Shortly prior to the third Reagan-Gorbachev summit, scheduled to take place in Washington D.C., in December 1987, Natan Sharansky, who was then one-year out of the Soviet Gulag, came to the US to organize a mass gathering of American Jews. The message of the proposed rally would be that America was demanding the release of all Soviet Jews who wanted to leave.
Over 250,000 American Jews came to the capital for that rally. And their message was heard. At the outset of their summit, President Reagan asked Premier Gorbachev whether he had heard about the huge rally on the Mall the preceding Sunday. Gorbachev sought to turn the conversation to the topics important to him — e.g., arms control — but Reagan would not let go. He kept speaking about the size of the turnout and the importance of Jewish emigration to the American people.
Two weeks ago, prominent American Jewish organizations announced a D.C. rally against anti-Semitism. According to the Washington Post and a number of other news organizations, those who showed up numbered in the hundreds. And that, at a time when physical attacks on Jews have reached, in the words of former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile, "pandemic proportions."
The slogan of the latter gathering was "No Fear," which the organizers belied by distributing hats with no Jewish symbols or anything to indicate a connection to a Jewish event.
The contrast between the two rallies pretty much captures the trajectory of American Jewry. But they did have one thing in common. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post on the 30th anniversary of the 1987 rally, Sharansky recounted his enormous debt to Elie Wiesel. He told Wiesel that he was encountering resistance to his idea among mainstream Jewish organizations.
Wiesel replied, "Natan, don't waste time on meeting with Jewish organizations. Only students can do this. They will convince the organizations."
Elisha Wiesel, one of the organizers of the recent gathering against anti-Semitism, would have been well-advised to have heeded his father's advice about what a broken vehicle the Jewish organizations would prove to be.
THE FECKLESSNESS of American Jewish leadership was on full display at the recent rally. The organizers felt the need to emphasize that the rally was "against all hatred," not just anti-Semitism. That message both distorts and trivializes anti-Semitism. In the wake of what the Rutgers Hillel called a "social media pogrom," followed by acts of vandalism, on a campus with 6,000 Jewish students, the chancellor and provost of Rutgers University condemned "the sharp rise in hostile sentiments and anti-Semitic violence in the United States." They scrupulously added "and against other targeted and oppressed groups on our campus and our community."
But protest of anti-Semitism was still too much for Students for Justice in Palestine, who argued that the focus on anti-Semitism distracted attention from the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Remarkably, the senior Rutgers officials quickly retreated and apologized for failing to "communicate our support for our Palestinian community members." When the Jewish community pushed back, they issued yet another anodyne statement that "all forms of racism, intolerance, and xenophobia are unacceptable whenever and wherever they occur." That, of course, ignored that it was Jewish students and student organizations who were under attack, not Hindu students, or Muslim students for that matter.
In 2019, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted about US Middle East policy, "It's all about the Benjamins, baby," a reference to the image of Benjamin Franklin on $100 bills, implying that Jewish money determines American foreign policy. But after the ensuing uproar, even she happily voted for a congressional resolution condemning all forms of hatred, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
The false linkage of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia has become the all-purpose defense of any and all attacks on Israel, and even a cudgel to be used against those who call attention to anti-Semitism. Whenever Omar or one of her fellow "Squad" members in Congress is criticized for absurd charges against Israel, she is quick to accuse her critics, particularly Jewish ones, of employing "Islamophobic tropes," without identifying what those might be, unless any criticism of anything a Muslim says is, by definition, Islamophobic.
April Powers, who is both black and Jewish, was until recently the "chief equity and inclusion officer," at the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). But then she made the mistake, in the wake of viral videos of Palestinians going through Jewish areas of Los Angeles looking for Jews to beat up (and finding them), of posting on Facebook, "The SCBWI unequivocally recognizes that the world's 14.7 million Jewish people (less than 0.018% of the population) have the right to life, safety, and freedom from scapegoating and fear."
That was enough for one Arab member of the organization to demand a refund of her membership dues on the grounds that SCBWI had shown itself a "Zionist... organization that doesn't serve ALL children," by virtue of not having published a statement denouncing Israeli actions in Gaza.
The SCBWI's executive director issued a groveling apology and announced the "resignation" of Powers. The latter offered her own apology for failing to note the "rise in Islamophobia."
