How Anti-Antisemitism is Losing its Power
America's Jews are up in arms, but they can't shut down legitimate criticism of Israel, especially when their leaders coddle antisemites themselves.
Why did the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, organizers of Tuesday’s massive “March for Israel” rally on the National Mall in Washington, DC, an event whose official logo highlighted three causes—Israel, freedom for the hostages held by Hamas, and fighting antisemitism—invite Pastor John Hagee, an evangelical Christian who has made many antisemitic statements, to address the crowd? The answer is plain: the American Jewish establishment uses the antisemitism charge in a highly selective way. If you are “pro-Israel,” which means in favor of giving the Israeli government whatever it wants, then you get a pass. (Hagee runs Christians United for Israel, America’s largest Zionist organization by sheer membership size.) And if you are critical of Israel, you may well be “antisemitic.” So much for actually protecting Jews from antisemites. Let me illustrate.
Last week, I got an invitation to join the Mothers Against College Antisemitism (MACA) Facebook group. It’s a private group that was launched three weeks ago and mushroomed quickly to more than 50,000 members. You don’t have to be a mother to join, actually; you just have to be someone concerned about increasing antisemitism on college campuses in the US and Canada. Fill out a simple questionnaire, follow the guidelines, and you’re in.
I joined MACA both because I genuinely am worried about rising antisemitism since October 7, as well as rising Islamophobia, and because I want to understand how the Hamas-Israel war is reshaping the politics of American Jews. There’s been a surge in reported incidents of attacks on Jews and Muslims—CAIR, the largest Muslim rights organization in the US, says in the 29 days since October 7 it has logged 1,283 requests for help and reports of bias, triple what it saw in an average 29-day period last year. The New York Police Department’s Hate Crime Task Force says bias crimes have increased from 45 to 101 in October, with much of that due to a 214% spike in anti-Jewish incidents (from 22 to 69). And the ADL’s Center on Extremism has tallied 213 incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault from Oct 7 to Oct 23, a nearly 400% increase over the same period last year.
But while both communities are reeling, there’s really no corollary on the Muslim side in America to what is happening among Jewish Americans. A search on Facebook finds no “Mothers Against College Islamophobia,” just a handful of tiny mostly dormant groups that, based on their titles, are opposed to that prejudice. Whereas there are a plethora of Facebook groups actively churning through the news and mobilizing people to strike out against antisemitism. I counted at dozens that have at least a thousand members or at least 10 posts a day on them; Mothers Against College Antisemitism just happens to be the biggest one.
Crises are group-forming events. And Facebook is still a primary locus for online group organizing. Sometimes an event sends individuals flocking towards each other there in startling numbers. When Occupy Wall Street happened in downtown Manhattan, not only did hundreds of similar encampments form in other cities, more than two million people joined Occupy-labeled Facebook groups tied to their locality (I have the data to prove it). The pro-Hillary Clinton “Pantsuit Nation” group mushroomed to more than four million members in the waning days of Election 2016. When Covid broke out and President Trump called on his followers to protest state lockdowns, dozens of anti-lockdown groups formed on Facebook; I joined a group called “Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine” that soon numbered in the tens of thousands. I watched that group steadily curdle from a forum for polite protests by small business owners against regulations that were damaging their livelihoods into a hub for vicious hate speech against Pennsylvania’s trans health commissioner. Facebook’s algorithm has a way of twisting heterogenous groups towards homogeny and high emotion that is definitely not helping our society navigate clashes of opinion.
Where to point the Jewish Eye of Sauron?
Right now MACA is a dynamo of activity. According to Facebook’s tracking metrics, people on it have posted more than 5,700 posts on it since its launch. If we assume that nearly all of its members are Jewish, then almost one percent of all American Jews are on it. Clearly, a huge number of people are upset and looking for tangible things they can do to respond to what they see as the rise of antisemitism on campus; safeguarding one’s children is also a very natural human response. If you forgive the metaphor; 50,000 American Jews on Facebook have built their own “Eye of Sauron” to watch for and combat hatred; the question is where they aim it.
Scrolling the MACA feed, I’ve seen things reported that are unquestionably antisemitic. A flyer at the University of Pennsylvania mocking the “kidnapped” posters by instead highlighting a “Missing Cow” using the same graphic style; the Jewish student center at Ohio State University vandalized and two students beaten up after a group asked them if they were Jewish; flyers attacking “every single aspect of the Covid agenda [as] Jewish” circulating at George Mason University; “Holocaust 2.0” chalked on a highly traveled walkway at the University of Maryland; online posts at the University of Missouri referring to a Jewish fraternity as “the genocide frat”; the list goes on.
