Presidential contenders are often tempting targets for extremist protestors. A disruption of a speech or campaign event guarantees media coverage and attention for their causes. So, it was hardly a surprise that an appearance by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in New Hampshire was targeted by a group of left-wing activists.
However, the kerfuffle caused by the storming of the stage at a Republican fundraiser during a DeSantis speech by members of the IfNotNow group was noteworthy for more than just the publicity it generated for them. The group’s targeting of the governor is in line with the desire of most Democrats to discredit him as a more formidable potential opponent in 2024 while, ironically, seeking to bolster the prospects of former President Donald Trump to win the Republican nomination.
Yet more important than the tactical games that partisans are playing in the months prior to the beginning of the presidential campaign season is the way IfNotNow’s stunt also echoes a general trend being employed by far more influential players on the Jewish left. It involves an effort to discredit those conservatives who are actually great friends of the Jewish people with false charges of antisemitism. At the same time, the same forces are attempting to portray those who are actually seeking to do harm to Jews or aiding those who do so, such as billionaire philanthropist George Soros, as victims of antisemitic incitement.
IfNotNow should count the investment it made in purchasing tickets to the Republican dinner as money well spent. The subsequent coverage in various media outlets gave their smears of DeSantis more attention than they deserved and allowed liberal journalists to mischaracterize its purpose.
The organization’s members chanted “Jews against DeSantis” and held up a sign proclaiming that DeSantis “Loves Israel, Hates Jews.” In tweets in which they boasted of the incident, the group spoke of the governor as someone who was a supporter of “apartheid Israel,” as well as an ally of antisemitic Christian nationalists and Nazis. For good measure, it also linked him to the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby, which it considers to be tainted by its willingness to embrace supporters of the Jewish state in both major parties.
Of course, DeSantis is a longstanding friend of Israel. He was an active backer of the Jewish state during his time in Congress, chairing the Middle East Forum think tank’s “Victory Israel” caucus on Capitol Hill. Even in Tallahassee, he has continued to bolster his record on the issue, taking a strong stand against the antisemitic BDS movement. The claim that he is an ally of antisemites is without basis in fact. He is a vocal opponent of antisemitism. The notion that he has somehow failed to condemn neo-Nazi activity is a smear. It is rooted in the dishonest tactic, which can be used as easily against politicians on the left as well as those on the right, in which a public figure is held to be guilty of encouraging extremism because they have not specifically singled out every bad actor for condemnation, even if they have no connection with them.
But what is so infuriating about the incident is not so much IfNotNow’s attacks on DeSantis but the way mainstream outlets are willing to refer to the group, as The Hill put it, as “an organization of American Jews protesting against the Israeli government and its treatment of Palestinians.” Newsweek was closer to the mark when it referred to them as a “left-wing pro-Palestinian Jewish activist group.”
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IfNotNow doesn’t exist to merely criticize Israel’s policies. It opposes Israel’s existence and supports Palestinian efforts to achieve its destruction—namely, via the BDS movement. It achieved notoriety for its opposition to the Birthright Israel program that funds visits to the Jewish state by young Americans. IfNotNow’s position is that no one should go to Israel until Palestinian Arabs have achieved their so-called “right of return,” which is tantamount to saying that it should be off-limits until it is destroyed. That’s something that could only be achieved by the genocide of its Jewish population by IfNotNow’s Arab “partners.”
Seen in that light, it’s clear that although its members have Jewish backgrounds, they are the antisemites, not DeSantis.
But while DeSantis laughed off the disruption of his speech, the widely reported incident has more resonance on the political left than it should largely because of the kind of invective mainstream liberals have been employing against Republicans in recent years. Jewish Democrats accused Trump of being an antisemite for years, despite his record as the most pro-Israel president yet to serve. Trump discredited himself with his dinner with Jew-haters Kanye West and Nick Fuentes last fall. But the drumbeat of incitement against the right by Democrats like President Joe Biden, who has falsely labeled members of the GOP as advocates of “Jim Crow” and “semi-fascists,” continues.
Indeed, pressure from liberal donors led New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage‒A Living Memorial to the Holocaust to cancel an event being held at the site by the Tikvah Foundation because DeSantis was an invited speaker. The institution claimed that he “didn’t align with the museum’s values and its message of inclusivity,” a clear allusion to the left’s efforts to brand Republicans, like the governor, who oppose illegal immigration and wish to defend America’s borders as bigots.
At the same time, liberals have become wedded to the meme that criticisms of Soros are antisemitic. Soros is a Hungarian-born Jew, and it is possible for him to be the target of antisemitic abuse. But he is also the leading political donor to left-wing causes—and in particular, pro-criminal prosecutors”—in the United States as well as someone who is a major source of funds to groups that support BDS and attack Israel. The willingness of the liberal media and Democratic politicians to use this talking point has essentially undermined the discussion about a rising tide of antisemitism in the United States.
Of course, it’s possible to oppose DeSantis or the Republicans without buying into the left’s lies about him or his party, and their attempt to treat friends of the Jews as enemies and enemies of the Jews as friends. But this has combined to create an atmosphere in which not merely Democrats, but much of the Jewish community in which liberals predominate, are willing to accept this kind of demonization of conservative allies of the Jews. It’s also lending legitimacy to the canard that attacks on those like Soros, who are not only fair game for criticism but are actually doing great damage to Jewish interests, as antisemitic.
The impact of such arguments on the Florida governor’s prospects is far less important than what it means for the general discussion about Israel and antisemitism.
The willingness of progressives and liberals to treat anti-Zionism as a respectable point of view, whose adherents should be treated as deserving of a hearing rather than advocates for a position that is inherently antisemitic, has had a profound impact on American public discourse. One is now just as, if not more, likely to find an anti-Zionist opinion piece in The New York Times, which has given sympathetic coverage to IfNotNow, than one that supports or defends Israel. That has contributed to a situation where smears such as those floated by IfNotNow and other progressives among the increasingly influential intersectional left-wing of the Democratic Party are being accepted rather than rejected out of hand.
That accounts for more than the dismal polling that shows that Democrats are now siding against Israel while independents and especially Republicans are standing with it. A situation in which the political left is engaging in this kind of gaslighting, in which truth is flipped on its head for partisan purposes poses grave dangers for Jews. In this way, the growing threat of left-wing antisemitism isn’t merely ignored but treated as legitimate. That is something that poses a genuine threat to Jewish life all too many American Jews seem willing to pretend isn’t happening.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.