Commemorating Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — in New York always felt vaguely foreign, even un-American, to me. Heavily-accented, emotionally-scarred Europeans would describe the dark days in that dark continent, forgetting that we were different. We American Jews lived in the land of light, the center of the New World — the Free World.
The Nazi evil happened over there, in that swamp of hyper-nationalist poisons that produced two world wars — then unfairly blamed the chaos on the Jews. As a second-generation American Jewish kid, I instinctively identified with the victors not the victims, the super-powered GI Joes magnanimously distributing cigarettes and chocolate, not the broken, emaciated concentration camp Jews desperately grabbing the goodies.
How lucky we were to feel that — and how fleeting that feeling was. This Yom HaShoah, I am thinking about how many of my fellow Americans have spent the last few years Europeanizing America, making the land of the free and the home of the brave look like the land of the fanatic and the home of the bully, where the left and right can agree on little — except that the Jews are somehow at fault and inherently flawed.
One of this moment’s greatest Jewish tragedies is that while our enemies put their differences aside to target us, most Jews can’t put our differences aside to defend ourselves.
In a sick way, hating Nazis on Yom HaShoah is easy. The Holocaust was Jew-hatred at its crudest: it was blatant and bloody. Condemning this genocidal expression of fascism — and all its Neo-Nazi heirs today — keeps most American Jews in their comfort zone. Liberals’ generalized hatred of the right reinforces their self-defensive hatred of right-wing antisemitism.
But, especially this Yom HaShoah, we must fight antisemitism in all its despicable forms, when it stampedes from the right and oozes from the left, when full-time bigots target Jews and when some victims of bigotry act bigoted themselves; when Jew-hatred is delivered with easily-recognizable jackboots, swastikas, and curses — and when it comes masked ever-so-subtly with woke phrases, Social Justice talk, and left-wing guilt trips.
The brutal Jew-hatred of the street takes two words to refute: Never Again. But the insidious Jew-hatred of the salon, the seminar room,and self-righteous social media, first must be outed to be fully routed.
This response takes paragraphs, not slogans, and genuine effort, especially when this Jew-hatred festers among those progressives and anti-racists whom most American Jews want to befriend — and fear offending.
Further complicating matters is that it’s a subtle yet devastating Jew-hatred legitimized by many American Jews’ daily Bible — The New York Times — and cultivated in the institutions American Jews worship and fear most — America’s leading universities.
For decades now, we have been warning about the New Antisemitism — which some, like the heroic Judea Pearl, also call Zionophobia. That’s the regressive progressive Jew-hatred, singling out Israel as the Jew of the world. It essentializes Israel’s complex, heart-rendering, sometimes mistaken, policies toward Palestinians, judging Israel by this one issue.
That disproportionate demonization deems Zionism as racism, characterizes Israel’s settlements in some of the Biblical homeland’s most historic pockets as colonialist, and treats little Israel as somehow imperialist. This obsessive finger-pointing toward Israel has romanticized Palestinian nationalism and given Palestinians a free pass, excusing Palestinian terrorism, dictatorship, corruption.
In this modern Passion Play on an endless loop, Israel’s very founding is evil, Israel’s acts of self-defense are unjust attacks on innocent, Jesus-like, forever-blameless, Palestinians — and possibly controversial but life-affirming acts, like building homes and communities, become equated with unabashedly evil acts like stabbing and bombing civilians.
You can disassemble settlements, but you cannot restore lives and limbs.
Today, the New Antisemitism festers, especially on campus, joined by the “New New Antisemitism.”
Admittedly, at the core of Social Justice wokeness is anti-Americanism; Zionophobia and Judeaphobia are side effects. Jews are now targeted as the ultimate-Americans, white, rich, and privileged — thus inherently guilty of oppressing blacks, women, LGBTQs, Latinx, any other protected minority — and Palestinians too.
