Current Antisemitism From the Right and the Left in the U.S.

In recent years, we American Jews have scarcely needed reminders that antisemitism is on the rise — we know from personal experience. Maybe, God forbid, we have faced vandalism, harassment or attack on the streets, or at our shuls and community centers. Or we have been targeted by white nationalists on social media, suffered bomb threats at our synagogues or “Zoom bombing” on our video calls, or driven past white nationalist highway banners and roadside protests.

Since Oct. 7, the fear and the reality of antisemitic graffiti and vandalism, virtual and real-life harassment, intimidation and violence has grown more acute. If we haven’t experienced these personally, we likely know someone who has.

At the same time, questions of antisemitism today feel more convoluted and confusing than ever. Some of us have felt deeply shaken by rhetoric and activism we’ve seen from critics of Israel’s assault on Gaza and are trying to figure out where legitimate criticism ends and antisemitism begins. Meanwhile, right-wing antisemites like billionaire entrepreneur and X owner Elon Musk accuse Jews of “pushing … dialectical hatred against whites” one moment, and are applauded by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Israeli leaders as staunch defenders of Israel and the Jewish people the next. MAGA politicians like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene peddle George Soros conspiracy theories with one hand while slandering Jewish anti-occupation groups as irredeemable Jew-haters with the other.

When accusations fly across the aisle — and denial, defensiveness and division rule the day — our community becomes more isolated and bereft of allies. How to separate fact from fiction, signal from noise, as we struggle to understand and counter the threats we face?

Growing up in the diverse, pluralist suburbs of Washington, D.C., I long considered myself relatively insulated from the threat of antisemitism. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized that a few years before I was born, my childhood synagogue had been graffitied by neo-Nazis (and won a Supreme Court case, expanding anti-discrimination protections for Jews and other groups); that the Jew jokes I nervously laughed off in public school, the pressures of assimilation, Christian dominance and internalized oppression did, in fact, leave a mark on me, my family, my community.

Like many other millennials, once my eyes were opened to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians (something I never learned about in Hebrew school), I threw myself into the movement for Palestinian rights. Like many other Jews, I became outraged by the cynical, opportunistic and often false accusations of antisemitism directed against advocates like myself, and I worked hard, in my activism, to help set the record straight.

After the cries of “Jews will not replace us” echoed in Charlottesville, Va., in the summer of 2017 and the deadliest massacre in American Jewish history unfolded in Pittsburgh in the fall of 2018, the stakes felt even higher. I dug through the dark web, trying to understand the rising alt-right movement putting my community in danger. Today, I work as a senior researcher at Political Research Associates (PRA), a progressive think tank studying the far-right, where I help social justice movements understand and combat antisemitism and white Christian nationalism. (Many progressive Jews know PRA as the       publisher of Eric Ward’s popular essay “Skin in the Game,” about antisemitism and white nationalism.)

It’s no coincidence that antisemitism is on the rise today; it has long been a reliable tool, in times of crisis like our own, for authoritarian and nationalist leaders and movements to sow division and consolidate power.

Modern antisemitism claims that a sinister Jewish cabal lurks behind capitalism and communism, government, media and the economy, responsible for all of society’s ills.

Antisemitism emerged over centuries of Christian dominance in Europe, where Jews were slandered by ruling elites as Christ-killers, well-poisoners, embodiments of the Devil and vicious exploiters of the peasantry: the close-at-hand Others who, rulers hoped, could serve as convenient targets for the pent-up rage of the restless masses. With the dawn of the 20th century, far-right leaders retrofitted these conspiracies into a new narrative, capable of mobilizing millions in an era of destabilizing war and economic collapse, widespread alienation and dizzying change. Modern antisemitism claims that a sinister Jewish cabal lurks behind capitalism and communism, government, media and the economy, responsible for all of society’s ills — and that by joining the crusade against this “rootless cosmopolitan” threat, the exploited and disenfranchised masses can restore the greatness of blood and soil, and protect the sanctity of flag, faith and family.