But there has been no such rise in Islamophobia: No one is driving around looking for Muslims to beat up, even in the wake of murderous attacks by individuals proclaiming, "Alla-hu Akbar." In the first five months of this year, there were 86 hate crimes against Jews (including numerous vicious beatings) in New York City, a 37 percent increase over the record number of such incidents the previous year. During the same period, there was one anti-Muslim hate crime.
SHORTLY PRIOR to the recent rally, Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, one of the rally's sponsors and long considered the leading Jewish defense organization charting anti-Semitism in America, had a eureka moment, in the form of a Newsweek op-ed titled, "It's Time to Admit It: The Left Has an Anti-Semitism Problem." In a conversation with the New York Times, he acknowledged that of those attacking Jews in America's cities, "No one is wearing MAGA hats."
Until then, Greenblatt, a former special assistant to President Obama, had been the most enthusiastic proponent of the New York Times line: "Anti-Semitic violence in recent years was largely a right-wing phenomenon, driven by a white supremacist movement emboldened by rhetoric from former President Donald J. Trump."
That was no more true "in recent years" than today. Far from being perpetrated by white supremacists, most of the attacks on Jews in urban centers have for a long time been committed by non-whites.
Greenblatt pretends to have known nothing of the venom directed at Jewish students on campus, or that originating from leading progressive organizations such as Black Lives Matter. At several campuses with large Jewish populations, there have been highly organized efforts to bar from student government anyone who has been to Israel on a Birthright trip. The express purpose of those efforts is to intimidate Jewish students from identifying as such, or from expressing support for Israel.
The pervasive progressive doctrine of intersectionality, which seeks to link all "oppressed" groups and which confers virtue according to the degree of group oppression, has been frequently used by BLM, as well as by congressional critics like Rep. Cori Bush, to castigate Israel. Bush argues, for instance, that what Israel does to Palestinians is exactly the same violence perpetrated by the US government against black people in America.
In a lengthy recent CNN piece, two Jewish students describe how they are ostracized from all progressive groups unless they first renounce their Jewish identity and deny Israel's right to exist. Both Julia Jassey, at my alma mater, the University of Chicago, and Blake Flayton at George Washington University, relate that they have received numerous death threats for their failure to deny Israel's right to exist, despite their progressive bona fides. Both have been struck by the casual and open anti-Semitism. Jassey was told that "the Holocaust was an extended vacation for the Jews who never came back."
Jassey feared to return to campus after the distance learning during Covid. She has formed a social media group, "Jewish on Campus," from which she learned that many Jewish students find themselves, like her, increasingly targeted by their own peers. And she notes that the hatred directed at Jewish students on campus is much more threatening to the Jewish community in the long run than that from fringe right-wing groups: "Those people [i.e., her peers at elite universities] grow up to become doctors and lawyers and politicians and lawmakers." Researchers at Harvard and Tufts recently ascertained that anti-Semitism, in contrast to all other forms of prejudice, is consistently higher among young people. And that is being generated on college campuses.
THE SPEAKERS AT the anti-Semitism rally were carefully mooted to exclude any ardent advocates for Israel or anyone who might be charged with Islamophobia, no matter how implausibly. Thus David Sapirstein, former political director of the Reform movement, was featured, and predictably referred to Israeli "occupation." The organizers, he said, formed a big tent — J Street was actively courted — but haters were not welcomed. The only problem being that for Sapirstein, anyone who opposes biological males competing against women in sports or wandering around women's locker rooms is a hater.
No speakers were called upon to demonstrate the absurdity of claims of Israeli apartheid and genocide or to explain why they are anti-Semitic — i.e., precisely because they are so absurd. Yet the large number of American Jews, nearly a quarter, who responded to a recent poll that Israel is committing genocide and apartheid might have benefitted from learning that from 1967 to 1992, when Israel was in full control of the West Bank, life expectancy increased 50 percent, from 48 to 72; infant mortality dropped 75 percent; seven universities were built, where none had existed; and by 1992, the West Bank had the fourth-fastest growing economy in the world. If that be genocide, it is of the most peculiar sort — one in which the "victims" prosper.
The failure of the "No Fear" rally represents the failure over the long run and short of American Jewish leadership.