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Stop debating about which kind of anti-Semitism is worse

We should be outraged by both right-wing violence and left-wing incitement. Choosing between the two is a fool’s game.

A memorial outside the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh following the mass shooting on Oct. 27, 2018, which left 11 worshippers dead. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A memorial outside the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh following the mass shooting on Oct. 27, 2018, which left 11 worshippers dead. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

American Jews were shaken by the second attack on a synagogue within six months this past weekend. But, as was the case with the aftermath of the shooting in Pittsburgh, the assault on Chabad of Poway in Southern California has set off yet another futile argument between left and right about which kind of anti-Semitism we should care about most: the violence of far-right extremists or the left-wing attacks on Jews via Twitter from members of Congress or in the pages of leading newspapers.

Unlike the days after Pittsburgh, when the debate seemed to center solely on the dubious thesis that U.S. President Donald Trump was somehow responsible for the murders of 11 Jews, reactions to the Poway tragedy has also featured arguments from some on the right who say that anti-Semitic incitement from Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), as well as The New York Times, deserves to be linked to the crime. That was matched by arguments from the left that decried the attention focused on Omar and Tlaib’s anti-Semitic tweets, in addition to the vile anti-Semitic cartoons published by the Times as disproportionate, claiming that conservatives were downplaying Poway in order to exonerate Trump and the Republicans.

What’s wrong with these arguments? Everything.

That either of these incidents should have become fodder for political arguments is profoundly wrong. Our primary reaction to these atrocities—both as a community and as individuals—should be grief for the fallen and their families, solidarity with the survivors and concern about how best to heighten security at our synagogues and institutions.

The rush to politicize these events was so quick and, in the majority of cases, so transparently partisan that grief, solidarity and security concerns have been sidelined by the back and forth about which side is concerned about the lesser evil associated with such dangerous anti-Semitism.

But as pervasive as these conversations have become, anyone who is invoking the dead of Pittsburgh or Poway in order to advance a political agenda is undermining the best interests of the community and the nation.

Why did both of these incidents become politicized so quickly?

In contemporary America, politics has largely replaced religion for many of us as the primary influence on our lives. In an era when surveys tell us that people would prefer their children to marry outside their faith rather than with someone of a different political persuasion, it is hardly surprising that politics would insinuate itself into every crevice of American life. That trend has been accentuated by the unprecedented polarization over the Trump presidency. With social media weaponizing the partisan divisions that a bifurcated media had already created, the country isn’t so much split on the question of whether Trump is a good or bad president as they are between people who think he is a fascist dictator/traitor and those who think he is the nation’s savior, with the middle ground between the two camps shrinking all the time.

That doesn’t excuse the willingness of so many to inject their partisan agendas into these tragedies.

Suffice it to say that for all of Trump’s flaws, it’s absurd to argue that two shooters who despised him because they correctly saw him as a friend of Israel and the Jews were inspired by his rhetoric or behavior.

The same is true for those who may believe that Omar and Tlaib’s anti-Semitic language or that of the Times is somehow connected to the actions of right-wing extremists, or those who say this form of anti-Semitism is of greater concern than actual slaughter.

Both points are painfully obvious, yet they are ignored by many writers and talking heads because they see anti-Semitism that can be in some way connected to their side of the political divide as essentially irrelevant, while that which can be nebulously linked to their opponents is the real threat.

It has become an article of faith on the left that Trump is an anti-Semite, and that leading Republicans are also guilty of Jew-hatred even if these flimsy allegations don’t stand up to scrutiny. Anti-Semitic hate existed long before Trump and will sadly outlast his presidency. The idea that the things he says give a green light to killers is political cant, not a serious argument.

And while the willingness of many Democrats to make their peace with or rationalize and defend Omar and Tlaib is deeply troubling, it is equally wrong to assume that the entire Democratic Party is composed of closeted or open anti-Semites, as some of those who comment on social media assert.

What is true is that far-right extremists who spew venomous traditional anti-Semitic tropes have shown themselves willing to attack Jews, rather than merely talk about them. The attention of the government on these radicals must be heightened, even if there is no guarantee that mad, armed individuals can be stopped from attacking their target. Anyone who seeks to minimize this threat after the two synagogue attacks isn’t thinking straight.

Yet it’s equally true is that anti-Semitism on the left is growing, and has far more influential outlets and spokespersons than the lunatics on the far right can boast. Though this has not manifested itself in shootings and resulting deaths, the line between such attacks—and the intimidation and delegitimization of Jews on college campuses by the BDS movement, which is often rationalized and enabled by the mainstream media—is not that significant and can easily lead to violence. The same is true about a shift in culture that is empowering and enhancing the influence of leftist Jew-haters.

It bears repeating that sensible people don’t have to choose between their outrage about one type of hate or the other. They are both threats, and as such, must be confronted and denounced whenever possible. Those who choose instead to play politics with anti-Semitism are aiding the very hateful cause they claim to oppose.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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