Contemporary Antisemitic Controversies

It is one thing to come to an understanding of the conflict over the definition and use of antisemitism in an intellectual debate – with serious political consequences on the ground. It is quite another to comprehend and explicate a very specific case of use and misuse of the term to better grasp the issue. I also suggested that those who used racism to mean any example of structural and systemic inequality may also misuse the term “racism.” However, those who promoted that use were not as sensitive to how that term could be misused. Thus, though only glancing attention was paid to the use and misuse of racism, those who defined antisemitism using the IHRA definition appeared more sensitive to its potential misuse and mischaracterization of legitimate criticism of Israel as antisemitic. At the same time, both terms – antisemitism and racism – continue to be used to demonize one’s enemies rather than to represent accurately discriminatory and degrading events.

Fortunately – or more precisely, unfortunately – we have a concrete opportunity in Georgia for a case study. Early voting has begun in the runoff election for Georgia’s two Senate seats. The results have national significance for they will determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the legislature’s upper house. There are two battles. In one, a Jewish candidate, Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, is facing off against incumbent Senator David Perdue. In the other contest, Republican Kelly Loeffler is pitted against the Democrat Raphael Warnock, a Black senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, a position once held by Martin Luther King Jr. The vote is scheduled for 5 January 2021. I will concentrate primarily on the latter struggle.

Racism, antisemitism and BDS have figured prominently in the election runoff. Warnock has been a prominent leader in the anti-racism fight in Atlanta. He presided over the funeral of the prominent civil rights fighter, John Lewis, in July. He also officiated at 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks’ funeral after he was fatally killed by Atlanta police in June.

Loeffler has not only attacked Warnock for his radicalism. If elected, he would “add yet another voice to the anti-Israel cadre in Congress,” she charged. Perdue has written that, “fighting anti-Semitism in all forms and at all levels” has been his priority. He also claimed that the BDS movement “has served as a catalyst to the rising frequency of attacks against Jews.”

Jon Ossoff, an investigative journalist, has called out the Republicans for their racist and antisemitic attacks. “A US senator who uses ancient anti-Semitic imagery to inflame hatred against his Jewish opponent must be crushed by Jewish voters on Election Day.” Ossoff was referring to an attack ad by Perdue in which he enlarged Ossoff’s nose. The ad was subsequently deleted as a “mistake.” but was unaccompanied by an apology.

Warnock has been accused of:

  • Being a “radical”
  • Criticizing police officers; top Georgia law enforcement officials claim that Warnock (and Ossoff) will push to defund police and hinder officers’ ability to serve.
  • Comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa in a sermon
  • Comparing the Palestinian war on Israel’s existence to the Black Lives Matter movement
  • Denouncing the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem
  • Insisting that Jesus was a Palestinian rather than a Jew
  • Defended Hamas Gazan protesters on its border with Israel as comparable to U.S. civil rights demonstrators
  • Accused IDF soldiers of committing indiscriminate murder.

Georgia Black pastors along with other faith leaders both from Georgia and from other states, not only came to the defence of Warnock, but accused Loeffler of attacking Georgia’s Black Christian churches. In an open letter with over 100 signatures, they condemned Senator Kelly Loeffler’s campaign attacks on Warnock as full of “naked hypocrisy’ and “blatant contradictions” while Loeffler replied that she did “not have a racist bone in my body.” Loeffler responded to the Black pastors by accusing them of supporting “choice,” thus negating the possibility of their being true Baptists.

To complicate matters further, two prominent Orthodox rabbis, Rabbi Ilan Feldman from Atlanta’s Congregation Beth Jacob and Rabbi Avigdor Slatus from Congregation B’nai Brith Jacob in Savannah, criticized Warnock for his attacks on Israel when, in a 2018 sermon, he accused the Israeli military of shooting down “unarmed Palestinian sisters and brothers like birds of prey.” In his defence, Warnock said, “I don’t care who does it, it is wrong. It is wrong to shoot down God’s children like they don’t matter at all. And it’s no more anti-Semitic for me to say that than it is anti-white for me to say that black lives matter. Palestinian lives matter.” He had signed the letter that also compared the IDF military presence in the West Bank to the “military occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa.” The comments, Feldman added, provided “a safe haven for those that do have antisemitic views.”

Warnock repeatedly:

  • insists he is a supporter of Israel
  • supports a two-state solution and that “‘Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontestable”
  • “I am deeply concerned about continued settlement expansion — I believe it is a threat to the prospect of a two-state solution”
  • criticizes Israel, but did not “blast” the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; the criticism came after the embassy move ceremony; Warnock did refer to that week as a tough one
  • rejects BDS for characterizing Israel as an apartheid state
  • in a Sunday 29 March 2015 church sermon, he did warn against Israel possibly becoming an apartheid state, but never called Israel an apartheid state
  • supported Palestinian peaceful demonstration and deplored focusing on some violence to characterize the entire Palestinian protest in Gaza as is done with Black demonstrations in the U.S.
  • referred to Palestinian sisters and brothers and supported their struggle for their human dignity and right to self-determination.

