When, on January 2, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden responded to a questionnaire from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) about anti-Semitism, Zionism, and his relationship to Jews and Jewish culture in the U.S., there was a noticeable absence in his response: practically any mention of American Jews.
The interview, entitled “Joe Biden: My plan to fight anti-Semitism,” included three concrete steps that a President Biden would take on this issue: banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, conducting a war on domestic terrorism comparable to “our commitment as a nation to … stopping international terrorism” and appointing a “tough-on-hate-crime” attorney general. Biden’s plan, in a word, casts Jews as victims. It treats anti-Semitism as a series of fringe, punishable acts of violence, and betrays a stark lack of understanding of both the extent of the often daily harassment that many so-called “visibly Jewish” folks endure, and the pervasiveness of anti-Semitic ideology, which poses a much greater threat to Jewish freedom in the U.S. than individual acts of terrorist and non-terrorist violence could ever do alone.
For Biden, the fight against anti-Semitism is not a complex political fight against oppression; it is a matter of crime fighting. This is particularly troubling, because in the remainder of the article, Biden traffics in precisely the kinds of anti-Jewish assumptions that have allowed for the increase in violence against Jews in the first place. Yes, Biden condemns the rise of anti-Semitic attacks, criticizes Trump for “fanning the flames of hate” following Charlottesville, and shares feel-good stories about White House Passover seders and a vice presidential sukkah decorated by local Jewish children; but beyond these mostly bipartisan talking points, how does Biden attempt to convince Jews that he has their backs in the fight against anti-Semitism? By heaping praise on Israel.
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Shortly after laying out the above policy goals, Biden criticizes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement for Palestinian human rights for “singling out” Israel, in ways he deems “anti-Semitic.” He in fact spends well over half of his “plan to fight anti-Semitism” discussing Zionism and geopolitics in Palestine, even when asked about “American Jewish culture, or [a] Jewish figure from history.” He makes no mention of any of the Jews with whom he is interested in collaborating to combat anti-Semitism outside of Israel, and fails to discuss any of the actual efforts of Jews in the U.S. to struggle against the harmful messages spread about them. And he certainly omits any mention of the ever-growing numbers of American Jews who are doing Palestine solidarity work and resisting the conflation of Zionism and Judaism. For Biden, the fight against anti-Semitism starts with the criminal legal system and ends with suppressing criticism of Israel; the anti-Semitism faced daily by ordinary Jews, especially poor and working-class Jews, and Jews of color, is simply invisible.
When Biden overwrites the oppression of Jews in the U.S. with concern for the reputation of the state of Israel, he shows himself to be not only oblivious to anti-Semitism, but complicit in it. By treating the maintenance of Israeli settler colonialism as a “Jewish issue” and a necessity for combating anti-Semitism, Biden betrays an understanding of U.S. Jews as fundamentally subject to Israel. In recent months, the right wing has smeared many pro-Palestine activists and politicians as being guilty of anti-Semitism by invoking “dual loyalty,” or the anti-Semitic notion that Jews are forever outsiders in their societies of residence, since they cannot be trusted to put the interest of their residential community above an imagined, foreign “Jewish interest.” While many of these claims are spurious at best, and disingenuous at worse, Biden’s comments, replacing a Jewish community with a diverse range of views on politics in historic Palestine with a Jewish people tied by definition to Israel, is precisely an exercise in dual loyalty.
This kind of political thinking about Jews has been the norm in the U.S. for several decades, tied both to the increasing prominence of the state of Israel in the U.S.’s foreign policy and the increasing affluence of a small, conservative layer of the U.S. Jewish community. As blatant anti-Semitism became less acceptable (though no less operative a component of white supremacy) in U.S. politics during the latter half of the 20th century, the voices who were empowered to shape the public perception of Jewish politics were not the Jewish masses affected by everyday anti-Semitism. Instead, they were powerful, right-wing lobbying organizations representing a small number of Jews who made common cause with Christian Dominionists, anti-Semitic paleoconservatives, and white supremacists of all sorts by supporting racist policy in both the U.S. and the Middle East. These institutions, heavily invested in the fictitious projection of a unified Jewish voice in support of Zionism and against left-wing challenges to the status quo, have sanctioned the rise of a discourse around Jews in U.S. political life that supports anti-Semitic notions about Jews: that they are a unified, self-serving group more loyal to its own particular interests than shared concerns of justice and freedom for all people.
It is this history of a right-wing minority of Jews gaining hegemony and making common cause with the anti-Semitic right due to their shared political interests that allows for two things to be true at the same time: explicit Jew hatred on behalf of state officials is relatively low; and the Democratic front-runner for president, a self-proclaimed critic of Trump’s anti-Semitism, spreads latent anti-Semitic views in the most notable publication in the Jewish press of his campaign.
Biden isn’t alone. In December 2019, when the JTA compiled Pete Buttigieg’s interactions with “the Jewish question,” it listed no substantial engagement with U.S.-based Jewish communities or leaders. Buttigieg has been called out for anti-Semitism in the past — for using the word “Pharisee” as an epithet targeting Vice President Mike Pence, for instance — but aside from this controversy, he has given the usual responses to the march of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, and only engaged substantively with pro-Israel organizations, touring Israel in 2018 with the American Jewish Committee and speaking at the liberal Zionist J Street conference in 2019.
And of course, the most prominent exponent of this brand of anti-Semitism is Donald Trump himself. Trump regularly uses his support for Israel to deflect from accusations of his administration’s anti-Semitism — from repeated use of anti-Semitic imagery in campaign ads, to statements like this one to a room full of Jews: “A lot of you are in the real estate business, because I know you very well. You’re brutal killers, not nice people at all.”
Donald Trump’s Zionism is deeply tied to his anti-Semitism: In August 2019, Trump referred to Jews who were insufficiently supportive of Israel as “disloyal.” For Trump, to be “fully Jewish” is to support a foreign, Jewish government, and how much more of a textbook definition of “dual loyalty” can you get than that?
Obviously, neither Buttigieg nor Biden have gone down the road of outright white nationalist Jew hatred that Trump has, but their participation in a political discourse that treats all U.S. Jews as having ingrained loyalty to Israel, and Israel as a Jewish issue —nay, the properly political Jewish issue — is similarly harmful. Because so many high-profile entities — from Biden to Trump, from the Anti-Defamation League to Christians United for Israel — are pushing the line that American Jewishness is fundamentally foreign, this basis for a growing number of people’s resentment of the Jews has gained the legitimacy of bipartisan commonsense.
Undoing that legitimacy will be the work of a fully-fledged movement against anti-Semitism, in solidarity with all people struggling against white supremacy. For politicians, particularly non-Jewish politicians, this looks like engaging with diverse Jewish voices, rather than just the ones that have been traditionally elevated due to access to resources and proximity to white power. It looks like acknowledging diverse Jewish viewpoints on a range of political issues, and extending solidarity to Jews not just through predetermined policy agendas, but through genuine fights to uproot the material, institutional, and ideological roots of anti-Jewish oppression and bigotry. And for the diverse majority of everyday Jews — both those who participate in Jewish communal institutions and those who are totally disconnected — this looks like waging a fight from below against anti-Semitism powerful enough to dislodge the voices of racism and reaction that have thus far spoken for U.S. Jewry. So long as anti-Semitism persists, the world will look to Jewish voices for explanation and to lead the fight against it; and unless everyday Jews with everyday experiences of anti-Semitic oppression are organized to provide a response, the fight against anti-Semitism will continue to be owned by the pro-Israel right.