If You Only Denounce anti-Semitism When Politically Convenient, You're Part of the Problem | Opinion

Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the 'alt-right' march down East Market Street toward Emancipation Park during the United the Right rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

"Stop denouncing anti-Semitism!" This may seem an incongruous thing to say, particularly for those of us who have long asked elected officials to speak out and denounce bias and violence against Jews. In the wake of recent rhetoric, however, this suggestion is entirely appropriate. Sometimes such denunciations are actually detrimental to the fight against anti-Semitism.

When politicians find their voice only in contesting anti-Semitism from political opponents, they probably don't care about it. What they care about is using this ancient hatred for narrow, partisan purposes. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Anti-Semitism is on the rise, to be sure. The evidence is everywhere, whether one measures in survey research data, hate crime data, press reports, or the number of murdered Jews. The plain fact is that anti-Semitism is rising on both the right and the left, and each extreme is borrowing and repurposing antisemitic tropes from the other side. No matter which ideological home you inhabit, there is a surplus of anti-Semitism to eradicate within.

Until very recently, fighting anti-Semitism was one of the few issues upon which Democrats and Republicans could easily agree. This bipartisanship has been critical to American success in countering Jew hatred around the world. For example, the House of Representatives' Bipartisan Task Force for Combatting Anti-Semitism has helped stem antisemitic displays in countries with far-right governments, like Hungary. Similarly, if we're to confront anti-Semitism on the left—for example, among some of Jeremy Corbyn's supporters in Britain—we will need progressive Democrats to join with Republican voices.

Moreover, the politicization of anti-Semitism creates a "boy who cried wolf" problem. You can only use the issue as a cudgel against your political opponents so many times before people begin to discount the validity of any charge of anti-Semitism. Such an outcome is in no one's benefit, save actual bigots and extremists.

So, how can we distinguish between those genuinely dedicated to countering Jew hatred from those simply caught up in partisan warfare?

First, beware not only the ideologically selective decrying of anti-Semitism, but also public figures who charge their partisan opponents with anti-Semitism while pushing antisemitic tropes of their own. Hard to believe our elected officials could be that cynical? Well, how about those who recently called out Representative Ilhan Omar for her pronouncement that implied that Jewish money skews America's policy toward Israel, after they themselves had charged a list of billionaires—all of Jewish extraction—with trying to buy recent elections?

Second, be wary of commentators, mainly on the left, who tell us that the only real threat of anti-Semitism emanates from the political right. Be equally wary if these individuals admit that someone like Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan makes antisemitic statements but contend that they're harmless because he has no power. We can argue over whether a demagogue like Farrakhan has power, but we can never equivocate over condemning vicious, antisemitic speech.
Third, be suspicious of any politician who, when confronted with a clear instance of anti-Semitism from a political ally, tries to turn the conversation to the misdeeds of a political opponent. Such "whataboutism" isn't really about fighting anti-Jewish bigotry; it's about fighting partisan battles.

Fourth, turn a critical eye to leaders in Congress who add amendments condemning anti-Semitism to unrelated legislation in order to create tough political votes for those across the aisle. These tactics aren't just irrelevant to fighting anti-Semitism; they actually undercut such work.

Finally, think twice when an elected official makes an over-the-top charge like, the Democratic party becoming an "anti-Jewish" party. Both of America's main political parties are institutions composed of broad coalitions and a range of viewpoints. Neither, thankfully, is "anti-Jewish." Such demagoguery adds nothing to useful discourse.

Those who are guilty of the above sins are not fighting anti-Semitism. In reality, they are helping the anti-Semites, even if unwittingly.

I have no doubt that most Americans, of all political stripes, would agree that fighting one of the world's oldest forms of hatred is more important than raising campaign dollars or winning an election. It's time for all of our elected officials to act accordingly.

The stakes couldn't be higher. Success or failure in tamping down anti-Semitism will determine the fate of not only Jewish communities. The tragedies of the last century show us that anti-Semitism is an early warning signal. Where this ancient prejudice prevails, calamity follows. Jews suffer, but so too do other minorities. And ultimately this poisonous hatred destroys the fabric of democratic societies.

The metastasizing of anti-Semitism is becoming one of the most salient human rights issues of our time. Go ahead, denounce it. But make sure you prioritize calling it out on your side of the aisle, or in your ideological camp.

Ira Forman is Senior Advisor for Combatting Anti-Semitism at Human Rights First. He previously served as the U.S. State Department's Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​​