columnAntisemitism

How ‘anti-racism’ made antisemitism fashionable

“The New York Times” presents IfNotNow activists as liberal idealists. But beneath the surface of their rhetoric is contempt for Jews and indifference to Jewish genocide.

Pro-Hamas activists wheel a mock tank into Freedom Plaza during a “March for Gaza” on Jan. 13, 2024. Credit: Philip Yabut/Shutterstock.
Pro-Hamas activists wheel a mock tank into Freedom Plaza during a “March for Gaza” on Jan. 13, 2024. Credit: Philip Yabut/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

With each passing week since the Oct. 7 Hamas pogroms in Israeli communities in southern Israel, the magnitude of the sea change in attitudes towards antisemitism becomes more and more apparent. But as the 110-day mark since the terrorist assault approaches, the straight line that runs between what fashionable liberal American opinion likes to call “anti-racism” and hatred for Jews has become not just obvious but undeniable.

The evidence for this has been readily seen on the streets of American cities and college campuses as mobs march, signs held high and chanting slogans calling for Israel’s destruction (“from the river to the sea”) and in favor of continued terrorism, if not genocide against Jews not just in Israel but wherever they live (“globalize the intifada”). What is most striking about all of this is that wherever these demonstrations pop up—whether at elite schools or while blocking traffic on major thoroughfares, bridges or tunnels, or outside Jewish-owned businesses as so-called “progressives” emulate the tactics of Nazi Germany in the 1930s—the language they use is not that of the tropes of traditional Jew-hatred. Rather, the tenor of their remarks and the tactics that are employed are those of the political left and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The woke ideology that fuels BLM—ideas like intersectionality, white privilege and critical race theory—have nothing to do with the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. But for both veteran ideologues and young progressives who have been indoctrinated in these specious concepts, the same bogus way of looking at the world is just as easily applied to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The result is that a significant portion of young Americans are quick to view the events of Oct. 7, as well as the subsequent fighting in Gaza, as essentially an extension of their assumptions about racial strife in the United States. And that is exactly the context for a revealing and troubling article published last weekend in The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

The black-Jewish divide

The conceit of the piece is an exploration of the growing divide between African-Americans and Jews that has been evident for a generation but has become even more obvious since Oct. 7. But rather than focusing on the chasm that has opened up between the two communities because of the disappointment most Jews feel about the way those who purport to represent American blacks have taken sides against Israel after Oct. 7, the Times Magazine took a different tack. Instead, the piece was centered on the activities of one small group of Jews—and, in particular, one of its most prominent activists, who agrees with those seeking Israel’s destruction.

This says very little about how most Jews or African-Americans really feel about each other or whether they understand their differing perspectives and problems. But it speaks volumes about how the woke ideology that motivates people like those who belong to IfNotNow, an anti-Zionist group that traffics in antisemitism, despite its claim to embody the Jewish tradition of support for human rights. Even more to the point, it demonstrates how the array of slogans and neo-Marxist concepts that is the foundation of “anti-racism” and much of contemporary progressive politics on the left have made antisemitism fashionable in 2024.

Antisemitic shock troops 

The Times Magazine takes a deep dive into the life of IfNotNow’s Eva Borgwardt and how she and her group—and its various allies on the left—have become key figures in an effort to demonize Israel. It also describes their supporters, who have captivated the mainstream liberal press. Their effort to pressure the Biden administration to cut off aid to the Jewish state and hand a victory to the Hamas perpetrators of the Oct. 7 massacres has had an impact far out of proportion to their relatively small numbers. They are the shock troops on the streets and on the campuses. More than that, their campaign to smear Israel as an “apartheid” state carrying out a “genocide” in Gaza has gotten support not just among the chattering classes but a broad array of Democratic staffers in Congress, the Biden administration and the president’s re-election campaign.

Eva Borgwardt
Eva Borgwardt. Source: X.

Much of the analysis about the impact of the pro-Hamas protest movement has centered on the way the left wing of the Democratic Party has bought into their talking points and is pressuring President Joe Biden to abandon Israel.

Equally important is the way that anti-Israel protests and the adoring coverage they have gotten in publications like the Times have not just undermined support for the Jewish state but mainstreamed antisemitic attitudes and positions about the desirability of Israel’s destruction, in addition to justifying the slaughter of its people as understandable acts of “resistance.” The path of people of like Eva Borgwardt and those, like the writers and editors at the Times, who treat her as an idealist rather than a hatemonger can only be explained by the way her “anti-racism” activism led to a movement that routinely engages in acts of antisemitic intimidation.

A backlash against terror victims

It was clear from the moment the news spread of the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust that the reaction from much of the chattering classes in the West, as well as elite intellectuals, academia, popular culture and the fine arts and left-wing political activists, would be exactly what Hamas intended. Rather than creating a backlash against the barbaric nature of Palestinian national “resistance” (and a recognition that the widely popular Hamas movement’s goals truly were the extinction of Israel and the genocide of its Jewish population), the crimes of Oct. 7 did the opposite.

Even before the Jewish dead were buried or the Israel Defense Forces began its campaign to root out the terrorist forces from their fortified positions in the Gaza Strip, the plight of the victims of mass murder, rape, torture and kidnapping was largely forgotten by most of the international media. Instead, a worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel was launched—one that sought to attack not merely Israel’s right to defend itself in the war Hamas had launched but its very existence.

To the shock of American Jews, fashionable opinion on the left now regarded the Jewish state as a whole—and not merely familiar right-wing punching bags like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “settlers” or religious Jews—as inherently wrong, if not evil. Far from this being merely the sentiment expressed by radicals dwelling in the fever swamps of the far-right or the far-left, such ideas have become commonplace in the pages of the Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC and other bastions of contemporary progressivism.

