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Antisemitism in America
Deconstructing a pernicious trope about young progressives
Accepting the Medicaid expansion funding available under the Affordable Care act would benefit the state of Mississippi quite a lot.
Because Mississippi is a low-income state, a large number of people would qualify if Medicaid coverage were expanded. And because the share of the cost covered by the federal government is so large, expansion would mean a big net influx of money.
It is also true that a very large fraction of the Mississippians who would benefit from Medicaid expansion are Black.
White people would also get Medicaid, of course. And I think the state as a whole would benefit, not only the people who got health insurance. But in terms of direct beneficiaries, Black people would gain more than white people. And I think it’s entirely reasonable to speculate that this is one of the reasons that Medicaid has not expanded in Mississippi. A very poor, very conservative but also very white state like West Virginia decided it wants the money. But Mississippi has toxic racial politics that make it all too easy to convince white Mississippians they don’t care about their Black neighbors and should, in fact, be suspicious of programs that help them.
It’s a plausible hypothesis.
But it’s just that: a hypothesis. I haven’t presented any evidence that racial bias specifically explains Mississippi’s antipathy to Medicaid expansion. And I think evidence is actually important here. I really don’t like the Ibram Kendi move of asserting that because opposing Medicaid expansion is bad for racial equality, opposition to Medicaid expansion is, by definition, racist. I think leaving the question of bias and subjective motive on the cutting room floor is a big mistake, that it invites bad thinking and misunderstanding, that it tends to stifle debate, and that it’s an all-around bad intellectual trend.
And I suspect a lot of people who agree with me about that are going to be quite angry when I suggest that they are doing the exact same thing with Israel and antisemitism.
Hating Jews, hating the Jewish state
If you hear about someone who really hates Israel, “maybe she hates Jews” is a plausible hypothesis since Israel is, after all, the Jewish state. But there’s only one Jewish state, so it’s a hard hypothesis to test. If someone hates Jamaica and stands accused of hating Jamaica for racist reasons, he could counter with demonstrated affection for the Bahamas or another majority-Black country. But Israel is unique, so how would you know?
Pat Buchanan always strikes me as a guy who’s interested in Palestinians’ rights purely because he has a problem with Jews.
But that conclusion is largely based on the fact that Buchanan has antisemitic inclinations independent of his views on Israel. When I was in college, I heard him give a speech at Harvard that included complaints about the overrepresentation of Jewish students at elite universities. This came after his well-known series of oddly pro-Hitler writings suggesting the Nazi dictator was misunderstood. Buchanan’s antisemitism controversies started way back in 1990 over his takes on Israel and the Persian Gulf War. But we have evidence grounded in things Buchanan said that are not about Israel that support the hypothesis that his views on Israel are driven by his all-around negative assessment of Jewish people.
Politics have shifted substantially over the past 30 years, and today, strong criticism of Israel comes overwhelmingly from the left. I think it’s natural to ask whether that strong criticism is motivated by antisemitism.
There are hundreds of millions of people in the United States, and clearly more than zero of them are left-wing, antisemitic, and strongly critical of Israel. But my view is that on the whole, generalized dislike of Jewish people is not what drives progressive anti-Israel politics.
My evidence for this comes from my read of three different papers by Eitan Hersh and Laura Royden published in the two years before the Israel-Gaza war broke out:
The upshot of the first paper is that “contrary to the expectation of horseshoe theory, the data show the epicenter of antisemitic attitudes is young adults on the far right.”
When I posted this on Twitter, a lot of people simply refused to believe it because they are aware that anti-Israel attitudes are concentrated on the left and they just know that means there is a ton of left-wing antisemitism. So I want to emphasize that Hersh, personally, is very upset with left-wing campus anti-Israel protestors, and is clearly aware of this narrative about them. But he’s doing what a good social scientist should do: His paper on antisemitic attitudes seeks out evidence of generalized antisemitism on the left and finds that, in fact, antisemitic attitudes are concentrated on the right.
How about antisemitic attitudes among non-white people in the United States? Jewish conservatives like to make a big deal about this to try to drive Jewish moderates into the GOP coalition. The third paper confirms that controlling for ideology, Black and Hispanic Americans are more antisemitic than white ones. But it also finds that controlling for race, conservatives are much more antisemitic than liberals.
The epicenter of antisemitic attitudes in the United States, in other words, is the conservative Black and Hispanic population that has often voted Democratic in the past due to identity politics but has trended toward the GOP in recent cycles. Liberal African-Americans are slightly less antisemitic than white conservatives, and Black and Hispanic conservatives are substantially more antisemitic than white conservatives.
So what’s up with leftists hating Israel?
Young leftists don’t approve of Israel
The second paper confirms that young people on the American left dislike Israel. They have a stronger dislike of Russia and China, but significantly more positive feelings about Nigeria and India. Compared to Iran, Israel has more supporters on the young left but also more strong detractors.
This is, importantly, not limited to questions of policy and government. They asked specifically for evaluations of various countries’ languages and culture, and those on the left clearly view Israeli culture negatively compared to the cultures of various other foreign countries.
On the other hand, in absolute terms, it’s not like young leftists are particularly hostile to Israeli culture relative to young moderates and young conservatives. The difference is that young progressives have generally more favorable views of foreign cultures and they don’t extend that particular favorability to Israel.
One could interpret that in various ways.
But, again, if your hypothesis is “progressive views on US policy toward Israel are motivated by dislike of Jewish people,” I think the evidence is lacking. When surveyed on attitudes toward Jewish people, progressives are less antisemitic than conservatives, and when surveyed on non-policy attitudes toward Israel, progressives are about the same as conservatives. I think antisemitic bias as a motive for policy views on Israel fails as a hypothesis.
