Anti-Semitic attacks leave the left wrestling with climate of hate argument they've loved in the past (Update)

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

As recently as a few months ago it was common to see opinion pieces blaming the rash of hate crimes against Asian Americans on President Trump and rhetoric about the “Chinese virus.” Now, just a few months later, we have a spike in anti-Semitic attacks and the left is suddenly struggling to make the same kind of generalizations about who is responsible. The climate of hate argument only seems to operate in one direction.

Yesterday, PBS News Hour interviewed Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League about the rise in anti-Semitic violence. To his credit, Greenblatt said that what has been happening over the past month is unlike anything he’s seen in recent years. The brazenness of the attacks in broad daylight is similar to the situation in parts of Europe and not what we’re used to seeing here in America. But when the interviewer pointed out that Greenblatt hadn’t been shy in the past about pointing to particular politicians and blaming them for language that fomented violence, Greenblatt seemed to tap-dance in his answer.

William Brangham: So, what do you attribute this to?

I remember, back during the Trump administration, you were quick to point out instances where you thought — political language that fomented anti-Semitism. Do you do you see political leaders now who are exacerbating this?

Jonathan Greenblatt: Well, let’s be clear. None of the people committing these crimes wearing MAGA hats, right?

The reality is, is, I do believe that political language can have real world consequences. But this is very different kind of political language. So, yes, we called out the prior president and his kind of acolytes, the extremists from marching in Charlottesville to marauding through Capitol Hill.

But, in this case, we have people waving Palestinian flags and then beating Jewish people. And, in this case, you know what I might really draw a parallel to is the hate crimes committed against Asian Americans, where unhinged, fictionalized conspiracies about China first spouted by political leaders led to real-world consequences, as Asian Americans were attacked on the streets.

Well, today, we have unhinged, fictionalized conspiracies about Israel, that somehow the Jewish state is systematically slaughtering children or committing genocide. And then that leads to real-world attacks on Jewish people in the streets of America, on our campuses, in our communities.

So, although, again, the political tenor may be different, the real outcome is the same. And that’s why we think people, regardless of where you are on the spectrum, need to speak out clearly and firmly and forcefully and say, in an unambiguous way, that anti-Semitism is unacceptable, because, again, this isn’t activism. It’s hate, and it should be called out as such.

If you had to diagram that answer it would be a series of awkward admissions, none of which ever results in an answer. First he tells us who is not responsible: Trump supporters. Then he tells us he still believes political language has consequences, setting up the possibility that he’s going to name names. Next he says this is similar to anti-Asian attacks spawned by “conspiracies about China.” He’s talking about Trump again because the ADL specifically linked those attacks to Trump’s language. Then he says there are similar conspiracies being spread about Israel and that the “real outcome is the same,” i.e. more attacks on the street.

But notice that he never points the finger at anyone in particular. Who is spreading these conspiracies? What group or individual? He won’t say even though that was the whole point of the question.

Over at the NY Times, Michelle Goldberg has a piece which also looks at the “crisis” of anti-Semitic violence and which also relies on Jonathan Greenblatt. Goldberg tries to deal with the same climate of hate argument in a somewhat convoluted way:

Not surprisingly, there’s been a rush to blame left-wing Democrats like Ilhan Omar, who described Israeli airstrikes killing civilians in Gaza as “terrorism,” for inciting anti-Jewish hostility. “If you blamed violent attacks against Asian-Americans on Trump calling Covid the ‘Chinese virus,’ but you can’t see how congresswomen accusing Israel of terrorism might result in Jews being attacked by pro-Palestinian mobs, you either can’t think or you have a problem with Jews,” Batya Ungar-Sargon, deputy opinion editor at Newsweek, tweeted last week.

But by this logic, those of us concerned about hate crimes against Asian-Americans shouldn’t denounce China’s genocide of the Uighurs.

So Goldberg admits some people are blaming Ilhan Omar and others for their rhetoric but her comeback is that if we refuse to criticize Israel (including calling them terrorists) then we’d have to also ignore China’s treatment of Uighurs so as not to inflame attacks against Asian Americans.

Say what now?

If Goldberg wants to argue that all climate of hate arguments are silly and should be avoided, that’s fine with me. But her whole piece is an interaction with Jonathan Greenblatt who is mentioned 5 times in 13 paragraphs. Greenblatt has explicitly and publicly made these arguments in the past. So why doesn’t she take it up with him? Why not actually press him to answer this rather significant question about when we get to blame politicians’ rhetoric for violence in the streets and when we don’t get to make that leap. That would be a much more interesting column. Instead, she just dismisses the idea that anyone’s criticism of a nation can be held responsible for violence. Frankly, I’d just like to know if she believes that applies to former President Trump’s criticisms of China or is it only left-wing criticism that gets a pass?

I’ll close with this succinct review of Goldberg’s piece.

Update: They changed the headline of her piece.

A good point…