A quickly deleted tweet summed up everything that is wrong about the discussion of anti-Semitism in 2019 America.
When Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) heard about this week’s tragic shooting in Jersey City, N.J., that resulted in the deaths of three civilians—among them two Orthodox Jews—and one police officer, she immediately jumped to a convenient conclusion. She tweeted: “This is heartbreaking. White supremacy kills.”
Like so many other Twitter users, Tlaib shouldn’t have been so quick on the trigger, as it turned out that the two shooters were not white supremacists. Instead, they were African-Americans who had expressed interest in the bizarre Black Hebrew Israelites cult that regard themselves as the true Israel and the real Jews as imposters.
That’s embarrassing for Tlaib, who deleted her tweet but not before screenshots of it were taken that will continue to be thrown in her face for as long as she’s in politics. But while we pay far too much attention to Tlaib and other congressional extremists, her gaffe illustrates a truth that applies to other more credible people in both politics and the media. Too many of us only pay attention to anti-Semitism, and in particular, anti-Semitic violence, when it serves the political interests of our partisan favorites.
That’s why most liberals have tunnel vision with respect to anti-Semitism and see only right-wing white supremacists while turning a blind eye to Jew-haters on the left. The same can be true of conservatives who tend to downplay the growth of right-wing extremism while they focus on left-wing anti-Semitism.
The FBI is terming the New Jersey tragedy an act of “domestic terrorism” with overtones of anti-Semitism and hate for law enforcement. But unlike the Pittsburgh, Poway or El Paso shootings, which could all be linked to far-right hate, this won’t allow the left to link it to President Donald Trump. Nor will it be easy for conservatives to tie this incident to BDS groups or Israel-haters (like Tlaib). That means the two Jersey City shooters don’t fit comfortably into either the liberal or conservative narrative about anti-Semitism. And in this hyper-partisan era, it’s likely that news-media interest in the case may fade in the coming days and weeks.
That speaks volumes about the uselessness of so much of what passes for discourse about hate or anti-Semitism in this country.
Much of the fault for this does go to those who are so deranged by their anger about the Trump presidency that they are prepared to treat his pro-Israel record and even his actions to combat anti-Semitism on college campuses as proof that he actually despise Jews. But this is no time for Trump supporters to sound smug any more than it is for his critics to double down on efforts to twist his record or even his often wildly inappropriate comments into a justification for their equally wild claims about his presidency supporting the far-right.
Instead, it is a moment when we should stop playing politics about anti-Semitism and instead address the genuine fear that is spreading through American Jewry.
The fact that few synagogues are without guards, armed or otherwise, and that their doors are now always locked is a sobering realization that security for Jewish institutions is no longer a theoretical concern, but a matter of life and death.
While American exceptionalism is real—and the vast majority of Americans are deeply sympathetic to their Jewish neighbors—the rising tide of anti-Semitism that has swept across Europe has definitely arrived in the United States. Fanatics on both the right and the left have exploited the Internet and its ability to make the voices of extremists seem louder on social media.
What happened in Jersey City when these two shooters targeted a kosher grocery owned and frequented by Orthodox Jews should remind us that the most underreported Jewish story of 2019 was the surge in anti-Semitic attacks against the Orthodox in Brooklyn, N.Y.
While some major Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League are now belatedly treating the issue as a priority, most of the American Jewish world remains largely uninterested, if not indifferent.
Whatever the specific motivations of the Jersey City shooters, the plain fact is that their victims were the kind of Jews who, unlike the vast majority of their American co-religionists, can easily be singled out and identified. Like the Chassidic Jews of Brooklyn who have been targeted by a minority of violent African-Americans, the reason why these people were attacked is because they dress as Jews.
That’s a sobering thought for the rest of American Jewry, who by and large don’t look any different from their non-Jewish neighbors. And while the attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway can be put down to the sort of attacker that American Jews are predisposed to fear, what has happened in Brooklyn and Jersey City presents a very different sort of problem. That’s why it’s fairly obvious that the conventional wisdom about the threats to Jewish security that motivate so much of the discussion about the topic are simply irrelevant to the reality faced by Orthodox Jews.
What’s needed now is less preaching about Trump or the latest outrageous statement from Tlaib or Ilhan Omar, and more attention from the organized Jewish community to addressing the needs and justified fears of the Orthodox and Chassidic communities.
In an environment in which everything seems to revolve around Trump, both pro and con, the impetus must now be to bring comfort and aid to those who are living under this threat. Equally important, we need more from the organized Jewish world in terms of addressing the African-American community and demanding that it take action by directly denouncing traditional anti-Semitic tropes, as well as the intersectional myths about Jews that have helped fuel hate against them.
No matter where they sit on the political spectrum, anyone who isn’t prepared to do that is part of the problem, not the solution.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.