.”) Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times wrote a column with a headline so instantly infamous that the Times eventually and quietly changed it: “Attacks on Jews Over Israel Are a Gift to the Right.”
Meanwhile, the comedian Sarah Silverman objected to attacks on Jews in Los Angeles not on the grounds that they were evil acts of anti-Semitic violence but rather because “WE ARE NOT ISRAEL.” For his part, Kenneth Roth, the obsessively anti-Israel executive director of Human Rights Watch, declared, “It is WRONG to equate the Jewish people with the apartheid and deadly bombardment of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government.”
Throwing fellow Jews to the wolves is abominable moral behavior. Delicately excising the name and words of a chic Democratic politician from a list of anti-Semitic statements to protect her—or to protect the organization you run from her wrath—constitutes an act of complicity in the violence that ensued in whatever small measure from her remarks. And the man who was thus complicit—Jonathan Greenblatt—had the nerve to act surprised. The anti-Semitic street violence in America is “literally happening from coast to coast, and spreading like wildfire,” Greenblatt told the Times. “The sheer audacity of these attacks feels very different.”
It feels different because it feels so familiar. And if the American Jewish community is to survive, it must start acting like it. And we must start by cleaning our own corrupted house.
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