The Democratic Party’s refusal last week to condemn Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) explicitly for her repeated use of antisemitic language, or even to condemn antisemitism on its own, was a major blow to the Jewish community of the United States.
The Democrats’ refusal to take action, either declarative or substantive, against Omar for her repeated assaults on the Jewish community’s right to stand with Israel – America’s most powerful and stable ally in the Middle East — indicated that antisemitism isn’t simply a regrettable attribute of a few, junior members of the party. It is a major political force and ideology animating the party’s governing structures.
If the situation were otherwise, it should have been easy, as a practical matter for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to censure Omar just as the House Republicans censured Rep. Steven King (R-IA) for his comments to the New York Times, which were widely interpreted as supportive of white supremacism.
Even though Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) are not anti-Semites, their inability to discuss openly, or even to acknowledge, Omar’s antisemitism showed that they do not control their members. The rising forces in the caucus, and particularly the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members openly support leader Louis Farrakhan — the notoriously anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam — are themselves institutionally antisemitic. Once the Congressional Black Caucus decided to rally behind Omar, it was impossible for Pelosi and Hoyer, not to mention the senior Jewish lawmakers in the caucus, to take any action against her.
To understand what this state of affairs means for Jewish Americans, it is necessary to take a step back and consider the nature of modern antisemitism.
In an important article in National Affairs titled “The Functions of Anti-Semitism,” published in 2017, Prof. Ruth Wisse explained that the common view of antisemitism as yet another form of bigotry like racism is incorrect. True, antisemites are hostile towards Jews. But more than a prejudice, antisemitism is an ideology and a political tool.
In Wisse’s words, “Anti-Semitism is not discrimination. It may exhibit the key features of prejudice, bias, and bigotry – and therefore result in discrimination. But it is different in kind. Anti-Semitism is a modern political phenomenon – an ideology that anchors or forms part of a political movement and serves a political purpose.”
On the political Right, antisemitism scapegoats Jews as agents of liberalism that seek to destroy the rights of the majority population. Wilhelm Marr coined the term “anti-Semitism” in Germany in 1870 and used it as a means to fight the forces of liberalism and democracy in Bismark’s Germany. He singled out the Jews and scapegoated them as a means to undermine the much wider social forces in Europe generally and Germany specifically that supported liberalism and democracy.
As Wisse noted, Jews had no defense against right-wing antisemitism. Everything they did to prove their patriotism was distorted by the antisemites and presented as “proof” that they were subverting the country.
On the left side of the spectrum, Wisse explained, Jews were presented with a Faustian bargain. “Marxism,” she wrote, “followed Christianity in its commitment to universal redemption, and once communism solidified its authority, its internationalism – even more than its anti-capitalism – sealed the fate of the Jews.”
Through two thousand years of exile, from the destruction of the Jewish Commonwealth in Israel in 70 A.D. until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Jews were viewed as non-political actors. But, as Wisse explained this perception was wrong.
Wisse explained that throughout their history of dispersion and dispossession,
Jews had developed a unique arrangement … that allowed them to remain a people outside their country with almost all the properties of a nation. Jews had their own languages … religion, calendar and holidays, culture, code of law, and legal authorities. And they sustained a determination to return to their homeland, which of course, they finally did. What is more, Jews remained politically potent. Thanks to their belief in God as the ultimate (though not necessarily immediate) guarantor of their power, they could indefinitely postpone recovery of their land with the certainty that they would eventually return to it. The political experiment of the Jews simultaneously allowed them to prosper among other nations and allowed for the organization of politics against them.
After 1948, the arrangement shifted. With the formation of Israel, Jews outside of Israel, and particularly in the United States, saw Israel’s position as the protector of the free world — whether from Soviet incursion in the Middle East or from global jihadists aggression and terrorism — the primary source of their political relevance and power in the United States. This position was stable so long as support for Israel was bipartisan.
As the Cold War ended, the Democrats sought to reorganize U.S. global operations away from fighting foes and towards global peacemaking and humanitarian interventionism. As a consequence, the argument for a strong Israel resonated less strongly with the American Jewish community’s partisan home.
So American Jews adjusted. They took a lead role in pushing Israel to give land to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the name of peace rather than lobby to secure Israel as a powerful U.S. ally. As Lee Smith wrote this week at Tablet online magazine, without the American Israel Public Action Committee, (AIPAC) — that is, without the very organization that Omar assaulted as proof of a nefarious Jewish takeover of American foreign policy — “there is no institutional U.S. support for the peace process.
“Why?” he continued, “Because only 21 percent of Americans sympathize more with the Palestinians than with the Israelis. Just as the evangelical Christian community is the base of U.S. support for the Jewish state, it is the liberal Jewish establishment that advances the idea of a Palestinian state.”
