Opinion// Left or Right? Neither Side Feels Safe
by Daniel Oppenheimer
What are Jews to do in an election season that features Trump, BDS and BLM?
In August, a coalition of Black Lives Matter groups released a platform that included a denunciation of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, which it described as “genocide.” After criticism from Jewish groups, one of the groups that drafted the platform shot back this rather sinister warning:
“On the American left, there are many wolves in sheep’s clothing. You have revealed yourselves. And now that we know who you are, we will not forget.”
A few days later, BuzzFeed reported that the chairman of the American Nazi Party had declared in a report that Donald Trump’s candidacy was shaping up to be a great vehicle for normalizing white nationalist views. As he wrote: “We have a wonderful OPPORTUNITY here folks, that may never come again, at the RIGHT time. Donald Trump’s campaign statements, if nothing else, have SHOWN that ‘our views’ are NOT so ‘unpopular’ as the Political Correctness crowd have told everyone they are!”
That same week, William Kristol, neoconservative stalwart, said on CNN that his party’s nominee was “unstable” and “so narcissistic … you couldn’t trust his judgment about anything.”
What’s extraordinary isn’t that these events happened in such close proximity. What’s extraordinary is that, for this campaign season, it wasn’t a particularly unusual week.
On the left, we have a series of rising movements and currents that contain the traditional left-wing threads of anti-Zionism and, at the margins, anti-Semitism. On the right, we have a presidential nominee who winks at the Aryan fringe and incites the passions of the mob in ways that have not, historically, ended well for the Jews.
It’s been a while since Jews have had to contend with many of these currents in genuinely alarming, or even potentially alarming, forms. Depending on where you are on the political spectrum, though, the vexation feels different.
Left-wing and liberal Jews have long had to wrestle with the anti-Zionism of the left and to debate to what degree they feel compelled to fight explicit anti-Semitism on its fringes. The left has been politically moribund for so long, however, that for decades these concerns have been almost entirely confined to niche political ecosystems where the left still wields some influence (e.g. in the academy). Only in the past five years, with the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders campaign, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and campus anti-racism protests, has the left shown signs of becoming a force again in American politics. That increase in power and influence has lent a new urgency to the old questions facing intellectuals who hope to harmonize their Jewish commitments with their left-wing and liberal ones.
For Jewish conservatives, particularly those identified with neoconservatism, the shift in the landscape has been much more disorienting. Until the rise of Donald Trump, there had seemed to be an enduring harmony between the specifically Jewish priorities of Jewish conservatives and the priorities of the American right. The Republican Party establishment had embraced the hard pro-Israel line favored by Jewish conservatives; Christian conservatives were ardently pro-Israel for theological reasons, and they shared with Jewish conservatives a critique of the sexual and cultural mores ascendant in 21st-century America. The Fox News and Tea Party right saw in Israel, and in the Jewish-inflected neoconservative movement, staunch allies against the forces of Islamic radicalism.
Now Jewish conservatives are confronted with their putative allies on the right nominating Donald Trump, who is not an overt anti-Semite but otherwise seems perfectly engineered to discomfit and worry Jews. He’s comfortable drawing support from the explicitly anti-Semitic fringe. His racist populism and conspiratorial thinking seem capacious and suspicious enough to easily incorporate anti-Semitism if it becomes convenient to do so. He has blasted through establishment norms of political speech that have protected Jews in America for a long time (First he called the Mexicans rapists, and I did not speak out…). Most frighteningly, his success implies that there may be a substantial white nationalist constituency in the United States. Even if Trump loses the presidential election, as it seems he will, this Trumpist faction could reshape American politics in ways that are especially toxic to small, historically persecuted groups like the Jews.
What to do, then? The answers are simpler than they might seem, precisely because these aren’t new phenomena in American or world history. Be outspoken. Be unafraid to criticize both allies and opponents. And if it gets to the point where your “side” seems irredeemably corrupted by anti-Semitism, then leave your side. (This seems much more likely to happen on the right than on the left, but it doesn’t yet seem probable on either side.)
And don’t be afraid. We’ve been here before, more or less, and we’ve emerged okay precisely because we’ve learned how to fight—both against our partisan enemies and within our own coalitions—and because anti-Semitism is less deeply rooted in American soil than it is almost anywhere else in the world. The fundamentals remain solid. There’s no reason for excessive alarm. There’s always reason, however, to be vigilant.
On the left, where I live, we should be clear that no liberationist ethos deserving of its name would demand of us that we tolerate anti-Semitism, or that we silently suffer insults to our dignity as Jews out of deference to the sensitivities, prejudices or priorities of others. On the right, there should be no peace with Donald Trump and no illusions about the danger that his coded and not-so-coded appeals to white identity pose to Jews. The mob always comes for us eventually.
Daniel Oppenheimer is the author of Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, published by Simon & Schuster in February 2016.