During last year’s campaign, after anti-Semitic digital goons associated with the “alt-right”—and the fringes of Donald Trump’s fan base—became a regular online presence, several Jewish Trump supporters told me that focusing on the danger of alt-right anti-Semitism was misguided. The real problem, they argued, was rising hostility to Jews on the Left, under the cover of pro-Palestinian advocacy and anti-Israel rhetoric. To them, this semi-respectable Jew-bashing was far more influential, and thus far more dangerous, than a relative handful of trolls taunting Jews on Twitter with Der Stürmer-style cartoons and gas chamber memes.
While fully sharing concerns about left-wing anti-Semitism, I thought that dismissing the alt-right version as a phantom menace was wrong for both moral and practical reasons. My opinion has not changed after seeing the same argument made in a pair of recent essays for The Federalist by author and political strategist Jonathan Bronitsky.
Bronitsky’s first essay took American Jews to task for being “fixated on the alt-right” as a convenient distraction from the “real adversary” on the Left, and from the uncomfortable fact that their own strong support for the Left, especially on college campuses, helps enable anti-Semitism. In a follow-up piece responding to his critics, Bronitsky rejected as “intellectually lazy” assertions that it’s possible to combat right-wing and left-wing anti-Semitism at the same time.
“I’m committed to defeating anti-Semitism on both the Left and the Right,” Bronitsky wrote. “But with inherently limited resources—time, energy, and money—we have to pick and choose our battles.” In his view, left-wing anti-Semitism must be the primary focus because it is more pervasive, particularly on college campuses, and more insidious due to being camouflaged. But while Bronitsky’s essays make some important points about anti-Semitism on the Left, they also contain some serious flaws.
It Wasn’t Just the Left Fixating on the Alt-Right
Bafflingly, he writes as if the “fixation” on the alt-right came exclusively from liberal and progressive Jews. Yet the strongest Jewish voices against alt-right anti-Semitism—especially before the late summer of 2016 and Hillary Clinton’s speech denouncing the alt-right—were conservative, libertarian, or otherwise right of center.
To name just a few: commentator and radio talk show host Ben Shapiro, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, Commentary’s Noah Rothman and John Podhoretz, Tablet magazine columnist and Commentary author James Kirchick, and The Federalist’s own Bethany Mandel. With all due modesty, I will also mention my own contributions at The Federalist and Heat Street.
The omission is blatantly unfair to men and women whose willingness to confront bigotry earned them a barrage of anti-Semitic abuse in the social media, sometimes including threats. (Goldberg, Mandel, and especially Shapiro were among the top targets of anti-Semitic tweets sent to journalists.)
The reason right-of-center Jewish pundits were among the alt-right’s first critics as well as its top targets was simple: the movement’s invasion of American political discourse began during the Republican primaries, as an assault on so-called “cuckservatives”—conservatives accused of selling out conservative principles (or, more explicitly, of betraying white America). Jewish conservatives were especially likely to be attacked. Understandably, they were also especially likely to be dismayed by the alt-right’s attempted hijacking of the conservative movement.
None of those authors (myself included) have been shy about identifying and denouncing veiled Jew-hatred on the Left. A look at Kirchick’s archives at Tablet, for instance, shows that while he has been one of the alt-right’s most relentless foes, he is also a consistent, vocal critic of anti-Jewish bigotry from the progressive camp.
What’s more, he does not lapse into the left-wing habit noted by Bronitsky of treating outbreaks of anti-Semitism in left-wing circles as isolated incidents unconnected to modern leftist ideologies: some of his pieces make precisely such a connection, explaining how the “victimhood Olympics” of today’s progressivism relegate Jews to the bottom of the victim hierarchy. Another Tablet author who has penned some brilliant analysis of how the Left’s current obsession with “privilege” leads to anti-Semitism denial, John Paul Pagano, has also been outspoken against alt-right anti-Semitism.
The Alt-Right Does Deserve Some Attention
But is alt-right anti-Semitism worth all the attention and worry? Let us stipulate that the president-elect, who has Jewish family members and a long history of active support for Israel, is not an anti-Semite. (While many of us were perturbed by Trump’s failure to disavow his alt-right fans during the campaign, he has, at least, plainly done so post-election.)
Let us also, for now, stipulate—and hope—that as senior White House advisor, Stephen Bannon will not renew his Breitbart-era flirtation with the alt-right. Leaving aside the Trump connection entirely, the fact that the alt-right seems to have breathed a new life into more traditional and more overt forms of anti-Semitism is and should be worrisome.
Yes, it’s a fringe phenomenon. (No one knows how large the alt-right’s Jew-baiting troll armies really are, given that many of these keyboard warriors have multiple accounts.) But in a time of political and cultural polarization and turmoil, the recruitment potential of white supremacist groups—which are almost invariably anti-Semitic—should not be underestimated, particularly given the unprecedented reach a fringe group’s message can find through the Internet. How many disaffected people seeking a culprit to blame for personal and societal ills may be receptive to the alt-right’s slickly packaged conspiracy theories of Jewish malfeasance?
Add to this the fact that many people’s immunity to bad information and crazy ideas has been weakened by both the post-modernist left and the anti-establishment right. When you believe conventional sources of knowledge are unreliable and even intentionally deceptive, it’s not that difficult to fall for what you’re told is a suppressed dangerous truth—be it Holocaust denialism or “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in modern clothing.
Both These Anti-Semitic Movements Deserve Backlash
Add to this, too, the fact that the social stigma against overt and crude bigotry has been undermined both by “political correctness” on the Left and by some of the anti-PC backlash on the Right (I’m looking at you, Milo Yiannopoulos). Alt-right anti-Semitism is very likely to come wrapped in trolly humor, rebellion, and provocation against the “nannies” and the “speech police.”
Bronitsky asserts that today, “the first time the average Jewish American will encounter a sustained and systemic manifestation of anti-Semitism will be as an undergraduate at college”— from left-wing activists, not white nationalists. That may be true for now, but will it remain true in the near future? Phoebe Maltz Bovy, one of the few progressive writers to have tackled anti-Semitism on the Left, has a point when she observes that far-right anti-Semitism may be scarier because it is unchecked by “a desire not to be/seem racist.”
Also, alt-right nastiness may not remain confined to social media interactions. Recently, neo-Nazis have been harassing Jews in Whitefish, Montana and threatening to hold a march targeting the local Jewish community to protest reported pressure on the mother of alt-right leader Richard Spencer to sell her property in the town.
The plain fact is that, in the end, the anti-Semitism of the alt-right and the new left are both morally repugnant and both potentially dangerous. The Israel-bashing progressives often act as de facto enablers for Islamist terrorists. The alt-right, while ostensibly disavowing violence, is close ideological kin to older white supremacist movements that have their own violent fringe (responsible for several anti-Semitic terror attacks in recent memory).
It’s hard to tell what will happen to the alt-right under the Trump presidency. Perhaps it will prove to be a flash in the pan. Perhaps it will continue its effort to normalize various bigotries, including anti-Semitism, as a part of mainstream political discourse. That’s why vigilance without hysteria is the right response. Yes, the anti-Semites have the right to free speech. It’s up to the rest of us to expose their slanders and guard against any attempt to make anti-Semitism acceptable.
Should liberal Jews horrified by the emergence of the alt-right be challenged to confront subtler anti-Jewish rhetoric, including demonization of Israel, among their political allies? Of course. But we can hardly make this argument if we, too, look only at the problems on the other side.