Antisemitism has long been woven into the fabric of white Christian dominance in America. It has intensified with the rise of the MAGA movement, which proposes authoritarian nationalism as the answer to the U.S.’s multi-layered crises of unprecedented wealth inequality, climate catastrophe, racial reckoning, the breakdown of democratic institutions and more. Conspiracy theories that a sinister cabal of secretive, power-hungry liberal elites stole the 2020 election from former President Donald Trump; engineered the COVID-19 virus and vaccine; prey on children to harvest life-giving substances from their blood; orchestrate anti-racist, pro-LGBTQ, feminist, immigrant rights and other justice movements. All these and more serve, as educator and activist Dania Rajendra put it in a 2019 lecture to Jews and allies in Minnesota, as “a powerful explanation for a society looking for answers about why the richest nation in the history of the world often feels so terrible to live in, to work in, to be neighbors in.”

This latter lie of Jewish control over progressive movements and marginalized communities is a particularly powerful tool in the right’s ideological arsenal, much like the specter of “Judeo-Bolshevism” was for 20th-century fascism. It motivates white nationalists to commit mass shootings targeting Jewish, Latinx, Black and LGBTQ communities in the United States and around the world. It helps fuel right-wing mobs to attack Drag Queen Story Hour events and clamor for the denial of trans rights, convinced that in doing so, they are “punching up” against their “Cultural Marxist” overlords.

It helped inspire vigilante groups to attack Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020, squaring off, in their twisted imagination, against the minions of Soros. It helps convince millions to support a border wall, detention camps and other draconian anti-immigrant policies as necessary defenses against the “globalist cabal” and its transnational machinations. In the MAGA era, these conspiracies have leapt from the margins to the mainstream, used by nationalist leaders to convince millions to close ranks against an invisible enemy, rather than work across differences to build a better world.

Research has shown that the “epicenter of antisemitic attitudes” in the US, as one 2022 study put it, is found among “young adults on the far right.” But while antisemitism and conspiracy theories are central to the right-wing worldview, they can also be found in diverse communities across the political spectrum, as well as in ostensibly “apolitical” spaces like yoga and wellness communities. And social media acts as an accelerant for these views, especially among young people. An August 2023 poll found that 69% of 13-to-17-year-olds who use social media frequently agreed with four or more conspiracy statements, and more than 50% agreed with antisemitic conspiracy theories in particular.

Meanwhile, the rising Christian nationalist movement, joined at the hip with the politics of conspiracy and white grievance, threatens to turn American Jews — along with everyone else who isn’t a straight, white, cis, Christian male — into second-class citizens at best. Draconian abortion bans, denials of the rights of Jewish parents to utilize Christian adoption agencies receiving state funding, and other flashpoints are the tip of the iceberg, signaling an all-out assault on principles of religious pluralism, and the separation of church and state, that have long helped guarantee American Jewish thriving and inclusion. The Christian Zionist movement at the heart of MAGA foreign policy, despite its fervent proclamations of love for Jews, pines for an apocalyptic future of war and bloodshed in the Middle East that ends with forced conversion, or eternal damnation, for Jews, Muslims and all other “non-believers” — an ultimatum we have faced before from these supposed “friends.”

As Jews, we know in our kishkes from centuries of oppression in Europe that a society shaped in the mold of militant, triumphalist Christian dominance never works out well for us, or for any other marginalized group. As the 2024 election looms ahead and white Christian nationalism remains the driving force of the GOP, we ignore or downplay the existential threat it poses to our community, to our neighbors and to our entire system of multiracial democracy at our own peril. We know the rise of white Christian nationalism binds our collective safety to that of every other oppressed group, and that the only way through it is by building a different future together.

