Anti-Semitism is at once a unique cultural phenomenon and part of a much broader social disorder. It is unique in its persistence over the centuries, in its universality — the virus erupts in diverse societies under diverse conditions — and in its virulence. But it is also intricately connected to a host of other forms of bigotry; an environment that nurtures racism and xenophobia inevitably feeds anti-Semitism as well.
A nervous American Jewish community, with memories of the Holocaust still part of our emotional DNA and the shock of the Pittsburgh murders fresh in our minds, rightly demands that the charge of anti-Semitism carry special weight. But that special weight diminishes every time accusations become part of the bitter partisan mud fights that increasingly define our democratic system.
As we have seen in the case of a Democratic congresswoman who has used anti-Semitic tropes in her criticism of pro-Israel groups, these are agonizingly difficult issues. Calling out Rep. Ilhan Omar’s ugly use of the age-old tropes of dark Jewish control over governments and of dual loyalty is more than legitimate; it is necessary. And it is made even more so by her troubling pattern of making biased comments, being called out, apologizing, and then doing it again. And again. Is she a slow learner, tone deaf or willful in accusing Jews of being disloyal Americans, slavish to Israel?
What is not legitimate, though, is using Omar’s offensive comments and the support she has received from a handful of Democratic progressives to tar the entire Democratic Party as anti-Jewish. President Trump, making political hay out of the situation, asserted the other day that “Democrats have become an anti-Jewish party,” and he is reported to have said that Democrats “hate Jewish people.” This is a blatant attempt to weaponize the issue of anti-Semitism for partisan gain, recalling how Democrats once tarred the Republican Party as steeped in anti-Semitism because of the offensive comments by a top official in the George H.W. Bush administration.
If we want the charge of anti-Semitism to retain its special and powerful meaning, we need to be extraordinarily careful how we use it, and we must reject every effort to exploit its power as a partisan blunt instrument.
In the same way, we need to be judicious when using the label in the intensifying political wars over Israeli policy and the strong U.S.-Israel relationship. We live in an era of scorched-earth politics, with activists across the political spectrum recklessly reaching for the most inflammatory labels for their opponents. Anti-Semitism, the engine behind centuries of oppression and the greatest crime in human history, is the ultimately loaded charge. But its special power and unique meaning are eroded every time we allow it to be used for political gain, or as a weapon in the bitter wars over Israeli policy.