The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trying to make Israel vs. Hamas about race is nonsensical and dangerous

A rally denouncing antisemitic violence in Cedarhurst, N.Y., on May 27. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

James Kirchick is a visiting fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, a columnist for Tablet and author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age.”

It has long been axiomatic that, whenever violence flares up between Israel and the Palestinians, Jews in Europe suffer collateral damage. As soon as the rockets fly from Gaza City, synagogues in Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris go on high alert; rabbis vary their daily commutes, and police beef up the permanent security presence outside Jewish institutions.

American Jews long comforted themselves that such precautions were unnecessary here. The United States’ religious pluralism, philo-semitism and well-integrated Muslim population, they believed, precluded the threats that their European co-religionists faced.

No longer is this complacency appropriate, if it ever was.

In the weeks since Israel launched a defensive military operation against Hamas missiles emanating from the Gaza Strip, a chilling series of antisemitic attacks have occurred in the United States.

On May 18, a caravan of cars flying Palestinian flags pulled up in front of a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles and began attacking diners. One of the assailants can be heard on video shouting “Israel kills children,” and a witness said another shouted “Death to Jews.”

Two days later, in Midtown Manhattan’s heavily Jewish Diamond District, a woman suffered burns when a man threw a fireworks explosive at her from the back of a pickup truck, in an attack that police are treating as a hate crime. On the same night, a Jewish man near Times Square, wearing a yarmulke, was beaten by about half a dozen men yelling antisemitic slurs, according to police.

The attackers are hard to identify, even if waving Palestinian flags, but they clearly are not the tiki-torch-bearing skinhead members of the alt-right who rioted in Charlottesville in 2017, or the deranged right-wingers who shot up synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., in the years that followed.

This does not conform with the fashionable narrative suggesting an all-encompassing “white supremacy” at the root of American society, and which some of Israel’s detractors, in a misplaced sense of racial “solidarity,” have tried to fix onto the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Enough of Black and brown bodies being brutalized and murdered, especially children,” declared Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) in a May 11 tweet condemning Israel. Echoing Black Lives Matter, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) called for a shared struggle “from Ferguson to Palestine,” and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) blasted Israel as an “apartheid” state.

Casting the Israel-Hamas conflict racial is nonsensical. A majority of Israel’s Jewish citizens trace their roots from North Africa and the Middle East. Their skin tone mirrors that of Arab Palestinians. And even for Jews whose ancestors came from Europe, portraying them as White is perverse. As the Israeli writer Matti Friedman observes in the Atlantic, “My grandmother’s parents and siblings were shot outside their village in Poland by people the same color as them.”

But projecting the United States’ tortuous racial dialectic onto a foreign dispute where it holds no purchase is not only ill-informed, it’s dangerous. It is a short step from demonizing the multiracial democracy of Israel as somehow “White,” while romanticizing Hamas as its virtuous, non-White subaltern, to righteously agreeing with Hamas that the world’s only Jewish state must be eradicated.

According to this warped view, diaspora Jews, by dint of their affinity for Israel, lose the status of religious and ethnic minority, and acquire that of handmaidens to racist oppression. When non-Whites follow this logic and target random Jews for abuse, the progressive worldview is disoriented. Which is probably why, over the past few weeks, one has heard progressives issue perfunctory criticism of antisemitism lumped in with broader condemnations against “Islamophobia” — that is, when they have felt bothered to criticize antisemitism at all.

According to the FBI, however, attacks on Jews in the United States account for more than 60 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes (despite Jews representing about 2 percent of the population). Last year saw the third-highest number of antisemitic incidents overall since 1979, when the Anti-Defamation League began keeping annual statistics. Many of these attacks were committed by individuals who, like the marauding gangs of New York and Los Angeles, are not standard-issue progressive villains.

Some in Democratic circles recognize the problem. “Jews were among the most prominent and important nonblack supporters of the civil-rights movement, helping found and fund the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and numerous black colleges and universities,” former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week. “Jewish Americans remain among the strongest supporters of African-American causes.”

Brazile may represent an older generation of Democratic leaders. But the younger ones would do well to listen.

Read more:

Raphael Mimoun: Zionism cannot produce a just peace. Only external pressure can end the Israeli apartheid.

Fareed Zakaria: The only way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem

Charles Lane: Who’s guilty of what in the Hamas-Israel conflict?

Max Boot: Republicans are far more radical than Democrats on Israel