But there’s also a mob mentality at work here, along with a deeply flawed understanding of what is antisemitism. The best example of this is how MACA members are currently responding to the documentary “Israelism,” which is now being shown or scheduled for screening on many campuses. People on MACA and beyond are in a frenzy to get these showings stopped. There are tinyurl links being circulated with titles like “Urge Yale to cancel screening of antisemitic film Israelism” that autopopulate a pre-written message addressed to exactly the right university administrators on each campus where there’s an upcoming showing, asserting that the film “openly gives justification to those shouting "Kill the Jews", "Globalize the Intifada" etc.” Don’t allow “your campus be a platform for terrorist ideology,” the missive pleads. Israelism is “misinformation that harms Jewish students. It is precisely this nuanced antisemitism that fuels the flames of hate and brainwashes young minds,” the email concludes.
I’ve lost track of how many posts I’ve seen on MACA decrying the movie, claiming it somehow strengthens the people who justified the October 7 massacre or that it questions Israel’s right to exist. Many of the people writing these posts or commenting on the film admit that they haven’t seen it, but that hasn’t stopped them from condemning it in no uncertain terms.
This is, frankly, off the wall. I’ve watched Israelism twice, last summer when it came out and again yesterday. It shows how many young American Jews are brought up into the AIPAC worldview, taught the simplistic Zionist myth that Israel is a “land without people for a people without a land,” and then how some of them then find out on their own that the history and reality of Israel is much more complex and includes denying Palestinians on the West Bank civil rights. One, the activist Simone Zimmerman, decides on her own to go visit the West Bank and has her thinking transformed; another, Eitan (no last name) talks about going all the way to enlisting in the Israeli Defense Forces and then being traumatized and radicalized by having to break into Palestinian homes and violate their rights as an occupier.
Israelism is provocative and opinionated, to be sure, but it is not antisemitic. It does not deny the Holocaust (but rather discusses the impact of inter-generational trauma on current events) and it does not ascribe bad traits to Jews or Israelis because they are Jewish. Nor does it deny Israel’s right to exist. It does suggest that AIPAC makes political alliances with people who do not believe in democracy, and that the main danger to Jews in America is coming from the mainstreaming of the far right. These are political arguments one can disagree with but making them or agreeing with them doesn’t make you antisemitic.
Tuesday, in NYC, Hunter College President Ann Kirschner announced she was canceling a scheduled showing of Israelism, no doubt in response to hundreds of angry emails generated by MACA and similar folks. She claimed it was to “ensure the safety” of their students and insisted that she was balancing a commitment to free speech and academic freedom “with the danger of antisemitic and divisive rhetoric.” Hours later, the Hunter College Senate, made up of faculty and student representatives, voted in favor of screening the movie. In response, the filmmakers issued a statement accusing Hunter of censoring Jewish voices, since Israelism was made by Jews. The Streisand Effect is now in full flower.
A Lack of Israelism?
This morning, I spoke with Erin Axelman, one of Israelism’s directors, who goes by “they/them” pronouns. Since some of the film’s critics say it is too controversial to show now, or that it is being used by anti-Israel campus groups to foment hate, I asked them under what auspices the film was being shown. First, they told me, after October 7 they paused screenings for ten days. Then, the first one they did was with the Israel studies chair at George Washington University. “We’ve done screenings with multiple Israel studies chairs and Israel studies departments; the majority of screenings we're doing are with Jewish student groups or Jewish faculty.” They also noted that they would only allow the film to be screened with someone from their team involved either virtually or in person, and “only with facilitated discussions from members of our team, because of how sensitive this moment is.”
Axelman continued, “We start off every screening by talking about by having a moment of silence for all civilians killed, of course starting with 1200 Israeli civilians who were killed by Hamas. Many people from our team know people who were killed or kidnapped by Hamas. We have Israeli, American, Jewish and Palestinian members of our production team, all are extremely affected by the current moment and extremely traumatized. All lives, both Israeli and Palestinian, who have been killed are precious.” Does this sound antisemitic?
I asked Axelman if they had experienced any dissociation after October 7 in how people on the left responded. “Totally,” they answered. “There were some on the left who totally discounted the Israeli lives lost in Hamas’s brutal terror attack, who totally discounted Jewish lives lost and even celebrated Jewish death. That is reprehensible. That is disgusting. That is terrible. That is antisemitic. We talk about it at all of our screenings. My family is Jewish. I am Jewish. When people say terrible things about Jewish people, I am going to say something, period 100%. And I need to because I care about my affinity and I care about my family. So yes. Is there antisemitism on the left? Are there disturbing trends on the left? Yes. And we talk about it openly.” But Axelman is also equally clear that fighting for Jewish safety requires also fighting for Palestinian freedom. It’s a message that the American Jewish establishment is refusing to hear, let alone digest.
