This is a phrase I often repeat to myself when I find myself falling into the trap the far left often encourages: stop focusing on antisemitism, it’s an unimportant distraction from other issues. It has also been the motto of movements throughout history, including in Nazi Germany where Jews were encouraged to value the greater good of the Volksgemeinschaft over their own misgivings about this Adolf Hitler fellow and vote for him as the best chance of securing a resurgence of German success. Today, I am told by the far left that antisemitism is irrelevant in the bigger picture of the global advancement of society and it is selfish to bring up when a person who seems otherwise fine has a blind-spot regarding antisemitism. They tell me that antisemitism is not properly worthy of condemnation when it targets only Orthodox Jews – those who are more visibly Jewish – such as Sarah Halimi in France or the couple with their baby in New York who got slashed with a knife.
But, I must remind myself, that doesn’t make it okay. The ease with which those on the left can dismiss and essentially dehumanise Jews who are visibly Jewish is disturbing. I wonder if those on the left realise that Orthodox Jews are still people whom it is unacceptable to attack. But also, when they come, they come for all of us. The people excusing attacking those whose Jewishness is visible with an attitude of “if they hate attacks so much why do they insist on being so obviously Jewish?’ do not seem to realise that whether we are open about it or not, we’ll always be found. Always. It doesn’t matter how much we assimilate; something about us makes it impossible to hide. The more tragic irony is that all those on the left arguing that Jews are playing the victim by highlighting antisemitism when we could ‘literally just take that star thing off’ are ignoring that the most assimilated Jewish community ever was the German and Austrian Jewish community of the 1920s and 30s. Surely, I do not need to tell any reader how that turned out. There is a reason why the rich Jews in Vienna who ignored the bubbling undercurrents of antisemitism and had no idea what was coming are always held up as an example to scare us.
What has brought this to the forefront of my mind is the recent 600% increase in reported antisemitic incidents in the UK, coinciding with recent violence in Gaza and Israel, lasting 11 days and taking over 200 Palestinian lives and 12 Israeli lives. This article is not about those events, although I hope we can all agree that those 11 days incurred a tragic loss of civilian life and were symptomatic of deeper issues within the Levant region. This article is about the way that many antisemites have reacted to these events – from those who have used it as an excuse to physically attack Jews and synagogues to those who have argued that such actions are all just a natural and unavoidable consequence of a government 3000 miles away committing horrible acts. And, of course, those who also tell me that while we can accept that every other form of discrimination exists across society and the political spectrum, antisemitism is somehow unique, in that a person being a leftist makes them magically immune to the antisemitism which the world imprints on us all. No other political beliefs are supposed to give such magical powers of immunity.
There is also the group, that even includes some Jews, who argue that, in order to gain the right to speak about the skyrocketing antisemitism we’re experiencing, we must first become experts on the politics of the Middle East. We must also condemn sufficiently the Israeli government to gain the right to ‘acceptably’ call attention to our experiences without ‘centering ourselves’ because apparently Jews being afraid of a rise in violent antisemitism is entirely unreasonable in its own right. Again, I do not know of any other minority group who are told that they must become experts on the geopolitics of a region 3000 miles away before being allowed to be scared of attacks at home.
This attitude of righteously ignoring antisemitism as long as there is something worse happening in the world is deadly, and it is deadlier still when Jews themselves participate in it. In 1930s Germany, the now tragically infamous Verband nationaldeutscher Juden (roughly: National League of German Jews) was prominent. They advocated for the total assimilation of Jews into the Volksgemeinschaft. They argued against Jewish boycotts of Nazi Germany and encouraged Jews to support the Nazi Party, even going so far as to proclaim that Jews would be safe under their rule. The League was disbanded in 1935 and its leader was ultimately sent to a concentration camp. Even being ardent supporters of the Nazis and standing against the rest of the Jewish community on every issue did not save the members of this organisation; they were killed by Nazis just like the rest of the Jews. This group is seared into my brain and the brains of so many other Jews as a warning of what happens to all of us, even those of us that attempt to win the favour of the people trying to kill us.
When I find myself falling into complacency and believing that we can afford to accept some degree of antisemitism in the name of wider progress, I immediately think of this organisation. When I first heard of its history, it terrified me enough that I still keep screenshots of the organisation’s Wikipedia page on my phone that I check from time to time. The truth that I must admit is that it terrified me so much because I could see myself becoming them.
It is why I now always stand up for my fellow Jews when they experience antisemitism, even if I am not personally impacted by it and may even receive more credit in left-wing circles for not saying anything. I cannot ignore antisemitism faced by my fellow Jews, especially in leftist and progressive spaces. We have always been told that we can rely on the anti-racist left to stand up for us when antisemitism rises to deadly levels again, but we have been shown conclusively that this is not the case. Large leftist institutions like the National Union of Students are intent on blaming antisemitism on Israel rather than on antisemites, and therefore tacitly legitimising it and framing it as something that will be ‘solved’ by removing the modern state of Israel. Personally, I would argue that there may have been some antisemitism on earth before the creation of modern Israel in 1948 and that a geopolitical shift wont magically erase over 2000 years of ingrained hate.
Instead, what I have seen is a left waiting for any excuse to dehumanise us and justify our deaths. There used to be a rule on the left that it was wrong to treat someone differently because of their nationality; this rule does not however apply to Israeli Jews, who apparently deserve to die because of the actions of the Netanyahu government. That’s about half the global Jewry ruled out of protection. It used to be the case that targeting someone because of their religion was not acceptable, but now it is okay to target Orthodox Jews and those who wear kippot or Magen David, because they’re choosing to mark themselves as a target when they could simply not wear their religious items. That’s all the observant religious Jews gone. Now we are told that any Jew who is a ‘Zionist’ – bearing in mind that this term has no universal definition, and can mean anything from supporting a single state for Jews and Palestinians, to a state of Israel and an equal state of Palestine, to a single Jewish state in the whole region, to a myriad of things in between – is a legitimate target. According to multiple studies, the vast majority of world’s Jews support some Zionist model. By such ‘logic’, the vast majority of Jews – as well as any others who live in Israel or are religiously observant – can be deemed subhuman legitimate targets for attack. How long before that tiny slither of the rest of us – non-Israeli, secular, anti-Zionist Jews – also become legitimate targets? Before some reason is found to justify our deaths as well?
I don’t personally intend to wait to find out. This is why I will fight antisemitism no matter who it is aimed at or who it is coming from or what greater cause it is in the name of, be that fixing the German economy or standing against Netanyahu. I will never say that if we just assimilate enough, they’ll leave us alone, because they never do. Even if I vehemently disagree with the politics or values of another Jew, I will always stand up for them. Because we are all Jews, and because when they come, they come for all of us.
Image credit: “Marc Chagall – La Guerra, Der Krieg, La guerre 1964-66” by verot is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.