White Christian nationalists know we’re stronger when we’re united, which is why they’ll stop at nothing to keep us divided. The Marjorie Taylor Greenes, Donald Trumps and Pastor John Hagees of our world use antisemitism accusations as a cynical smokescreen to attack progressive movements and leaders of color, while positioning themselves, in turn, as the only guarantors of Jewish safety amidst the stormy seas of rapacious liberalism and the “browning of America.” They traffic in performative anti-antisemitism with one hand, while reinvigorating century-old conspiracies and welcoming explicit Jew-haters into their nationalist coalition with the other. They champion far-right Israeli leaders, or Orthodox Jewish MAGA supporters in the United States, as the model “good Jews” worthy of inclusion in their nationalist project, while denigrating the liberal American Jewish majority as “disloyal” betrayers of the MAGA nation who, as Trump put it in 2022, “have to get their act together and appreciate what they have in Israel — Before it is too late!” They seek to divide us from folks who could be our allies and to fragment our communities from within because they’re terrified of the coalitions we could build to challenge their power.

Unfortunately, MAGA activists aren’t alone in their eagerness to tar progressives with the charge of antisemitism. Political leaders across the aisle, media figures and pro-Israel groups falsely claim that Palestine solidarity activism, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives and social justice activism writ large is inherently threatening to Jews. Groups like the support governmental, campus and other initiatives that weaponize faulty definitions of antisemitism, like the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition, in an unconstitutional attempt to restrict Israel-critical speech. Public smear campaigns, often targeting Muslims and activists of color, feed into racism and Islamophobia, and make it harder for all of us to understand and fight antisemitism, no matter where it occurs.

It is important to resist these harmful and misleading generalizations, which do little to keep Jews safe, and only push the horizon of justice and peace in Israel/Palestine further from view. It is not inherently antisemitic to criticize Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, or the ideology of Zionism; to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement; to call for the Palestinian right of return; or to advocate for a political system of full equality and democracy for all inhabitants of Israel/Palestine between the river and the sea, irrespective of community or creed. Experts agree that the right to freedom of speech extends, perhaps most crucially, even to speech with which we might vehemently disagree. Not only is it unprincipled and immoral to fight antisemitism in a way that inflames Islamophobia or anti-Blackness in a world where all oppressions are interconnected, and our safety rises and falls together, it simply won’t work.

Of course, sometimes antisemitism does appear within progressive movements or among people who purport to stand with the oppressed. And much like on the right, this antisemitism divides communities which could be allies, weakens justice movements, and plays into the right’s strategy.

In the months since Oct. 7, Israeli society has continued to reel from Hamas’s horrific massacre and abduction of hundreds of Israeli civilians, while the Israeli government has advanced a catastrophic assault on Gaza — killing more than 30,000 Palestinians at the time of writing, and causing mass displacement, widespread starvation and collective punishment on an unimaginable scale. Jews around the world have witnessed a frightening uptick in vandalism of Jewish institutions such as synagogues, cultural centers and Hillels; street-level harassment; death threats; and other reported antisemitic incidents. These despicable acts, which have been carried out by a range of actors, many of whom may not even self-identify as progressive, betray an inescapably antisemitic logic, holding Jews as Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the State of Israel.

White nationalists have appeared at rallies in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, and spread antisemitic propaganda online, using familiar tropes caricaturing Israel or Zionism as demonically evil and exerting all-powerful, covert control over world government, media and the economy. Sometimes, these tropes have been circulated by self-styled progressives as well. This doesn’t serve the cause of Palestinian liberation; it just puts Jews in danger and keeps everyone confused about the root causes of oppression. “Do not tolerate antisemitism,” Palestinian commentator Iyad el-Baghdadi pleaded in late October. “It’s poison. You do not support Palestine by being racist against Jews.”

“Do not tolerate antisemitism,” Palestinian commentator Iyad el-Baghdadi pleaded in late October. “It’s poison. You do not support Palestine by being racist against Jews.”

The United States doesn’t support the far-right Israeli government because it has been infiltrated by a Jewish cabal, as antisemites claim; this canard massively overstates the relative influence of American Jewish actors, and obscures the many other religious and cultural, geopolitical and economic interests and factors shaping pro-Israel attitudes and policies in the United States. Israel doesn’t oppress Palestinians because of some inherent quality Jews possess; we can find parallels to the unjust status quo in Israel/Palestine across many different societies and time periods, from the brutal repression of indigenous communities in places like the present-day United States to the two-tiered systems of discrimination in countries like apartheid-era South Africa.

