The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who decides when we do — and don’t — call out anti-Semitism?

Why many people ignore white men using tropes they condemned a black Muslim woman for using.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) rallies with fellow Democrats outside the Capitol before a vote on Friday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On Thursday, the House of Representatives voted on a resolution to condemn anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, other prejudices and white supremacy that began as the legislative equivalent of a subtweet of controversial statements on Israel and U.S. policy by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). But despite copious commentary that the issue has divided Democrats, the only votes against the resolution came from Republicans — 23 of them. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), long aligned with white supremacy, abstained.

Which means the vote played out exactly as we should have expected it to.

Educator April Rosenblum has suggested that part of the reason that anti-Semitism can seem invisible — that an attack on Jews might not always be immediately recognizable to non-Jews — is that it’s the rare form of hatred that “allows” success for its targets. “Many oppressions rely on keeping a targeted group of people poor, uneducated, designated nonwhite, or otherwise ‘at the bottom,’ ” Rosenblum writes. “Anti-Jewish oppression doesn’t depend on that. Although at many times it has kept Jews in poverty or designated nonwhite, these have been ‘optional’ features. Because the point of anti-Jewish oppression is to keep a Jewish face in front, so that Jews, instead of ruling classes, become the target for people’s rage, it works even more smoothly when Jews are allowed some success and can be perceived as the ones ‘in charge’ by other oppressed groups.”

In other words, it’s not that people without structural and positional power can’t be anti-Semitic or perpetrate anti-Semitism. But the questions of who holds power and what kind of power they hold matter. And they also influence the way we do or don’t respond to anti-Semitism.

If Jews, rather than the ruling classes, are meant to become the target for people’s rage, as Rosenblum argues, then who are the ruling classes? Who are the people who have real power in our society? Who are the people who might find it useful to deflect people’s anxieties, fears and anger onto some other group that’s easily made a scapegoat?

Five myths about anti-Semitism

Or to put it another way: When we see anti-Semitism and ignore it, whose agenda does that serve?

Because that is exactly what happened in the fall when President Trump suggested that a caravan of migrants traveling toward the United States was funded by Jewish billionaire George Soros. That’s what happens when he frequently uses the anti-Semitic dog whistle “globalist” (even two days after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh) — which points at the same “dual loyalty” trope that so ignited the conversation around Omar. As does Trump’s description of Israel as “your country” to a room full of American Jews at the White House Hanukkah party last year. It’s what happened when a Connecticut state representative sent out a mailer showing his Jewish opponent holding fistfuls of money, echoing anti-Semitic drawings that trace from medieval propaganda through Nazi Germany, straight into my own Twitter mentions today. It’s what happened in the response to a tweet by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) suggesting that three Jews were trying to buy the November congressional elections, and one just last week by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) suggesting that Tom Steyer, a billionaire of Jewish heritage, was pushing Jewish Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) to investigate Trump. Jordan spelled Steyer’s name as “$teyer.”

Omar is not powerless, of course; she is a member of Congress. But she is also a Muslim, a black Somali American who has been a refugee, and she has been in her job for only two months. Whatever power she derives from her position, she does not represent the religion, race or gender of systemic power in this country. And she has been condemned by many people who either perpetuate or ignore anti-Semitism when it comes from someone who isn’t a black Muslim woman.

As Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, one of her constituents, observed in an email to his congregants: “Just this past fall, Minnesota Attorney General candidate Doug Wardlow and now-Congressman Jim Hagedorn used images of George Soros in political mailings that were deeply anti-Semitic and racist, and while the chair of the Minnesota GOP has called out Rep. Omar, she said nothing about either Wardlow or Rep. Hagedorn. Those same images were tweeted out by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who later called for consequences for Rep. Omar.”

Trump, who referred to white supremacists who chanted “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville two years ago as “very fine people,” insists that the Democrats have become an “an anti-Jewish party” now. Why does he choose this moment, and only this moment, to call out anti-Semitism?

The false comfort of Trump's condemnation of anti-Semitism

Of course, Jews are not the only scapegoats in American culture — not by a long shot. But the ancient myth that we are the villains behind the scenes, running things in secret, continues to function healthily in our society. It was the basis for pogroms in Europe, for the Holocaust — and for the nearly 60 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, for the massacre in Pittsburgh in October.

In the United States today, power is still mostly held by wealthy white men. Perhaps it’s no surprise that of the 24 people who didn’t vote for the House resolution, 23 are white men, and one is a white woman who happens to be former vice president Richard B. Cheney’s daughter.

We need to name anti-Semitism as it happens and to engage those who are willing to be engaged around its impact and meaning. Omar’s comments merited discussion — though not, in my opinion, a House resolution. But we always need to remember who is willing to continue the conversation and who is not — and why that is. Omar voted for the resolution on Thursday, even though it began as an effort to condemn her, and her staff is working with Jewish organizations in her district toward helping to expand her understanding and context of her comments and the larger issues at play.

We also need to remember the history of white supremacy in this country and name its manifestations today. That would mean situating anti-Jewish oppression in the larger web of oppression that ultimately functions to bolster and support those who do not wish to cede or share power. We must build relationships of connection and support in our fight against that oppression. This work of sticking together is the work of solidarity.

Educator Dove Kent, in a masterful talk on anti-Semitism and solidarity from Avodah’s Speak Torah to Power series, notes that “solidarity is not easy. It is difficult. It is trying. It is facing disappointments in each other over and over again, and reaching for each other over and over again; it’s not walking away.”

We can’t afford to walk away from the fight against white supremacy and all forms of hate. The stakes are too high.

Read more:

How Trump’s immigrant-bashing feeds white supremacists’ obsession with Jews

Trump doesn’t understand how anti-Semitism works. Neither do most Americans.

How U.S. politicians use charges of anti-Semitism as a weapon