Modern Political Antisemitism
Blatant antisemitism has been a rhetorical component of the far right and the far left, but it has also bled into the mainstream political language of the left and right as the U.S. political sphere has become increasingly polarized. With that division, classic antisemitic tropes have seeped into the political conversation, both targeting Jews directly and in attacking political opponents who happen to be Jewish. Conversely, antisemitism has become a political football as the left and the right accuse each other of being more antisemitic and thus the larger danger—all while ignoring the antisemitism within their own political circles.
Some of this political antisemitism has been overt. Ahead of the U.S. midterm elections in November 2018, for example, several Republicans across the country released images painting their Jewish political opponents clutching money, playing on the stereotype of greedy Jews. During a December 2015 address to the Republican Jewish Coalition, U.S. President Donald Trump seemed to reference supposed Jewish political and financial power:
You’re not gonna support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians, that’s fine. Five months ago I was with you. I do want your support, but I don’t want your money.
Some on the far right have viewed Trump’s comments as a validation of their own antisemitic positions. Others on the far right have viewed Trump as subservient to Jews. Robert Bowers, who murdered 11 in his 2018 attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, castigated Trump for not sufficiently calling out Jewish power. Indeed, Trump’s Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his daughter Ivanka, a convert to Judaism, have been the target of antisemitic attacks. Kushner found himself targeted by a group of far-right individuals who developed an online script that placed the names of prominent Jews in parentheses to signal that they were Jewish.
Jews have long been subjected to the accusation that they are disloyal to the nations in which they reside. Napoleon Bonaparte demanded Jews declare loyalty to France before they could gain political rights. In 1896, a group of Jewish Civil War veterans formed the Hebrew Union Veterans, which eventually became known as the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. (JWV). The JWV’s mission statement includes fostering love of America, maintaining “true allegiance” to the United States, instilling “love of country and flag,” and fighting against bigotry. Groups like the JWV were necessitated by the continuation of the disloyalty charge. While that charge led to historic tragedies such as the Dreyfus Affair in France at the turn of the nineteenth century, it has become a political weapon of both the left and right in modern politics.
U.S. Jews have been subjected to two strands of dual loyalty claims: The accusation of loyalty to the global Jewish community; and the relatively newer accusation of loyalty to the State of Israel. In an effort to circumvent the latter, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared in 1950 that the “Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have only one political attachment and that is to the United States of America. They owe no political allegiance to Israel.” Nonetheless, Jews in the United States—like the majority of the general U.S. public—overwhelmingly support the State of Israel. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. As such, it has become a symbol—rightly or wrongly—of Jewish influence over the U.S. government. As AIPAC’s raison d’être is the promotion of U.S. ties with the Jewish nation-state, its critics often accuse it of putting foreign interests above U.S. interests and accuse AIPAC’s supporters of dual loyalties.
During national discussions in 2015 on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Actions, the so-called Iran deal negotiated by President Barack Obama, world powers, and Iran to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring nuclear weapons, voices from both sides of the political aisle accused Obama of inciting antisemitism through comments about AIPAC and the power of the Jewish lobby, as well as his alleged dismissal of antisemitism in the Iranian government. In a May 2015 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, Obama attempted to portray the Iranian regime as a rational actor whose desire to remain in power outweighed its animosity toward Jews: “Well the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival.” Tony Badran of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies accused Obama of attempting to excuse Iranian antisemitism and “whitewash” the regime in order to promote the nuclear deal.
AIPAC at the time was one of the leading opponents of the Iran deal and was actively campaigning against it. Obama further enflamed the U.S. Jewish community as he was promoting the Iran deal during the summer of 2015. During an appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart that July, Obama called out “lobbyists” and “money” the deal’s opponents were corralling. After the deal was signed that month, Obama challenged his critics in Congress to evaluate the agreement “not based on lobbying, but based on what’s in the national interests of the United States of America.” Later that summer, Obama accused opponents of the deal of seeking to lead the United States to war as they did with Iraq in 2003. Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks accused Obama of “demonizing Americans who are rightly skeptical of his dubious deal with the Tehran regime.” Obama’s comments raised concerns across the U.S. Jewish community that Obama was specifically blaming the Jewish community for pushing the United States toward war out of a greater loyalty to Israel. Former ADL League director Abraham Foxman said that while he did not believe Obama was deliberately promoting tropes of Jewish political influence, the president’s comments could end up “fueling and legitimizing anti-Semitic stereotypes out there that Jews are warmongers.”
In both the leadup to the Iran deal and to the 2003 Iraq war, some viewed the so-called Jewish lobby as either directly influencing or attempting to influence U.S. policy to war to promote the interests of Israel—a clear representation of the dual loyalty accusation. In both cases, accusations emerged that the organized U.S. Jewish community was promoting the interests of Israel over the interests of the United States. In 2013, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman directly accused pro-Israel lobbyists and U.S. lawmakers of putting the interests of AIPAC and Jewish campaign donations above that of the country. He wrote he had never seen more lawmakers on either side of the aisle “more willing to take Israel’s side against their own president’s,” and he was “certain this comes less from any careful consideration of the facts and more from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations.” Former Atlantic writer and editor Matthew Yglesias noted in 2007 that AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Saban Center, and Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) “advocated strongly in favor of invasion.” Yglesias added that he did not mean to imply “the Jews caused the war,” but said it was “still true” these pro-Israel organizations played a role.