This behavior, which went hand in hand with the gradual diminishment of Democratic support for Israel, brings us back to the Faustian bargain leftist antisemites offer the Jews.
Wisse noted that the Soviets viewed the indissoluble link between the Jewish religion and the Jewish nation as evidence that the Jews were inherently, necessarily opposed to their goal of subsuming all nations into a Soviet empire. Consequently, Stalin and his followers transposed antisemitism into anti-Zionism. The Jews were presented as a reactionary nation that refused to join with the progressive world communist revolution.
The only way that Jews could avoid persecution was by joining in persecuting their fellow Jews. Wisse noted, “Socialism and communism invited Jews to transcend their insular group by joining a more advanced human project. This had a shattering – and enduring – effect on Jewish moral self-confidence.”
In the early decades of the Soviet Union, Jewish Communists played a key role in destroying Jewish religious and communal life. As Soviet scholar, Richard Pipes wrote in Russia Under the Soviet Regime, in 1918 Lenin formed the Yevseksiya, literally, “the Jewish section” of the Communist party. Pipes explained that the mission of Yevseksiya was the “destruction of traditional Jewish life, the Zionist movement, and Hebrew culture.”
Yevkseksiya began its operations agitating against Zionist organizations and groups — and, as Pipes noted, “in time, every Jewish cultural and social organization came under assault.”
The Yevseksiya “organized seizures of synagogues…which were subsequently converted into clubs or Communist centers.”
In 1929, Soviet authorities no longer needed their Jewish agents. So they liquidated Yevseksiya. Its leaders were sent to the gulag in the great purge of the 1930s.
It is true that at the margins of American society, the antisemitic Right, which views Jews as subversive agents against America has gained a foothold. But, Wisse notes, “Anti-Semitism/Zionism is the first anti-Jewish movement to take root in North America.”
Last week’s actions by the Democratic Party fundamentally transformed the party’s relationship with the American Jewish community. That relationship had been changing for many years, to be sure. And the rising power of antisemitic forces on the far left in the party has been pronounced since Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
Smith recalled how during his presidency, Barack Obama effectively paved the way for Omar and her colleagues to dominate the Democratic Party. Obama used his nuclear deal with Iran not only to replace the U.S. alliances with Israel and the Sunni Arab states with an alliance with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. He also used it to discredit Jewish community leaders and institutions that opposed his efforts to embrace Iran at the expense of Israel and the Arabs.
Smith noted, “The president and a complicit press corps used anti-Semitic conceits to bludgeon Jewish community leaders, Democrats as well as Republicans. They were beholden to ‘donors’ an ‘lobbies,’ and more loyal to Israel than their own country.”
As Smith concluded, “There’s barely a stone’s throw from what Obama said to what Omar has said and tweeted.”
Still, Jewish Democrats remain in denial about what has happened to their party. Rather than fight for the right of Jewish Democrats to support Israel or attack the likes of Omar and the Black Congressional Caucus that supports her for their institutional antisemitism and their use of antisemitism/Zionism as a means to disenfranchise American Jews, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and other liberal Jewish organizations, along with prominent Jewish Democratic congressmen like Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY), have accepted the new rules of the game and pretend that there is nothing inherently dangerous about what is happening in the party.
Rather than focus on the transformation of their party’s institutional bases into antisemitic mobilization centers, they deflect the problem onto President Donald Trump and pretend that the real threat to American Jews emanates from the fever swamps of the white nationalist camp on the fringes of American society.
It is hard to know how this story will proceed. A lot depends on whether a sufficient number of American Jews will awaken to the danger and stand up for themselves either by leaving the Democratic Party or by waging open warfare against the organs of their party – particularly the Farrakhan-supporting Congressional Black Caucus. Certainly, some Jews are walking away.
At the same time, many Jews are taking the path of the Yevseksiya and developing political identities based on rejecting their Jewishness and waging a pitched battle against Jews who support Israel and Orthodox Judaism.
In the final analysis, though, how the American Jewish community responds will be less decisive in determining whether the antisemitic political forces on the left secure their control over the Democratic Party in the long term. If the broader public joins President Donald Trump in calling out the Democratic Party for its institutional antisemitism, and if the Democrats are punished by donors and voters, then it is possible that the new bosses of the Democratic Party will see their power quickly erode.
It took the U.S. Army’s defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II to wipe out antisemitism on the Right as a political force in the United States. It won’t take a war to defeat leftist antisemitism in America. But it will take a decision by the vast majority of Americans that they do not want their country to be organized politically around scapegoating Jews and the Jewish state.