Right's crusade against antisemitism: It's a blatant effort to silence Jewish voices

"Never again" informs a powerful, uniquely Jewish moral critique. Antisemites and hypocrites want to shut that down

Published June 15, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Members of the Jewish community attend a rally in Victoria Embankment Gardens organised by Na'amod UK to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, for Israeli and Palestinian 'hostages' to be exchanged and for an end to the siege of Gaza on 19th November 2023 in London, United Kingdom. (Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)
Members of the Jewish community attend a rally in Victoria Embankment Gardens organised by Na'amod UK to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, for Israeli and Palestinian 'hostages' to be exchanged and for an end to the siege of Gaza on 19th November 2023 in London, United Kingdom. (Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)

According to legend, the 13th-century Catalan rabbi and author Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi once appealed to Christian authorities to burn the books of his contemporary Maimonides, considering those works heretical. Less than a decade later, he saw the Christian authorities burning copies of the Talmud in the same square and swore to travel to Maimonides’ grave to seek repentance. Whether or not the story is apocryphal, it is a good reminder: It is wise to use caution when asking outsiders, potentially antisemitic ones at that, to resolve internal disputes. A Christian willing to burn the "Guide for the Perplexed" will just as easily burn the Talmud. It is wise to remember this, too, when throwing charges of antisemitism around too loosely. 

Last December, Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen created a small stir when they were awarded the Hannah Arendt prize for political thought by Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation. The prize was almost withdrawn, thought ultimately awarded, after Gessen’s New Yorker article, “In the Shadow of the Holocaust,” drew charges of antisemitism, due to its comparisons of Gaza, even before the current wave of hostilities in Israel, to Jewish ghettoes before World War II. 

This is not the first time something like this has happened. In 2020 the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe faced a similarly cold reception when he drew charges of “relativizing the Holocaust.” Gessen documents — and critiques — a number of previous incidents, resulting from Germany’s overly restrictive understanding of antisemitism, which can be traced back to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s widely accepted definition of antisemitism, which lists comparing Israeli policy to the Nazis as an example. 

That such comparisons are often enough made by Jews, and go back to the time of Israel’s foundation, doesn’t seem to dampen the zeal with which the charges are made. There is no denying that comparisons between Israeli and Nazi policy can be made by antisemites, of course, and often are. Nor should we rule out the possibility that the all-too-common practice of comparing everything bad to the Nazis can, in these cases, be supported by an underlying antisemitism. And yet to simply ban such comparisons altogether — as Gessen’s article itself shows — is absurd. More, it may well itself be antisemitic. 

The German antipathy to “relativizing the Holocaust” draws on the idea that the Holocaust is a unique event: Nothing like it has occurred before or since, and to compare anything else to it cheapens the enormity of the horror perpetrated by the Nazis. But this thought does not sit easily with the phrase “never again,” popularized among Jews after the Holocaust. 

That phrase’s meaning is controversial. Some think it applies only to the Holocaust. But such an interpretation defeats the force of the injunction. First, of course, even this interpretation does not quite fit with the idea that the Holocaust is fully unique: That is, if nothing like it ever has occurred before or could possibly occur in the future, if all comparisons are illegitimate, then “never again” is true by definition, not an imperative. In most metaphysical views I am familiar with, exactly the same events cannot recur; in most of the remaining views of metaphysics, all events recur in exactly the same way by necessity. In either case, the injunction has a semantic meaning — the words do say something clear — but no practical meaning at all. 

Here we use the trauma from the greatest evil from our past to call other Jews, as Jews, to come to their moral senses; we ask them to honor the meaning of “never again.”

Alternatively, “never again” might mean something like, “We must never again allow something like this to happen to Jews.” But such an interpretation is morally blind and shallow. In practice, it would mean that after the Holocaust, Jews would have learned only one thing: that extermination of their family and kin should be prevented. But few human beings are so perverse that they do not already realize that extermination of their family (and possibly themselves) would be a bad thing. People who already know this do not need to learn the lesson from the Holocaust. To insist that this is the lesson Jews learn from the Holocaust is either to say that Jews are particularly morally dense (an antisemitic slur if ever there was one) or that the Holocaust offers no lessons at all, and those who say it does under this interpretation are deliberately lying to conceal their true agenda. On this interpretation, the moral force of the injunction is hollowed out. 

This is why liberal Jews tend to give the phrase a much wider meaning: “Never again” leverages the evil of the Holocaust to fight against other, similar abuses, whoever its victims are. This creates a uniquely Jewish form of moral and political critique. Tal Becker, defending Israel — ironically enough — against charges of genocide before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, seemed to suggest that Israel agrees with this interpretation, at least officially, opening with the claim that, “For some, the promise of ‘never again for all peoples’ is a slogan. … For Israel, it is the highest moral obligation.” 

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I do not mean, of course, that only Jews have good reason to oppose genocide; I tend to think that all human beings do, whether or not they accept that fact. Nor do I mean that Jews, in their role as victims, have a special victim card to play that is inaccessible to others. Instead, I mean that Jews, precisely because so many of us were touched by the Holocaust, as well as the sort of virulent antisemitism that allowed it, and that sometimes still breaks out in its wake, may be especially well-positioned to compare — and condemn — similar evils. 

