It wasn’t until I joined Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as an organizer in 2016 that I first experienced anti-Semitism. Advocating for my candidate on social media, I faced a barrage of abuse from Trump supporters targeting my Jewish identity, with one particularly virulent user declaring me “an enemy of the people, who should’ve been gassed with the rest of you Jews.”
Four years later, after Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, Monsey and so many other attacks, I, like many Jews, have become accustomed to living with the feeling that hatred of Jews has permeated America’s cultural and political bloodstream. But I can’t get accustomed to the tepid way the established Jewish community has responded. And I’m convinced it’s a big reason younger Jews are drifting away.
In December, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I noticed President Trump’s now-infamous speech to conservative Jews in Florida. “You have to support me—they’ll take all your wealth away if ‘Pocahontas’ gets in,” he crowed—to raucous laughter and applause. It confirmed my hunch that Trump is the most anti-Semitic president America has seen since Richard Nixon. The question is what to do about it.
When I founded the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus, I hoped to mobilize my community to recognize the threat posed by extremist anti-Semitism and work to neutralize it at the ballot box. After hammering out my own press release on Trump’s offensive remarks, I looked to see how mainstream Jewish organizations and leaders were responding. Most were silent. The American Jewish Committee’s tweet was lukewarm: “Dear @POTUS—Much as we appreciate your unwavering support for Israel, surely there must be a better way to appeal to American Jewish voters, as you just did in Florida, than by money references that feed age-old and ugly stereotypes. Let’s stay off that mine-infested road.”
I found this jarring. I had observed organizations such as the AJC, AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents come out swinging (“Demonstrably false and stunningly anti-Semitic…Apologize,” said the AJC) against freshman Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota for her remarks invoking anti-Semitic tropes of dual loyalty. Though heinous, those remarks could hardly have been more objectionable than Trump’s, given his exponentially greater power. So why the tonal disparity? Many have argued that these organizations are loath to criticize Trump because they support his pro-Israel policies. I find that notion deeply disturbing.
I used to defend the so-called Jewish establishment from the drumbeat of criticism leveled by many of my friends on the progressive left, arguing that it’s not these organizations’ role to engage in partisan politics. A few weeks ago, though, I discovered firsthand just how accurate their critiques had been.
On a cold evening in January, I trudged through snow and ice for an event billed as the Detroit Community Forum on Anti-Semitism, sponsored by the Detroit Jewish Federation, JCRC/AJC, and the Michigan Anti-Defamation League. More than 1,000 Jewish Michiganders and allies packed one of Metro Detroit’s largest synagogues, awaiting leaders’ response to the unnerving rise in anti-Semitism. But what I heard convinced me that the organized Jewish community remains shockingly ill-equipped to provide leadership in this era of deepening threats. Each panelist spoke passionately about the need to build coalitions with other minority groups and invest in both physical and human security. But no one spoke the words “Donald Trump.” Several panelists argued that anti-Semitism is neither political nor partisan.
Do the panelists truly believe anti-Semitism, or any form of hate, is divorced from politics? I hope not. Such an analysis not only misreads history—which details how Jew-hatred has been used as a political weapon in every age and generation—but rejects events unfolding before our very eyes.
Anti-Semitism is inherently political. It is political when demagogic politicians at the highest levels of our government traffic in its oldest, most damaging tropes to delegitimize their opponents. It’s political when synagogue shooters graft the president’s conspiratorial rhetoric into their murderous manifestos word-for-word. It’s political when the White House issues press credentials to a fringe media organization that warns repeatedly of a “Jew coup” against the president. It is political when political will must be engaged for resources to protect synagogues and promote Holocaust education. And because anti-Semitism is political, it also requires a political response.
I wonder how the Jewish community reached a point where the organizations that beg us for contributions, that insist they’re indispensable, that claim to represent our interests without fear or favor, can treat anti-Semitism by the president with kid gloves while pretending new ideas about Israel policy among a minority faction of the party supported by an 80 percent supermajority of American Jews constitute an existential threat to American Jewry. The thesis is simply absurd. When Jewish leaders rend their garments over survey after survey depicting young Jewish men and women as having disengaged from the traditional organized Jewish community, perhaps they might grasp a mirror and ask themselves: Whom exactly are we serving?
We cannot allow politicians to spew the most noxious anti-Semitic tropes on Saturday, only to declare fighting hatred against Jews their highest priority on Wednesday. If mainstream Jewish institutions want to survive for posterity, they must do far more to confront this president. Otherwise, they will continue to drift towards ignominy and irrelevance. When the millennial generation takes the reins, we will fashion new institutions in our own image that will actually stand up against political leaders—of any party—who use the Jewish community as pawns. The next generation needs institutions that recognize when the Jewish community is treated like a political football—and don’t respond with a punt.
Noah Arbit, 24, is founder and chair of the Michigan Jewish Democratic Caucus.