The reason for this is easily seen in the way people like Borgwardt and her companions have helped set the tone for much of the discourse about Israel. The path to anti-Israel activism for this child of an affluent St. Louis Jewish family came about through her support for the BLM movement.

BLM began to gain momentum in 2014 after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., fueled by myths about the incident. It then went mainstream in 2020 after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, creating a moral panic about racism that spawned a summer of mass demonstrations and “mostly peaceful” riots that shook the nation. The BLM arguments about America being an irredeemably racist nation dismiss the enormous progress made in race relations since the triumph of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s. Worse than that, they seek to worsen racial harmony by putting forward a vision of the world in which all people are categorized as belonging to one of two immutable classes that are locked in perpetual conflict: white oppressors and victimized people of color.

For Borgwardt, Brown’s death was a seminal moment in history that propelled her into a career of activism. Steeped in the propaganda of the BLM movement, she and others who joined her in the subsequent protests ignored the truth about the incident. Brown was a violent thug who assaulted a police officer, not the innocent victim of an unjustified killing. As even a report about the controversy issued by President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice made clear, the claim that he died with his hands up while imploring a cop not to shoot—echoed in chants to that effect—was a lie. But truth doesn’t matter if you’re determined to justify falsehoods about systemic racism and myths about an epidemic of police shootings of unarmed black men.

An antisemitic blood libel

While Brown has been supplanted in the BLM martyrology by Floyd, the Ferguson protests were influential in fueling a particularly noxious variant of anti-Israel smear. It was in the aftermath of that controversy that groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and IfNotNow began to argue that American first responders who received training in Israel (as at least one member of the Ferguson police had done) were being taught how to kill blacks on the streets of American cities. This was nothing less than an antisemitic blood libel that wasn’t just circulated in the black community. It was specifically embraced by JVP and IfNotNow as a “deadly exchange” that traced the sources of black problems to a Jewish source.

That JVP and IfNotNow would seek to demonize Israel in this fashion is hardly surprising since they are avowedly anti-Zionist, call for the destruction of the Jewish state and oppose all measures taken in its defense against Palestinian terrorism. Thus, for Borgwardt, the chants in favor of Israel’s demise and terrorism against Jews are about “freedom and equality.” She and her friends have swallowed the claim that Jews are interlopers in the Middle East who must be “decolonized” by Palestinians rather than the actual indigenous people of the land of Israel. They ignore the fact that Jews and Arabs are the same race and that the majority of Israeli Jews are—by the definitions of the American left—people of color since they trace their origins to the Mideast or North Africa.

The roots of many of the smears against Israel are to be found in the Marxist antisemitic propaganda that the Soviet Union flooded the West with during the Cold War and that found a willing audience among various extremists and hate groups. But the same lies have gained a far wider audience in recent years once they became part of the platform of the BLM movement and were validated by the newly fashionable woke ideology sweeping through academia and the rest of American society. For them, Jews and Israel were “white” oppressors who must be defeated along with American white racists. It is this same propaganda that has been driving the current antisemitic agitation since Oct. 7. And because it has been linked to the intersectional mindset of BLM that falsely views the Palestinian war to destroy the one Jewish state on the planet with the struggle for American civil rights, it has become not just acceptable but part of the orthodoxy about race that prevails in academia, the media and other sectors of American society.

Also featured in the Times Magazine article is Nicole Carty, one of Borgwardt’s black allies, a BLM activist who helped train IfNotNow members in radical tactics. Despite her ties to Jews who share her visceral hate for Israel, she bristles with contempt for Judaism, even complaining about the fact that Passover seders are about the Exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt and not equally interested in the black experience. Just as repellent is the way she views the efforts of some Jews on the left to mourn the Oct. 7 victims equally with Palestinians who have been killed as wrongheaded and evidence of Jewish “trauma myopia.” For her, Jewish victims had it coming, so they deserve no mourning.

But it is the comments of Rabbi Susan Talve, the spiritual leader of the Reform synagogue where Borgwardt’s family belonged when she was a teenager, that illustrate the tragedy of liberal American Jewish institutions. Talve, a devout political liberal who marched in the Ferguson protests, was dismayed by the BLM rhetoric about Israel. She foolishly thinks that the Jewish community lost people like Borgwardt by not giving them a more even-handed education about the Middle East, although it’s clear that the IfNotNow leader seems to know little, if anything, of the arguments for the justice of the Zionist cause or even basic facts about the conflict. It is precisely Jews like Talve that Borgwardt regards with special animosity because they want to support African-Americans as well as Israel’s right to exist.

It is telling that Borgwardt claims that when she sees “Fiddler on the Roof,” all she can do is weep about the nakba—the Palestinian term for the birth of Israel that means “disaster” or “catastrophe.” For such people, Jewish experiences are not simply unimportant but deserve to be erased altogether, including the lives of the 7 million Jews of Israel threatened by her Palestinian allies.

Her journey from a typical liberal Jewish background to activism for Israel’s destruction makes for a disturbing tale. It matters because it demonstrates that woke progressives aren’t so much interested in saving Palestinian lives as they want to erase Jewish life. For them, the only acceptable expression of Jewish identity is in support of other peoples—never their own interests or rights—even when it is a matter of life or death. They seem to be saying that Jews are the one people on the planet for whom self-determination must be forbidden. The ideas that helped transform Eva Borgwardt into a willing accomplice to Hamas’s genocidal campaign have not just turned some Jews against their own but have made antisemitism fashionable on campus and in the pages of The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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