In the aftermath of Oct. 7, some progressive voices minimized, downplayed, denied or even celebrated Hamas’s atrocities against Israeli civilians. This was rightly condemned by many others as a callous betrayal of the left’s stated commitments to universal human rights and collective liberation. Many of the frustrating tendencies on display here are familiar: an eagerness to flatten political complexity into too-tidy, Manichean binaries; a refusal to critically analyze the strategies and tactics of resistance movements; and an unwillingness to take Israeli and Jewish identity, history and trauma seriously.

All this occurred, meanwhile, alongside a precipitous rise in Islamophobia and anti-Arab bigotry — fueled in part by frenzied scapegoating, reminiscent of the 9/11 era, portraying Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians writ large as fanatical antisemites, terrorists, and threats to the “Judeo-Christian West.” Politicians, media figures and pro-Israel groups have seized upon moments of real or perceived antisemitism to paint an outsized, hyperbolic picture of the threat to Jews, fearmongering of impending pogroms on campus quads and city streets. Groups like the ADL have contributed to this climate of misinformation and confusion, spreading questionable data and overblown accusations that damage credibility and make it harder to grasp the magnitude and contours of the actual threat.

At times like these, the need for clarity and a measured, grounded approach is greater than ever. When I hear about a purported antisemitic incident on a campus or at a protest, I first try to venture beyond the headline, ascertain concrete facts and come to my own conclusion before spreading the news. When I notice myself getting afraid when hearing a slogan like “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” I try to honor my feeling and take it seriously, while also encouraging myself to remain open to the perspectives of Palestinians and solidarity activists who insist it is not threatening to Jews, but reflects the dire need for justice, freedom and equality throughout the Holy Land. I try to remember that sometimes what feels like an experience of bigotry or threat might, upon further reflection, simply be the all-too-human discomfort we feel upon encountering challenging perspectives on an issue we hold dear.

Research has shown that Israeli military offensives with high Palestinian casualties tend to correlate with upticks of antisemitism against Jews in the diaspora. While our progressive movements call for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the immense destruction in Gaza, we must also consistently call out anyone who seeks to hold Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s harmful actions, or to conflate Jews and Israel (a conflation that unfortunately, the Israeli government and many of its supporters, Jewish and non-Jewish, still insist upon). We must reaffirm that a just and liberated future in Israel/Palestine is one where Israeli Jews continue to enjoy safety and collective flourishing, while Palestinians are, at long last, allowed the same.

Sometimes, what feels like bigotry or a threat might, upon further reflection, simply be the all-too-human discomfort that we feel upon encountering challenging perspectives on an issue we hold dear.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that antisemitism, much like patriarchy, anti-Blackness or any other form of oppression, appears on the left. Like every other bigoted ideology, antisemitism is part of the air we all breathe, and without active awareness and resistance, we are all liable to reproduce it, simply by virtue of living in a society structured by the centuries-old scripts of European-Christian hegemony. But unlike the right — where antisemitism is baked into the script of exclusion and Othering — progressive movements, at their best, are spaces where inherited attitudes can be questioned, harmful thought and behavior patterns can be unlearned, and humans can strive, however imperfectly, to relate to each other in non-oppressive ways. Antisemitism is not “eternal” or a force of nature; it is a political project that is built and maintained by human hands, and that can be dismantled by them as well.

Finally, we must remember that we won’t find lasting, meaningful safety for Jews by building higher walls, dropping more bombs or allying with exclusionary movements seeking to make the world a darker, more divided place. The only lasting pathway to true safety and liberation is through building alliances with other marginalized and oppressed groups in a shared struggle for collective freedom, dignity and empowerment.

It will take some time to work through the anguish of this moment. But we cannot forget that our best shot at beating back the rising tide of Othering is by recognizing that we truly rise and fall together, and acting from that commitment to each other — even, and especially, when it’s difficult.

One Response

  1. This is such an excellent piece – yet the length itself is daunting. It is difficult to discover this in the AM on Facebook, sitting on the edge of the bed, and stay with it long enough to reach the compelling (while predictable in a good way) call to unity and solidarity. I would like to see it presented in multiple ways on multiple media in multiple settings.

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