One of the film’s most active opponents on MACA is Michelle Foxman, daughter of Abe Foxman, the longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League. Foxman senior is featured in the film, not only because he has long commanded the American Jewish establishment’s approach to antisemitism, but also because he played a key role in getting Zimmerman—one of the film’s young Jewish protagonists—fired from her job as Jewish outreach coordinator for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in 2019. (He now claims he was duped into participating in the film but Axelman told me all their questions were shared with him in advance and he signed a release after the interview was done.) Interestingly, Michelle Foxman says she has watched the film, and avoids calling it antisemitic in her posts on MACA. But she still thinks screenings should be paused at the minimum because she believes it is dishonest, irresponsible and likely to contribute to the hostile environment Jewish college students may be experiencing. But does she have a problem with other people calling it antisemitic in order to intimidate college administrators into shutting it down? She doesn’t say.
The irony of all these Jewish parents trying to shut down Israelism is that they are reproducing exactly the dynamic that has led so many of their children to question their connection to Israel in the first place. “Don’t teach anything that you will have to unteach later,” Rabbi Lisa Grant of the Hebrew Union College said at a panel on engaging with Israel at last year’s J Street conference in Washington. “That’s what leads to high school and college students saying ‘you lied to me.’” And there’s nothing like the fervor of a convert; Axelman told me that many of the most pro-Israel students they encountered at Brown University a decade ago are now doing Palestinian human rights work.
The American Jewish establishment has long had a problem with how it wields the “antisemitism” charge. Decades ago, the ADL under Abe Foxman was far more concerned with extremism on the left than the right, to the extent that it built a covert spying operation focused on Arab-Americans, anti-apartheid activists and other civil rights activists. In the late 1980s, Foxman focused far more firepower on the supposed antisemitism of Reverend Jesse Jackson, whose sin was referring to NYC as “Hymietown” during his first presidential campaign in 1984, than he did on Klu Klux Klan member David Duke, who served in the Louisiana House of Representatives as a Republican and ran for Senate and governor as well, or on Patrick Buchanan, a top Republican presidential candidate in 1992 who also dallied with Holocaust denial. Demands that Democrats “repudiate” Jackson proliferated from the ADL’s corner; no similarly intense demands were made on Republicans to denounce Duke or Buchanan, or the many Duke supporters who infested the Louisiana state Republican party and held official positions in George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Jackson was at the time breaking the taboo about demanding that the United States recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization. (If you’d like to read a long essay about this topic that I wrote thirty years ago for The Nation, called “Anti-Semitism in the Mind of America,” email me and I’ll send you a PDF.)
Tuesday, my wife and I attended the “March for Israel” rally despite our misgivings about the politics we expected to encounter. We went because the Progressive Israel Network, a coalition of a dozen groups including J Street, American Friends of Peace Now, T’ruah, and Reconstructing Judaism, had urged their members to attend in order to “show solidarity with Israel, call for the immediate release of the hostages, express concern for Palestinian civilian life and support for additional actions to prevent civilian casualties, and support a post-war effort to advance a regional Arab-Israeli peace process that includes an effort to reach a sustainable, negotiated Israeli-Palestinian two state agreement.” Unfortunately, though many people picked up wristbands distributed by “peace bloc” groups in order to enter the National Mall at the same entrance, we never found any larger group and were more like “peace dots” than a bloc, as my wife put it. More work needs to be done to connect those dots, literally and figuratively.
It was interesting to be among so many fellow Jews, most of them from Orthodox congregations and day schools and generally friendly. The mood was dutiful, for the most part, not belligerent, though one person who attended holding a sign that read “Standing for Jewish life NECESSITATES Standing for Palestinian life” reported being jeered at, filmed, threatened, called "scum" and punched in the face. It was deeply alienating to hear the crowd chant “No ceasefire, no ceasefire” when Van Jones, the one quasi-progressive given a speaking slot, tried to talk about a ceasefire and the value of Palestinian lives. Likewise when House Speaker Mike Johnson declared that it was “outrageous” that anyone could suggest Israel stop bombing Gaza before it wipes out Hamas and the crowd repeated the same chant. The American Jewish establishment may be happy that Senators Chuck Schumer and Joni Ernst and Speaker Johnson along with his Democratic counterpart Hakeem Jeffries all locked arms on stage and promised to stand behind Israel “forever,” but as public opinion polls show, they are standing on rapidly shifting sands.
Mushon Zer-Aviv, “Your Empathy is Killing Us.”
Mik Moore, “Israel-Palestine Needs Good Organizers.”
Isaac Chotiner interview in The New Yorker with Daniella Weiss, “The Extreme Ambitions of West Bank Settlers.”
Speaking of antisemitism, isn’t it really time to abandon Twitter/X?