In our current cultural milieu, in which one’s identity is sometimes used to determine the veracity of a person’s moral claims or, even worse, to establish their right to make such claims at all, “never again” gives Jews a particularly powerful moral argument. And such an argument is all the more powerful when aimed by Jews at Israelis — or at least at Israeli Jews. For here we use the trauma from the greatest evil from our past to call other Jews, as Jews, to come to their moral senses; we ask them to honor the meaning of “never again,” and certainly not to act as its perpetrators. 

Whether the charge is relevant, or to what extent, is a separate question. The point is that it comes from a depth in the cultural memory of a people, which gives it the force of the most powerful form of Jewish critique available. This may be especially true for secular Jews: Both Jean Amery and Isaac Deutscher noted that in the wake of the Holocaust, they experienced their Jewishness as a sense of obligation to stand with the oppressed. 

To accuse someone like Gessen of antisemitism for daring to draw the comparison is to attempt to silence that distinctly Jewish form of critique. It is, in effect, to rob Jews of their own moral voice. Perhaps that attempt at Jewish erasure from the moral community belongs among the IHRA’s examples. 

We see the same pattern repeating, perhaps even more brazenly, as House Republicans have taken up campus antisemitism as their cause. At first, they probed how they could use antisemitism as a wedge to attack higher education, which Republicans have long viewed as a liberal indoctrination chamber, and have more recently attacked for diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, initiatives. Their initial volley, led by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., drove three women university presidents into a trap over their unwillingness to prioritize charges of perceived antisemitism over free speech. Two of them — the presidents of Penn and Harvard, the latter a Black woman frequently attacked as a “diversity hire” — were soon gone from their positions. 

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Imagine decapitating two of the most powerful and wealthiest academic institutions on the planet; Republicans had correctly calculated the power that accusations of antisemitism could give them. As student protests demanding protection for Palestinians spread across the country — and the world — police have been called in with increasing frequency. Far beyond simply taking on the perceived penchant for progressivism on college campuses, Republicans sense an even more powerful weapon: Now charges of antisemitism can be used to attack protesting students, while simultaneously fanning those same protests and manipulating the narrative to make Democrats appear as the party of social disorder (never mind that the protests are often aimed at Biden), while also undermining Democrats before the November election (because the protests are often aimed at Biden). 

Never mind that the first student protest encampment taken down by police was co-founded by Jewish Voices for Peace and endorsed by If Not Now. Sensing blood in the water, Republicans like House Speaker Mike Johnson, who is widely seen as a Christian nationalist, can step in and insist that “Antisemitism is a virus and because the administration and woke university presidents aren’t stepping in, we’re seeing it spread.” It’s clear what the priorities are, and it won’t matter to Johnson, or to Stefanik, how many Jewish students and organizations are caught in their benevolent defense of Jews. 

In what would, in earlier times, have been called a new low, Johnson, along with a handful of other Republicans (including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina and Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake), blamed the protests on George Soros’ financing, effectively relying on an antisemitic conspiracy theory to demonstrate supposed concern about antisemitism. This may be a minority view, but its brazen antisemitism has received little serious pushback. No one has been ejected from a governing body. The Democrats are still tacitly supporting Johnson against attacks from the far right, as their best chance (so far) to keep the government running for the rest of the year.

What is an attempt to weaponize antisemitism, if not antisemitism? Once again we perceive here a denial of the Jewish moral voice, coupled with mass arrests of Jewish organizers and protesters.

But when the House under Johnson votes to punish protesters by telling the Department of Education to make federal funding contingent on schools’ adherence to the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism, no one should be fooled. Both the ACLU and J Street came out against the bill, the latter’s president calling it an attempt to force “votes that divide the Democratic caucus on an issue that shouldn’t be turned into a political football.” Some members of Congress called the bill an attempt to weaponize antisemitism

But what is an attempt to weaponize antisemitism, if not antisemitism? Once again we may perceive here a denial of the Jewish moral voice, coupled with mass arrests of Jewish organizers and protesters, under the guise of genuine concern for Jews. But it is more than that — it is a denial of Jewish agency altogether. Whatever Jews may want, believe or fear, these moves by lawmakers are not intended to respond to those concerns. They are intended to exploit Jewish fear in order to weaken universities, undermine diversity initiatives, intimidate protesters and silence critics of Israeli policy, Jews being among the most prominent of these. 

None of these are goals Jews should support; all are goals that Jews, as Jews, have good reason to resist. Those convinced by a handful of incidents — and by certain interpretations of widely repeated slogans at protests — that antisemitism is widespread and rising on college campuses might seem to have no good options. Either they accept, or actively seek, assistance from politicians who pretend to share their concerns, though doing so may well be worse in the long term, or they resign themselves to antisemitism growing unchecked around them. It may be wise to keep in mind that antisemitism appears in different guises, and some of the most malicious of those may masquerade as opposition to antisemitism. It may be equally wise to remember that Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi did not have to wait long to see reason to repent, and learned to see his supposed adversary as a teacher.

By Roman Altshuler

Roman Altshuler is a professor of philosophy at Kutztown University. Much of his previous public writing is here.

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Antisemitism Campus Protests Commentary Gaza History Holocaust Israel Jews Judaism Philosophy War