During the course of a press call marking May as Jewish Heritage Month, Elan Carr, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, said something that set off critics of the administration of President Donald Trump. In his speech, Carr listed the three main sources of anti-Semitism in the contemporary world: far-right white supremacists, leftist BDS advocates/Israel-haters and radical Islam. While many on the left act as if only the first of those categories matters, the only aspect of Carr’s address that generated controversy, let alone interest, was his inclusion of one item on the list of things the United States wants to do to combat Jew-hatred: promote philo-Semitism.
While Carr mentioned that the United States believes it is imperative to condemn anti-Semitic hate speech, prosecute hate crimes and increase security measures, he also said: “We are determined also to work with our allies in developing and driving Philo-Semitic narratives for their country, in the hope that we can reach the day when every society dedicates itself, as the United States has, to embrace and to treasure its Jewish community.”
Carr may have thought advocating to think well of and appreciate the Jewish people was an obvious response to the negative myths and stereotypes of Jews. But his talk of philo-Semitism generated an avalanche of intellectual contempt and Twitter abuse.
According to Carr’s Jewish critics, philo-Semitism isn’t so much the opposite of anti-Semitism as it is its flip side, as they feel that those who claim to admire the Jews are simply buying into the same noxious ideas about Jewish qualities, albeit by venerating rather than fearing them. They pose the dilemma as one in which anti-Semites might claim that Jews are greedy, but philo-Semites embrace the same idea, saying, for example, it’s great that Jews are good investors.
It’s true that sometimes avowedly philo-Semitic persons can act to advance the interests of the Jews because they buy into anti-Semitic notions about what they imagine to be special Jewish qualities or their, mythical, extraordinary power.
One example of this can be found in the British statesmen who championed the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the first and crucial step towards international recognition to Jewish rights in the historic land of Israel. Men like British Prime Minister David Lloyd George cited their knowledge of scripture and their friendship with prominent Jews like Chaim Weizmann to justify their embrace of Jewish rights. But he and Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour also lent the support of their nation’s empire to Zionism because they believed that Jews were a transnational power, and could ensure both American and Russian support for the Allied cause during World War I, despite the fact that, in reality, Jews had little influence in either country.
Yair Rosenberg wrote last year in The Washington Post that philo-Semitism is merely “opposite anti-Semitism.” He believes that Trump exemplifies this concept because while he embraces negative stereotypes about Jews being good at business, largely self-interested or having dual loyalty, Trump admires these attributes. According to Rosenberg, it’s true that Trump is an ardent friend of Israel, as well as has a Jewish daughter and grandchildren. But as he puts it, Trump is just an “anti-Semite who likes Jews.”
If you think that sounds like an example of overthinking the problem, you’re right. But critics of philo-Semitism believe that Carr’s talk about highlighting the enormous contributions of Jews to virtually every field of endeavor in the modern world is dangerous since it feeds myths about Jewish power that fuel anti-Semitism.
To many on the left, any discussion of Jewish contributions to humanity is inherently racist. Indeed, those who castigate Carr maintain the only effective or moral response to anti-Semitism is opposition to all racism. To them, appeals to Jewish rights and accomplishments merely lead to falling into a racist trap.
The main target of much of the attacks on Carr’s formula is the group that is the most prominent contemporary example of philo-Semitism: evangelical Christians.
Conservative Christians are ardent supporters of Israel. But many Jews are suspicious of them even when they base their position not only in their belief in the Bible, but also in their admiration for the Jewish people. They wrongly assert that these Christians are only motivated by their hope that the Jews will all convert when their Messiah returns—a belief held by only a minority of evangelicals, and surely something any Jew shouldn’t worry about—and therefore actually anti-Semitic.
But that shows what’s wrong with the critique of philo-Semitism.
In a world where anti-Semitism is on the rise a generation after the Holocaust with the virus of hate having infected both the left and the far-right, as well as embraced by a variant of Islam that can count on tens if not hundreds of millions of adherents, the idea that Jews should reject the friendship of those who like them is risible.
Do we really think Jews would be better off rejecting the sincere friendship of those who rightly point to Jewish contributions to civilization or who admire the incredible achievements of the only democracy in the Middle East?
A century ago, many on the left were sure that the best protection for the Jews lay in embracing a Socialist movement that would abolish all national and ethnic divisions. Some even believed abandoning Jewish peoplehood was the answer. The lesson of the 20th century in which Nazi genocide, as well as Soviet and Islamist anti-Semitism, would bring unparalleled suffering for Jews proved that that they were dangerously deluded. The only rational option for Jews was in Zionism, and acquiring the ability to defend both themselves and their alliances with those who wished to aid their cause.
That’s why a response to anti-Semitism that rejects the friendship of a Trump or the evangelicals, or that denigrates an attempt to educate the world about the history and accomplishments of the Jewish people isn’t so much unwise as it is suicidal.
Mock Carr and philo-Semitism all you like. Still, if the choice is between a friendly ally and someone who thinks Jews deserve no particular consideration, let alone defense, anyone who believes the latter is more likely to help defeat the Jew-haters is a fool.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.