These accusations merited outcry, but were ultimately forgotten by the zeitgeist. Nevertheless, they set a tone that has allowed other politicians to continue to promote charges of undue Jewish political power and the divided loyalty of the American Jewish community. Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has elicited widespread condemnation for a series of statements and tweets alleging dual loyalty and Jewish financial influence over the U.S. government. During a February 2019 progressive town hall, Omar took issue with what she called the “political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” In a since-deleted tweet that month, Omar declared that U.S. support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins.” In response to a Twitter comment asking who was paying for that support, she responded, “AIPAC.” The House’s Democratic leadership condemned Omar’s “use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters” as “deeply offensive.” Omar apologized for the comments after receiving backlash but at the same time again called out AIPAC, among other lobby groups. The following month, Omar tweeted a suggestion that Jewish Representative Nita Lowy and other members of Congress maintained allegiance to a foreign power, i.e., Israel.
The dual loyalty question has not manifested itself solely in U.S. politics. In October 2019, U.K. Labour Party lawmaker Louise Ellman resigned from the party she had belonged to for 55 years, alleging that far-left activists within the party had accused her of dual loyalty to Israel. She told the Telegraph that since she joined parliament in 1997, a new far-left contingent of lawmakers had joined the Labour Party and “endorsed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and came from revolutionary Communist groups.”
According to Ellman, far-left antisemitism has risen in the Labour Party under the leadership of M.P. Jeremy Corbyn, who himself has been accused of forming relationships with terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, which he described as “friends” during a 2009 parliamentary meeting. Corbyn later said he regretted the classification, describing it as “inclusive language I used which with hindsight I would rather not have used.” In 2014, Corbyn attended a wreath-laying ceremony in Tunisia that honored members of Black September, the Palestinian terrorist group that orchestrated the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. A Labour statement said he was attending a ceremony honoring those killed in a 1985 Israeli airstrike on Palestine Liberation Organization offices in Tunis, but Corbyn later told the Guardian that there was also a commemoration for Black September members allegedly killed by the Mossad in 1992 in retaliation for Munich. Corbyn assumed the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015. Corbyn again sparked controversy in June 2016 when he made a comparison between ISIS and Israel:
Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organisations.
Other members of Labour—including former London Mayor Ken Livingstone and parliamentarians Naz Shah and Chris Williamson—have also faced accusations of antisemitism for various comments and been suspended from the party as a result. Corbyn issued apologies in 2018 for a 2010 event he attended during which a Holocaust survivor compared Israel to Nazis and for sending a supportive message in 2012 to the creator of a mural that depicted a cabal controlling the world order and employed historic antisemitic tropes. Several Labour Party members resigned in early 2019 in protest over Corbyn’s handling of Brexit and antisemitism within the party. In April 2018, the Jewish Labour Movement passed a no-confidence motion against Corbyn. A September 2018 poll found that 85 percent of British Jews believed Corbyn to be antisemitic, while 85.6 percent believed the Labour Party to be antisemitic. By comparison, a poll of the general public found that 39 percent believed Corbyn to be antisemitic.
After Corbyn’s Labour Party had its worst showing since 1935 in the U.K.’s December 2019 parliamentary elections, Labour loyalists and Corbyn allies alleged that foreign agents—i.e., supporters of Israel—had mobilized against Labour to sway the vote. Accusations ranged from indirectly blaming foreign powers to specifically saying Likud—the right-wing political party of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—had orchestrated the defeat. Others alleged that Jews had used claims of antisemitism to manipulate the election.
Accusations that Jews wield disproportional political power and influence continue to resurface. In Britain, the left blamed Jews for Labour’s defeat. In the U.S., the right accuses wealthy and influential Jews such as George Soros of masterminding a leftist revolution. The proliferation of antisemitic stereotypes in political conversations—such as Jewish wealth or political influence—in political contexts succeeds in sowing division among political opponents.
The propagation of antisemitism in politics can be partially attributed to increased polarization. The Pew Research Center found in 2016 and 2017 surveys that the American public had become increasingly entrenched in ideological and partisan positions since the 1990s. One result of this polarization is an increased willingness to demonize the opposing side. Classic antisemitic tropes were designed to sow discord and mistrust, so it may not be surprising they would surface in a political environment. As with the modern European legislation targeting Jewish practices, Jews as a group may not be the primary target but they are caught in the backlash. Political propaganda utilizing these antisemitic tropes tends to inspire violence. In October 2018, for instance, authorities discovered a pipe bomb at Soros’s home.
The United States and the other member nations of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) adopted the organization’s definition of antisemitism in 2016, though it is legally non-binding and there have been calls for Congress to make it into law. The IHRA specifies accusing Jewish citizens of “being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations” is a form of antisemitism.
Jews are not alone in facing accusations of dual loyalty. As a presidential candidate in 1960, John F. Kennedy faced charges that as a Catholic he would be more loyal to the pope and the Vatican than to the U.S. Constitution. American Muslims have also been subjected to accusations that they are loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood or other extremist groups. For American Jews who have long struggled for equality—in the United States and elsewhere—the accusation is particularly damning. The charge declares that one can be Jewish or American but not both. It is an attack on the very identity of American Jews that robs them of the ability to define themselves.
The charge becomes even more disturbing when those in political power hurl it, which harkens back to the disastrous recent past. The Nazi regime destroyed the German-Jewish identity by forcing its own definition of who is a Jew upon the country’s Jews. Secular Jews who completely assimilated into German culture in the early twentieth century—to the point of serving in the German army in World War I—found themselves on the same transports to the concentration camps as their more observant coreligionists. That memory is still fresh for many in the Jewish community who understandably become nervous when politicians begin to toss around the dual loyalty charge.