American Jews must go populist

The community must acknowledge that the American silent majority is a formidable weapon against an antisemitic elite.

Claudine Gay (center), the president of Harvard University, testifies during a House committee hearing about antisemitism on campus on Dec. 5, 2023. Credit: House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Claudine Gay (center), the president of Harvard University, testifies during a House committee hearing about antisemitism on campus on Dec. 5, 2023. Credit: House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

It is often believed that antisemitism is essentially an elite phenomenon. Unscrupulous leaders, it is held, exploit hatred of the Jews to further their malicious designs, whipping up popular sentiment against a convenient scapegoat. The archetype of this kind of leader is the biblical Haman, who urged the genocide of Persia’s Jews out of his own personal resentments.

However, while elite antisemitism is hardly unknown to history, antisemitism has just as often been a populist phenomenon: The mob turns violently against the Jews, thus forcing political leaders to embrace antisemitism to maintain popular support.

Popular antisemitism has prompted horrific violence, forced conversions, expulsions, blood libels and other atrocities for centuries—from ancient Alexandria to medieval Spain to the Cossack pogroms and beyond. Even Nazism was a popular movement.

Moreover, the elite class did not always collaborate with popular antisemitism. In ancient times, leaders such as Julius Caesar were positively disposed towards the Jews and served as their patron and protector. During the Middle Ages, political and even Church leaders sometimes denounced popular blood libels and sought to tamp down antisemitic agitation, if only to head off anarchy.

The modern era is no exception. For example, the movement that sought the exoneration of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer falsely accused of treason in the 1890s, was led by many prominent non-Jewish elite intellectuals, such as Emile Zola. The most significant role in proving Dreyfus’s innocence was played by Georges Picquart, head of French counterintelligence, who sacrificed his career on behalf of the cause.

In the United States today, however, this paradigm has been essentially reversed. While populist antisemitism exists in certain circles—mainly on the far right—American Jew-hatred is unquestionably an elite phenomenon.

The eruption of antisemitism that struck the U.S. following the Oct. 7 massacre revealed what had been festering for years in the heart of the American overclass. The Axis of Antisemitism that injected the poison is composed of several factions: The dictatorship of the professoriate that exercises totalitarian rule over academia; the leadership of the Muslim American community, backed by their thugs in the streets; the activist industry; the legacy media; leftist celebrities; progressive politicians such as Rashida Tlaib, AOC and Ilhan Omar; and upper-middle class progressive activists and intellectuals.

While granted wildly disproportionate media coverage, these forces are decidedly marginal. A 2021 Pew study found that only 6% of Americans are progressive leftists. Just over 1% of the U.S. population is Muslim. The number of Americans involved in academia is vanishingly small.

Moreover, there is evidence that the overwhelming majority of Americans reject antisemitism. For example, while it found deeply disturbing sentiments among younger voters, a Quinnipiac poll conducted in November 2023 found that 75% of American voters believe antisemitism is a serious problem in the United States. This implies not only a lack of antisemitic sentiments, but also strong opposition to such sentiments. While there are divisions between parties and age groups, 75% is a massive majority.

What this means is that opposition to antisemitism in the United States is a popular phenomenon.

This indicates a way forward in the fight against antisemitism, though it will require a shift in strategy by the American Jewish community. For the most part, American Jews have concentrated on attempting to educate and persuade the American elite. This is somewhat understandable. American Jews tend to be highly accomplished, well-educated and politically liberal. As a result, they tend to identify with or imagine they belong to constituencies like the activist industry and the professoriate regime. Thus, American Jews’ overriding concern is to reconcile with their ostensible friends and allies.

They are almost certain to fail. There are good people in all the elite institutions that have been hijacked by the antisemites, but those people have an uphill struggle ahead of them—though they should not desist from it—and if they succeed, it will take them a very long time to do so. American Jews do not have time to wait.

Therefore, American Jews must go populist. They should reach out to the anti-antisemitic majority of Americans and seek not only to counter the elites of the Axis of Antisemitism, but to smash the Axis itself.

This is by no means an impossible task, because the Axis is not just antisemitic; it is also virulently anti-American. Elite institutions like the professoriate regime, with their constant denunciations of the U.S. and its people as irredeemably racist and bigoted, are widely and rightly despised by millions of Americans. Those millions are tired of being bullied and intimidated by these elites and will likely jump at the chance for payback.

Moreover, a large number of Americans see this elite as imposing policies that are antithetical to their interests. For example, environmentalist measures advocated by the progressive elite often drive up fuel prices and housing costs and thus harm the financial well-being of most Americans. This is not even to mention the Rust Belt communities who see themselves as the primary victims of globalization. None of these constituencies have much love for the progressive elite. Indeed, many of them blame it for essentially ruining their lives.

Thus, the American majority, often but not always silent, is a formidable weapon against the Axis of Antisemitism. To use this weapon, however, the American Jewish community must undergo a paradigm shift. It must realize that the anti-antisemitic majority is the victim of a decayed and decadent elite; an elite that is now an existential threat to American Jews. What is required, then, is for American Jews to declare not only that the emperor has no clothes, but also to join with those who wish to depose him in favor of something new, different and, perhaps, better.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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