200 rabbis, including more than a dozen from Georgia, signed a letter in support of Warnock. Rabbi Josh Lesser, of Atlanta’s Congregation Bet Haverim, who has known Warnock for more than 15 years, insisted that Warnock was neither antisemitic nor anti-Israel. But had he made the allusions for which he was charged? And did they constitute being anti-Israel and antisemitic?

At the same time, his opponent, Senator Loeffler, had posed for a photo with Chester Doles, a white supremacist member of the Klu Klux Klan and the neo-Nazi National Alliance. Also, she is not only wealthy, but made a lot of money trading stock while in the Senate when she was briefed on COVID-19. After that briefing, she sold $20 million in stock in the weeks building up to the public announcements about the coronavirus pandemic. Loeffler has also refused to answer many questions headed her way that directly asked whether she supported President Trump’s claims that the presidential election had been a fraud.

So how does one adjudicate such back-and-forth name-calling?

First, Warnock is not ant-Israel let alone antisemitic. He is a supporter of Israel but also a critic who is opposed to creeping annexation. He supports Palestinian self-determination. He is critical of Israeli military forces for using disproportionate force to stop the Gaza protesters. He does clearly see a link between Black protesters and Palestinian ones, but also opposes calling Israel an apartheid state and is a critic of BDS. Though critical of the growth of West Bank settlements, he does not advocate boycotting them. His criticisms of Israel are sometimes harsh and even go beyond the criticism of the use of excessive force in stopping the Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza. After all, Israel does engage in night raids, does use force to restrict Palestinian movement, does detain Palestinians without trial. But whether just or unjust in such criticism, that criticism is not equivalent to antisemitism.

It is not just me saying that. The drafters of the definition, more particularly Ken Stern, said that.  The dilemma is that anyone who defends both Israel’s right to self-determination and the Palestinian right to self-determination, but is also critical of what are deemed to be excesses on either side, have to fight off identification with the critics of Israel and Zionism who would deny Jews the right to national self-determination. It is easier for those who insist that anti-Zionism in any form is antisemitism to sweep strong critics of Israeli behaviour as demonstrating antisemitism when, in many and if not most cases, the critics of Israel may not be antisemitic at all.

On the other hand, those who support delegitimizing Israel, those who deny the right of Jews, not as a concrete possibility in the 1920s, but as an abstract principle, currently are guilty of the new antisemitism. At the same time, although Loeffler did take a photo with a white supremacist, it is easy for anyone to get photographed with a politician. It does not mean that Loeffler endorses their views or even knew they had such views. Loeffler has, in fact, condemned white supremacy. “We condemn in the most vociferous terms everything that he [Chester Doles] stands for.”

In 2019, Doles, deeply tied to the far-right militia movement, started American Patriots USA supporting President Donald Trump. Unless you support or associate with what a supporter stands for, the best you can do is renounce the views of that supporter. That Doles is an anti-Semite does not make Loeffler an anti-Semite. In each case, there was an abuse of antisemitism as a term to hurl an epithet at one candidate or the other. Unfortunately, this is part of the rhetorical fight and of wordfare in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The problem then is why Senator Loeffler, in Deborah Lipstadt’s words, “has made common cause with people directly associated with QAnon, a right-wing conspiracy group that peddles — overtly and covertly — conspiracy theories and antisemitism? Loeffler has accepted and welcomed the endorsement of congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene who is directly associated with QAnon, an explicitly antisemitic and racist organization that claims that there is “a plan afoot to destroy white Christian culture by flooding countries in Europe and North America with black and brown people.” However, these people lack the talent, the funds and the organizational prowess to advance this white genocide. Therefore, the white supremacists contend that, “these people” are not talented enough to pull off this cultural genocide on their own. “The true culprits are those financing and directing the genocide from behind the curtain: the Jews.”

Lipstadt, who is a widely recognized and applauded expert on antisemitism and teaches at Emory University in Atlanta Georgia, wrote a piece in Tuesday’s The Forward entitled, “For those who want to fight antisemitism, the choice in Georgia is clear.” As she wrote, “Jews have found themselves in, or to express it more accurately, have been thrust into, the center of the runoff campaign between Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler and her Democratic challenger, Reverend Raphael Warnock.” Though he had certainly accused the IDF of shooting unarmed Palestinians “like birds of prey” when they stormed the fence in Gaza, which he had personally observed, he not only stood for all the positions that I stated above, but attended AIPAC meetings and even supported the $3.8 billion dollar aid package without conditions for Israel as provided for in the Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. and Israel.

Warnock never supported Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s antisemitic remarks in Chicago, but did endorse Wright’s comments on the government’s failure to protect Black Americans. Though Loeffler is also a very unlikely antisemite, she has knowingly coddled antisemites. The guards outside the synagogues in Atlanta are there to protect Jewish religious institutions against white supremacists not left-wing extreme critics of Israel who may also be antisemitic in its latest expression.

To answer Deborah Lipstadt’s question, if I could vote, I, like Deborah Lipstadt, would know who to vote for in the Georgia Senate race.

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