The first thing to be said about the “No Fear” rally against anti-Semitism held in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Sunday was that it was a noble effort. The organizers and those who showed up deserve credit for trying to shine a spotlight on a surge in hate crimes against Jews. A new group called Alliance for Israel was the primary organizer of the effort; it was launched in the aftermath of the fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in mid-May that led to a torrent of incidents of anti-Semitic incitement and violence across the nation. It was joined by Elisha Wiesel, the son of the late Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who appears to have played a key role in bringing together a broad array of national Jewish organizations.
Indeed, it’s a cause that ought to unite almost the entire Jewish world, and to that end, religious denominations as well as groups from the left, center and right, like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Zionist Organization of America, signed on as endorsers of the rally. If that weren’t enough unity on display, the leaders of both the Jewish Democratic Council of America and the Republican Jewish Coalition spoke alongside each other, sounding a bipartisan note.
Others who spoke included Chabad Rabbi Shlomo Noginski, recently the victim of an anti-Semitic stabbing attack in Boston, and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation, the site of the horrific mass shooting of Jewish worshippers in October 2018.
But if you think all this indicates that American Jewry is fully united in this struggle and sufficiently aware of the rising threat of anti-Semitism, you’d be mistaken. That’s because probably the most interesting thing about the rally wasn’t the people who were there but those who were not.
While organizers struggled to put a good face on their well-intentioned effort, the dismal turnout undermined the notion that the rally signified a united and mobilized Jewish community.
Raw numbers don’t always mean a lot; however, after the buildup for this event, the small numbers in attendance seemed insignificant when considering the importance of the cause and the large number of organizations co-sponsoring it. While the organizers claimed that 3,000 showed up, The Washington Post put the number at only “hundreds.” Either way, by the standards of the endless stream of protests on behalf of causes that regularly occur in the capital, it didn’t amount to much.
You can put that down to a summer event on a weekend when many people prefer to be at the beach or on vacation, coupled with the lingering effects of coronavirus hesitancy (and it’s true that many people did watch the rally online). Still, you don’t have to harken back to historic Jewish demonstrations of the past—like the 250,000 who turned out in Washington to protest for freedom for Soviet Jewry in 1987—to understand that when people are motivated and groups are willing to expend resources and send busloads to D.C. to make a statement, such a paltry turnout would have been unimaginable.
That may speak to the fact that most American Jews who are not Orthodox and may not feel as if they are personally targeted for hate weren’t too alarmed by the recent spate of anti-Semitic hate crimes.
More significant is the way that the divide over Israel has polarized and, to some extent, derailed efforts to mobilize the community against anti-Semitism.
Wiesel’s comments attempted to set some sensible parameters for a community response that should exclude all but extremists. He said that all were welcome at the rally, regardless of their politics or positions on Israel, except supporters of the ideas of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane or anti-Zionists. But even that seemingly anodyne drawing of lines is not inclusive enough for many on the left.
Unlike in past generations when Israel’s peril was a source of Jewish unity, today it is a deeply divisive issue, with the politically and religiously liberal majority of the community adopting critical views of the Jewish state and the minority that are Orthodox, politically conservative or staunchly pro-Zionist more likely to support it enthusiastically against its detractors.
More to the point, many on the Jewish left are adamant about trying to detach concern about anti-Semitism from the rising tide of anti-Zionist invective coming from the base of the Democratic Party. They are opposed to the widely accepted definition of anti-Semitism promulgated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance precisely because it includes rhetoric and actions that seek to delegitimize Israel, to judge it by double standards applied to no other government and to compare the Jewish state to the Nazis among its examples of anti-Semitism.
That appears to be why Americans for Peace Now and J Street stayed away from the rally. The same applies to openly anti-Zionist groups like Jewish Voices for Peace and IfNotNow—themselves a source of anti-Semitic incitement.
Unfortunately, the only instances of anti-Semitism that motivate many Jews to protest are those incidents that can be linked, however incorrectly, to their domestic political opponents, such as former President Donald Trump.
Along those same lines, some Jews refused to show up at the rally simply because it was an attempt at unity. For them, the partisan tribal culture wars of American politics are more important than a statement against Jew-hatred—so much so that they would prefer to skip it rather than to show up alongside conservative Jews who oppose critical race theory and the Black Lives Matter movement, which have been implicated in the targeting of Israel and the delegitimization of Jews.
It would be nice to draw from Sunday’s event the conclusion that Jewish unity is possible and that opposition to anti-Semitism, no matter its origin, is universal. But that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Opposition to anti-Semitism that doesn’t confront anti-Zionism and its prominent proponents, such as Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), is essentially giving a permission slip to hate groups and violent individuals to target Jews.
Until the fight against anti-Semitism can be said to include the entire Jewish community—meaning that Jews are willing to confront those on the left as well as the right—it’s no good pretending that Jewish unity is possible. So long as a significant percentage of Jews aren’t willing to stand up against such forces in theory, let alone show up at a rally against them, any talk of unity or a community that understands what it’s up against is deeply mistaken.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.