(If you doubt just how sloppy and sweeping this demonization can be, read how the Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour called Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi a “typical white feminist upholding the patriarchy ” when Pelosi confronted Ilhan Omar’s antisemitism in 2019).
Beware — because the Jewish defense often reinforces the critique. “Well,” we huff, “most Jews aren’t white or rich.” True enough. But when did whiteness or wealth become crimes or even categories that determined how people think? How do you fight racism with racial stereotyping? How can a movement that calls itself anti-racist tolerate bigots?
It’s particularly complicated, and volatile, because while right-wing antisemitism plays to people’s worst impulses — to squelch others, especially the weak — the left’s New Antisemitism and New New Antisemitism seems to play to people’s loveliest impulses — to help others, especially the weak. But both, ultimately, are powerplays with zero-tolerance for skeptics.
Moreover, many of the attacks on Jews start with some truth — before being pushed to their illogical extreme. True, traumas minorities endure do overlap and intersect, but why are Jews blocked at the intersection, with Jewish suffering minimized, ignored, discounted?
True, in a still-racist America, whites enjoy certain advantages, but so do Christians, wealthy blacks, all kinds of people. Reducing everything to matters of race and privilege is racist and undermines the humanizing subtleties that healthy multi-cultural societies need.
And true, Israel and the Jewish community desperately need a healthier conversation about how to handle the Palestinian situation, but the Bash-Israel-Firsters’ one-sidedness and demonization inhibits many patriots from criticizing Israel at all because they know this criticism will be wrenched out of context and used against them and the Jewish state.
Many Jews prospered in America thanks to America’s openness, orientation toward merit, and constant progress away from discrimination. Most successful American Jews succeeded because of what we did and thought, not who we were and were related to.
Those very skills that made American Jewry one of Jewish history’s great success stories — from ambition to precision, from intellectual depth to entrepreneurial creativity — are now being dismissed as somehow “white.”
That absurd characterization, combined with a narrative claiming that things in America are getting worse not better, and that white supremacy today poisons every white person’s heart — not just the KKKers and Neo-Nazis — assails the values, breakthroughs, and quintessentially American tools that have benefited all Americans.
Why go backwards to the Old World’s old ways, rather than truly progressing by perfecting the New World’s new ways? In swallowing this propaganda and spreading it, young intellectual Jews are complicit in stunning acts of spiritual and ideological self-destruction that threaten America’s entire democratic experiment, not just American Jewry.
Part of Holocaust education should be understanding more about those GI Joes who liberated the camps and won the war, how the Jews among them learned to feel like Americans, and how all Americans started learning how to accept one another better. This means that we don’t just ask what’s wrong with America but what’s right with America; we don’t just complain about not going far enough, but learn how we were able to come this far.
So beware: if Yom HaShoah becomes so universalized to become about the oppression of all minorities — which usually overlooks and minimizes Jews as a minority — wake up from wokeness. And beware: if Yom HaShoah becomes so polarized that right-wingers only mourn the New and New-New Antisemitism while left-wingers only mourn white supremacy — start crossing wires to transcend partisanship.
Remember the sweeping contradictions that have always characterized Jew-hatred, that most plastic of hatreds: flexible, adaptable, artificial, and lethal. Historically, Jews were too assimilated and too clannish, too capitalist and too Marxist. Today, Jews are not-white enough for the white supremacists who cherish whiteness, and far too white for the anti-racists who abhor whiteness. Jews are also too visible when bigots target us as all-powerful, and all too invisible when we complain about being targeted.
This Yom HaShoah’s counter-cultural lesson should emphasize that over-generalizing breeds hatred; it comes from defining people only by the color of their skin, the nature of their ethnic affiliation, their class, their creed, their gender, or their sexuality, not the content of their individual characters.
This Holocaust began with the European tendency to judge people by who their people were, not who they are. How dare we replicate that sin? We should be Americanizing Europe — and the rest of the world — not Europeanizing America.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.