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Opinion: Progressives should never tolerate antisemitism

Opinion By Julian Zelizer, CNN

(CNN) — In the weeks that have followed Hamas’ horrendous massacre of Israelis on October 7, there has been a surge of hatred directed at Jews both in the US and around the world.

At some protests, a few demonstrators carried banners and expressed support for the brutal Hamas regime — a theocratic terrorist organization devoted to the destruction of Jews and Israel. In some instances, protesters have brandished swastikas and spouted anti-Jewish rhetoric.

Vandals have targeted a number of Jewish synagogues and institutions. Several college campuses have been rattled by antisemitic incidents, including at Cornell University, where a 21-year-old junior has been arrested for allegedly posting threats to “shoot up” a building, stab Jewish men and sexually assault Jewish women. A Holocaust survivor living in Beverley Hills found her home covered with graffiti that said “F—k Jews.” Social media is also filled with disturbing videos and images of violence being threatened or simulated against Jews.

Rabbi Rachel Timoner, who heads Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn and is a co-founder of the New York Jewish Agenda, acknowledged the current “climate of hate” and called for “a reckoning” on antisemitism “in all of our coalitions, networks and relationships.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to tap into this vicious undercurrent of hatred. After all, antisemitism is one of the most deeply rooted forms of discrimination and social violence, dating back to Biblical times and culminating in the Holocaust under Nazi Germany.

Antisemitism has a much stronger history within the United States than many Americans remember. In the early 1900s, Henry Ford shared virulent antisemitic propaganda in articles in The Dearborn Independent while Father Charles Coughlin, whose radio show reached massive audiences, regularly peddled hatred toward Jews on the air. The Ku Klux Klan targeted Jews along with Black Americans while antisemitism guided quota systems and outright restrictions at institutions of higher learning and in professional firms.

While many people on the left have been clear-eyed about Hamas following the October 7 attack that killed more than 1,400 people and called out bigotry and hatred in the US, there have been a number of frightening incidents of antisemitism among progressives that have included misguided support for the terrorist organization. Regardless of where people stand on the conflict, antisemitism is unacceptable and progressives should issue a full-throated rejection of it within their own ranks.

Timoner herself is a progressive who has a track record of speaking out against Islamophobia, xenophobia and all forms of hate, while championing civil rights, gender equality, and sexual and reproductive rights. In a recent sermon, she called for progressive organizations to take a strong stand against antisemitism, and to stay true to the principles of social justice and human rights that are at the heart of the movement.   

The Rabbi also hammered home the point that “Hamas are not the good guys” and that supporting a repressive Iranian regime and its proxies — which includes Hamas — is “not a left or progressive cause.”

Of course, there can be legitimate and important debates over foreign policy in the Middle East, which includes progressive critiques of the policies undertaken by the Israeli government. In her own sermon, Rabbi Timoner offered strong criticism of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his policies and his allies. She calls the Israeli occupation and displacement of Palestinians “shameful” and deserving of “full atonement.”

She supports allowing humanitarian assistance to the civilians of Gaza and agrees that the Israeli military must do everything possible to limit non-combatant casualties and save the hostages. She calls for a post-war plan that includes Israeli support for rebuilding Gaza and insisting on the creation of two states.

Timoner’s comments critiquing the left, however, should not be confused with the political efforts of conservatives who are capitalizing on antisemitic incidents to fuel a broader narrative  — one that they have been promoting for years — about American universities being an incubator for leftist radicalism.

Not only have many of these claims been based on misleading and inflated examples  but the right’s own standing on this issue lacks credibility, given the rise of extremists and nationalist groups on the far-right that have spouted antisemitic rhetoric. In 2017, the nation witnessed far-right groups at the Unite the Right rally shouting “Jews will not replace us,” before the deadly violence broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia, for example. And among those who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, one rioter had on a sweatshirt with “Camp Auschwitz” emblazoned on it.

The rise of conspiracy theories has also propelled antisemitic myths, while high-level Republican officials, including former President Donald Trump, have been accused of trafficking in antisemitic tropes, giving newfound legitimacy to these ideas in mainstream politics.

More recently, CNN’s Jake Tapper slammed Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene after she introduced a censure resolution against Michigan Democrat Rep. Rashida Tlaib over her criticism of Israel. He said, “The degree to which some folks only pretend to care about antisemitism when they can weaponize it never ceases to amaze me … This is the same Marjorie Taylor Greene who has pushed the great replacement theory in videos. The deranged notion that rich Jews are trying to replace White Americans and Westerners with Blacks and brown Muslims.”

Notwithstanding the hypocrisy and cynical moves by the right, progressives must, as Timoner rightly argues, respond to the antisemitism in their midst. A political movement committed to human rights can only preserve its legitimacy by rejecting such reactionary sentiment.

Antisemitism is fundamentally antithetical to the progressive movement. Now is the time for those on the left to be crystal clear that social hatred, discrimination and violence toward Jews will not be tolerated within their own ranks. Should those on the left allow these ideas to fester, they will cause enormous long-term damage to the progressive agenda that so many have fought so hard to promote for decades. As the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

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