On May 18, a group waving the Palestinian flag assaulted diners seated outside a Los Angeles restaurant after reportedly asking if they were Jewish. In New York City two days later, assailants pummeled a young man wearing a skullcap on the street, a few blocks from where pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian demonstrators clashed that day.
The May 2021 fighting in Israel and Palestine coincided with a spike of antisemitic incidents in the US, as has happened before. What seems new this time is these incidents included a rash of physical assaults on Jews, a spokesperson of the Anti-Defamation League told Human Rights Watch.
Just months after the departure of a US president who did little to condemn groups like the marchers in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, who chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” these assaults remind us that the far right has no monopoly on antisemitism.
There is nothing antisemitic in itself about denouncing Israeli human rights violations or supporting boycotts against Israel. But it is antisemitic to reflexively treat Jews as complicit in the harm that the Israeli government inflicts on Palestinians – just as it is a hate crime to attack an Asian-American for how China’s authoritarian rulers may have handled Covid. Claiming that most American Jews support the Israeli government – a claim that a recent poll calls into doubt – is no excuse.
The Biden administration has condemned these antisemitic attacks as “despicable” but has yet to nominate a new Special Envoy on Antisemitism (SEAS) at the State Department. Filling that post would provide a focal point for calling out and combatting antisemitism in the US and worldwide.
Biden should ensure the envoy he nominates is also committed to rolling back the efforts of the Trump administration to brand vast swaths of Israel criticism as antisemitic, which ill-served the cause of combatting actual antisemitism.
Two coalitions of analysts and scholars this year have tried to define judiciously when Israel criticism crosses the line. This includes painting Israel “as being part of a sinister world conspiracy of Jewish control of the media, economy, government or other financial, cultural or societal institutions,” or applying to it other clear-cut, classically antisemitic stereotypes, images, or symbols. The coalitions concur that “evidence-based criticism of Israel,” even when “contentious,” is not, on its face, antisemitic. Biden’s SEAS, by publicly defending such distinctions, would bring into relief when Israel criticism does in fact betray hatred of Jews, and when it does not.
One thing is clear: to assault or use ethnic slurs against a Jew because of what the government of Israel may be doing is antisemitism.