“Bad for the Jews”
Back in my campus journalist days, before I’d ever heard of Kendi, then-president of Harvard University Larry Summers described some campus anti-Israel activism as “anti-Semitic in their effect if not in their intent.”
And that’s essentially how I understand the Kendi view of racism. That rather than asking a subjectivist question like “are Mississippi voters motivated by dislike of Black people?” (racist in intent) we should just focus on “are Mississippi voters backing policies that will objectively disadvantage Black people?” (racist in effect).
I thought it was constructive of Summers to flag that distinction, but also that “antisemitic in effect” was a bad way to frame it. After all, there is a longstanding trope of American Jews evaluating news events and social trends through the lens of “is it good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?” And that is in part because lots of things can be bad for the Jews without being subjectively motivated by anti-Jewish sentiment. Charles Murray’s efforts to draw attention to outsized Jewish achievement and to trace it specifically to Ashkenazi genetics were — as he concedes in the article — considered by most Jewish Americans to be Bad For The Jews.
And I think this is what’s going on with Israel.
There are a number of beliefs that are common in right-wing circles that I believe to be empirically false:
Cutting tax rates will increase tax revenue.
Climate change is fake.
Unregulated school choice will improve educational outcomes.
There are also a number of beliefs that are common in left-wing circles that I believe to be empirically false:
We could achieve a European-style welfare state purely by taxing the rich.
Climate change is an existential threat to humanity.
Policing doesn’t reduce crime.
There exists some straightforward and simple manner through which Israel could transform itself into a secular binational state, vindicating the aspirations of Palestinian nationalism without endangering the physical security of its Jewish population.
I think that this last belief is totally wrong and dangerously naive. I heartily recommend Zack Beauchamp’s 2021 article about why the two-state solution is still the best path forward and Eric Levitz’s article from last week arguing the same. The implementation of the progressive left’s favored one-state solution would, I believe, lead to civil war and bloodshed. And while one state is not going to happen, by excluding the most sensible option and describing the situation as a unitary battle for the entire land, they are in practice endangering Palestinians’ lives. There’s a reason why the joint Arab League / Organization of the Islamic Conference statement on the war reiterates support for the two-state solution. The more extreme demand feels more pro-Palestinian on vibes, but it’s worse in practice.
But, again, I think there’s a difference between a policy view that is empirically bad for Israel (and therefore for Jewish people because such a large share of the world’s Jewish population lives in Israel) and a policy view that is motivated by hatred of Jewish people. Collapsing the distinction between the two is a bad idea. Some people assert that belief in the easy viability of one state is so clearly wrong that only antisemitism could possibly explain it. To that, all I can say is please look around — all kinds of people say absurdly wrong stuff about all kinds of things all the time.
What Israel does matters
Pro-Israel circles increasingly deny that investigation of motives even matters. They say not that anti-Zionism is motivated by antisemitism, but — following Kendi — that holding anti-Zionist views is antisemitism because it’s objectively Bad for The Jews.
In addition to being analytically sloppy, I think applying this kind of thinking to Israel recapitulates behavior that I frequently see as pathological and worthy of criticism on the left. If you convince yourself that Trump voters are all bigots and racists, then it excuses a lack of discipline and attention to public opinion when you’re making decisions. You tell the world that each election is a cataclysmic showdown between the forces of decency and the forces of darkness, so if anyone is bugged by your energy policies or by shoplifting or whatever else, they are dupes (at best) and most likely acting in bad faith.
And that’s exactly the attitude I’ve heard expressed over and over again by moderate Israelis and pro-Israel American Jews over the past 15 years.
They’re not necessarily for the endless expansion of settlements in the West Bank, but since anti-Israel sentiment isn’t “really” about the settlements (it’s antisemitism), it doesn’t actually matter what’s happening there. Well, 15 years ago, people like me were saying that if Israel didn’t halt settlement expansion, left-of-center support for Israel’s existence as a Jewish state would plummet. And that’s exactly what’s happened within the cohort whose entire adult life has seen no meaningful final status negotiations. What you’re supposed to say in pro-Israel circles is that this reflects a mysterious exogenous rise in antisemitism, which is then impossible to disprove because anti-Zionism is antisemitism by definition. And you’re supposed to say it doesn’t matter, because the Palestinian Authority wasn’t prepared to say yes to a decent offer from Ehud Olmert back in 2008.
But I think the contemporary situation would be vastly different if Obama’s settlement freeze proposal from 2009 had stuck, even if it didn’t make the Palestinians happy. Because even though there are always going to be people who are anti-Israel because they hate Jews or who are hung up on the right of return, there are also always people on the margin. If Israel had maintained more of a moral high ground in terms of a willingness to create a Palestinian state, then diplomatic normalization with the anti-Iranian Arab states would have happened faster and easier. Young progressives would be more comfortable saying that Palestinians need to take the offer for a Palestinian State that’s on the table. And when Hamas attacked and Israel counterattacked, Israel would be waging one war, not two.
Instead, the Israeli electorate and a series of Israeli governments turned decisively against meaningful final status negotiations and in favor of indefinite settlement expansion. That has contributed to a sharp turn against Israel among younger progressives. It’s true that the view many of them have adopted, that Israel should just dissolve itself as a Jewish state and everyone would get along happily, is dangerously naive and wrong. But the perception that Israel has grown comfortable with the idea of dispossessing the Palestinians of their land is accurate. Insisting that anti-Zionism is antisemitism waves away the reality that Israeli policy choices — policy choices that could be unilaterally avoided regardless of how unreasonable the Palestinians do or do not choose to be — have discredited the whole enterprise.