From Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from the United Kingdom’s Labour Party following his response to a report alleging anti-Semitism in the party to Instagram graphics alleging that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is anti-Semitic, discussions about anti-Semitism on the left have become increasingly prominent in recent years. The topic is the subject of news articles, books and discussions in both leftist and Jewish communities.
As a progressive Jew, it’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit: Is there a widespread problem with anti-Semitism on the left? The short answer to my question is that anti-Semitism is a problem everywhere. Anti-Semitism refers to hostile beliefs about or behaviors towards Jews solely because they are Jewish, and it is deeply ingrained in American society. For centuries, Jews have been discriminated against, villainized and killed simply for being Jewish.
Since anti-Semitism is so prevalent, it does occur among leftists and progressives. Many anti-Semitic tropes allege that Jews are secretly in charge of institutions from the United States government to Hollywood film studios. Stereotypes about Jews and money have existed since the Middle Ages. On the left, criticism of capitalism can get eerily close to anti-Semitic rhetoric; in many progressives’ minds, there is a group of people who have control over American society, media and institutions, but it’s the capitalist class rather than the Jewish people. Progressives should educate themselves on anti-Semitism and its history to make a clear distinction between their beliefs and bigotry.
Another place anti-Semitism can occur on the left is in the context of dicussion about Israel; believing that Jews have some sort of dual loyalty to Israel is an old stereotype, and in assuming a Jew’s support for Israel, progressives only play into that trope.
As a Jew, I have seen and experienced that assumption firsthand. When talking about Judaism online, some non-Jewish liberals’ immediate reaction is to ask about Israel or to assume we support it and say “Free Palestine!” even if Israel was never mentioned.
In some cases, criticism of Israel can amplify anti-Semitic tropes. Representative Ilhan Omar was accused of anti-Semitism after tweeting statements regarding Israel. Her tweets implied that U.S. support for Israel is heavily influenced by money, specifically from AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group.
Critics claim that her tweets stoked anti-Semitic rhetoric regarding Jews and their influence on politics. Even though Omar was speaking about Israel and not Jews, her comments still were percieved as anti-Semitic by many Jews, and could have easily been rephrased to not draw criticism. Criticisms of Israel and of organizations like AIPAC are not inherently anti-Semitic, but can easily echo anti-Semitic rhetoric, and progressives should make sure their criticisms don’t rely on anti-Semitic tropes.
Even though anti-Semitism plagues nearly all communities and political groups, the anti-Semitism that comes from right-wing political figures poses significantly more of a threat to Jews than what occurs on the left. Right wing anti-Semitism manifests itself in violent ways, like the terrorist attacks like the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, or the Jan. 6 insurrection when rioters wearing “Camp Auschwitz” shirts whom President Trump called “very special” entered the Capitol.
Allegations that Jews are a threat to the very fabric of society—claims which many right-wing conspiracies are based on—are the type of anti-Semitism that directly harms Jews far more than the anti-Semitism that comes from the left. Junior Maya Stutman-Shaw, a co-head of the Jewish Student Coalition, told me, “I think a lot of hateful ideas, they exist on both sides of the spectrum. I definitely think that one side of the political spectrum on this issue is a lot more dangerous to the Jewish community than the other.”
There is still work that needs to be done among progressives to be better allies to Jews. Taking accusations of anti-Semitism seriously is vital in addressing the problem. Progressives should make sure Jews, the majority of whom are liberals, feel welcome on the left and feel as though their concerns about anti-Semitism are being heard.
For many Jews, liberal politics and religion are intertwined. Stutman-Shaw said, “The way that I practice my Judaism and the way that I see politics align in a way and lift each other up.” Progressives should educate themselves on anti-Semitism and its prevelance if they want to fight against injustice and inequality. Any fight against oppression is not complete without a fight against anti-Semitism.