The political right has for some time been using charges of anti-Semitism to slander, target and delegitimize left-wing politicians and voters. Support for Palestinian rights, or opposition to any part of maximalist right-wing Israeli government policy can and has been painted as being equivalent to hatred of Jewish people.
Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar and U.K. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are arguably the most high-profile lawmakers to be accused of anti-Semitism. And to be fair, both Omar and Corbyn have said problematic things about Jewish people, and both have apologized for doing so. But these attacks, especially against Omar, have rarely been a good faith corrective. President Donald Trump — who earlier in December implied Jews would vote for him because they are greedy and love money — has personally and shamelessly used Omar’s mistakes to justify brazen Islamophobia.
Emboldened by its success weaponizing charges of anti-Semitism, the right appears to be contemplating using this tactic against an unlikely target.
Emboldened by its success weaponizing such charges of anti-Semitism, the right appears to be contemplating using this tactic against an unlikely target — Jewish progressive senator and Democratic presidential primary contestant Bernie Sanders. These attacks both perpetuate bigoted tropes and make it harder to root out real anti-Semitism on the left.
Conservative Jewish writer Noah Rothman (Editor’s note: Rothman is a THINK contributor) urged campaign reporters to press Sanders on his tolerance for Omar and supposed support for "anti-Semitic indulgences." The right-wing Federalist website targeted Sanders on the basis that one of his campaign surrogates has been accused of anti-Semitism — though of course the Federalist has also gone out of its way to defend Trump surrogates accused of anti-Semitism. And in the Washington Examiner, Tiana Lowe claimed Sanders' campaign was "the most anti-Semitic in decades." (Lowe is not Jewish, and online she has boasted about her Balkan Chetnik grandfather. The Chetniks collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.)
The smears against Sanders are especially frustrating because they are themselves often based in anti-Semitic assumptions and reinforce anti-Semitic tropes. For example, Lowe's article qualifies Sanders' Judaism, saying that he is merely "ethnically Jewish." This is a way to imply Jewish people who aren't religious are not quite authentically Jewish.
This ties into general anti-Semitic stereotypes that paint Jewish people as fake or inauthentic. It's the same idea behind the old Stalinist slur that Jews in the diaspora are "rootless cosmopolitans" without any connection to true folk traditions or nationality. In America, conservatives are using it to try to delegitimize Jewish Democrats, who are supposedly "disloyal to Israel," as Trump claimed. To Trump, Jews are not really real Americans, because they have their true ethno-nationalist home in Israel. Since Trump believes only the Republican party speaks for Israel, only a disloyal Jew would support Democrats.
Targeting Sanders also plays on the anti-Semitic trope that Jewish people provoke the abuse the get, and therefore deserve it. At its crudest, this was expressed through the Nazi contention that Jewish people are evil and conniving. According to Hitler, anti-Semitism was a visceral reaction to the "systematic and pernicious effect of the Jews as a totality upon our nation." If Jews are themselves the problem, then Trump — whose embrace of the far right is what most Jews reasonably blame for the rise of anti-Semitism in the U.S. — is off the hook.
Finally, the attacks on Sanders by the right are part of a long right-wing tradition of demonizing Jewish people by linking them to leftists, and vice versa. Hitler essentially saw no distinction between Jews and Communists, since he thought Communism was a Jewish conspiracy. Jews and Communists were conflated during the McCarthy era too; in 1948 reportedly 21 percent of Americans thought most Jews were Communists, according to an American Jewish Committee survey.
Some Jews on the right welcome the chance to distance themselves from the left and those stereotypes, too. In this way, scapegoating leftist Jews functions as a kind of respectability politics for Jews on the right.
Ultimately, though, most of the people accusing Sanders of anti-Semitism aren’t doing so out of concern for the Jewish people. Instead, it's a way for Trump and many Republicans to appeal to right-wing Christian evangelicals, an astonishing number of whom support Israel in part because of end-times prophecies.
Most of the people accusing Sanders of anti-Semitism aren’t doing so out of concern for the Jewish people.
The centrality of evangelicals to U.S.-Israel policy is illustrated by the fact that Pastor Robert Jeffress, one of Trump's faith advisors, gave the benediction at a White House ceremony celebrating the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. Jeffress has encouraged his followers to tell Jews that they will go to hell if they don't convert. Jeffress is therefore an open anti-Semite. Yet he and those like him would like us to redefine anti-Semitism as disloyalty to Israel.
The right has convinced itself that American Jewish policy should be directed for, and by, Christian evangelicals. About 70 percent of American Jews disapprove of Trump's job performance, but the right doesn't care about them. Instead, they smear Bernie Sanders as a way of telling their Christian supporters that most Jews have betrayed themselves by failing to support Republicans.
Anti-Semitism exists on the left, as it does everywhere. People on the left sometimes use anti-Semitic tropes when they are criticizing capitalism, or when they are criticizing Israel policy, or in other discussions.
Ideally, Jews on the left would be able to speak up against anti-Semitism when it occurs, and be supported by their peers. But it is very difficult to combat anti-Semitism in leftist communities when the right is pushing bad faith accusations. Leftist Jews who do speak up are pilloried as reactionary and — in line with the old anti-Semitic slur — disloyal. Thus conservative accusations of anti-Semitism, under cover of protecting Jewish people, actually make it harder to fight anti-Semitism, while also making it harder to be Jewish on the left and in America.
Anti-Semitism in the U.S. has gotten worse during the Trump presidency, and the attacks on Sanders are a perfect example of how and why. The right still says it cares about Jewish people but using anti-Semitic tropes to attack the nation's leading Jewish politicians isn't going to help most Jewish people. It is going to make their lives worse.