Myths and realities: Jews and the left


Periodically, The Riverdale Press has had op-eds and letters (including one of my own) that intertwine issues of anti-Semitism, the BDS (boycott-divestment-sanctions) movement directed at Israel, the Black Lives Matter movement, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and antifa.

The first two are understandable, given Riverdale’s large Jewish population. But how do BLM, AOC and antifa get pulled into this web?

There are many strands to Judaism, but two core perspectives are reflected in how the expression “never again” is experienced. For some it means that, following the horror of the Holocaust, never again will Jews tolerate anything that could lead to their slaughter, other kinds of harm.

To others (including myself), it is a more basic humanistic injunction to fight against the tribal dehumanization, exploitation or marginalization of our fellow humans — including Palestinians.

In the United States, Jews are not in any meaningful danger, other than from those identifying as neo-Nazis and white supremacists. (Meanwhile, in Europe, a recent New York Times headline reads: “Neo-Nazis burrow into ranks of German police departments.”)

What little animosity remains is more likely envy and resentment of the success of Jewish people in so many fields. Nearly all hatred (not to mention murder) comes from right-wing sources, such as “Jews will not replace us,” or the murders at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

As reported last May in the Jewish journal Forward, “The ADL’s data proves it: The right owns anti-Semitism in America.” The Anti-Defamation League report found that “out of 42 extremist-related murders in the United States last year, 38 were committed by individuals subscribing to various far-right ideologies, including white supremacy.”

As reported in the British magazine The Guardian last July, “Anti-fascists linked to zero murders in the United States in 25 years,” while reporting that right-wing violence led to 329 murders in that same time frame. (Since then, there was one person killed by someone linked to antifa, in the middle of a protest/counter-protest scuffle.)

Yes, property was damaged due to rage over the murder of George Floyd and others, but that is peanuts compared to right-wing murder. So why this upset with the BLM movement, AOC, and the left in general?

First, trauma — whether to an individual or a group — often does not disappear once the source of it is gone. The horror of the Holocaust lives on in people’s psyche, like the trauma of child abuse, rape, etc.

A trauma, by definition, is an experience that one is unable to process emotionally. It stays frozen, and is usually handled by either denial or by perpetual hyper-vigilance toward anything that might link to those memories — individual or collective.

Anxiety is often focused on unreal dangers. Time may change the external realities, but not the internal thoughts and feelings, which still rest in the time of horror.

One letter to this paper, by a rabbi, stated he “thought” AOC would not show up for a demonstration against anti-Semitism, though she actually did. Somehow this thought was more powerful to him than the reality.

Second, Israel has defined itself as the Jewish state — not merely a homeland for Jewish people, but an ethnic state. To many, there is no distinction between being a Zionist — believing that God wanted us to have all the land that now comprise both Israel and the occupied territories — and being a Jew.

Criticism of Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians is taken as an attack on Jews, and for some, on oneself. Rationally, that makes as much sense as saying that if one is critical of the Chinese government, you are prejudiced against Chinese people.

Finally, I think there is a subtle third factor. Why this focus on AOC as a threat, even though her views on Israel and Palestine and BLM are no different than those of her good Jewish buddy, Bernie Sanders? As for BLM supporters, there may be a few anti-Semites and a few Zionists, but the vast majority don’t find those issues relevant to the concerns about racial justice in the United States.

Why then is AOC and Black Lives Matter seen as more of a threat than the guys who actually kill people? (One letter writer’s final comment: “It happened in Germany. It can happen here,” referred to antifa and BLM, totally ignoring the actual threat on the right.)

Jewish people have been so integrated into American society — and have done so well — they may now join in the fear of and anger at those Black, minority and younger voices calling for change, not to mention good old American racism.

This is not that different than how my parents’ generation feared and scowled in the ‘60s at the young hippies, the radicals, the civil rights workers, and anti-war people, who all wanted to change the system at a cultural, political and economic level.

AOC is similarly a bright, outspoken, young individual challenging us to think about our comfortable, automatic certainties (and the basis of our comforts). She rocks the boat. Like many of us did in the anti-Vietnam War movement when I was in college.

We are now part of the establishment, often at its heights, and many fear “them” as a threat to our new life and status. I-thou slowly morphs into I-“those people.”

Fortunately, from my perspective, most Jews still uphold the humanistic tradition — concern for all human suffering — that we saw during the civil rights movement and before. In a poll by the Jewish Electorate Institute last September, 66 percent of Jews had a favorable impression of Black Lives Matter, compared to 28 percent unfavorable.

As a psychologist, I know how hard it is to become aware of our own demons, fears, prejudices, and the tendency to project them onto others. As a human being, I see the tendency to divide ourselves, tribally, into us and “those people,” as perhaps the most tragic aspect of our nature as a species.

Have an opinion? Share your thoughts as a letter to the editor. Make your submission to letters@riverdalepress.com. Please include your full name, phone number (for verification purposes only), and home address (which will not be published). The Riverdale Press maintains an open submission policy, and stated opinions do not necessarily represent the publication.
Peter Wolf,