Published on December 5, in The New York Times
Two years ago, a 27-year-old man named Kobili Traoré walked into the Paris apartment of a 65-year-old kindergarten teacher named Sarah Halimi. Mr. Traoré beat Ms. Halimi and stabbed her. According to witnesses, he called her a demon and a dirty Jew. He shouted, “Allahu akbar,” then threw Ms. Halimi’s battered body out of her third-story apartment window.
This is what Mr. Traoré told prosecutors: “I felt persecuted. When I saw the Torah and a chandelier in her home I felt oppressed. I saw her face transforming.”
One would think that this would be an open-and-shut hate crime. It was the coldblooded murder of a woman in her own home for the sin of being a Jew. But French prosecutors decided to drop murder charges against Mr. Traoré because he … had smoked cannabis.
If France’s betrayal of Sarah Halimi is shocking to you, perhaps you haven’t been paying much attention to what by now can be described as a moral calamity sweeping the West of which her story is only the clearest example. A crisis, I hasten to add, that’s perhaps less known because it has been largely overlooked by the mainstream press.
The most generous read of this enormous blind spot is that the story is not always straightforward; there have been some laudable steps to fight back. On Tuesday, for example, the French Parliament formally adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism when it passed a motion declaring anti-Zionism a form of Jew-hatred. Yet on the same day, more than 100 Jewish gravestones were found spray-painted with swastikas in a cemetery near Strasbourg — a potent reminder that governments are only as good as the culture and the people upholding them.
So allow me to put it plainly: We are suffering from a widespread social health epidemic and it is rooted in the cheapening of Jewish blood. If hatred of Jews can be justified as a misunderstanding or ignored as a mistake or played down as a slip of the tongue or waved away as “just anti-Zionism,” you can all but guarantee it will be.
Yet beneath the finger-pointing and the victim-blaming and the accusations of panic lobbed against a people that know a little something about persecution, there is the same old bigotry — the hatred of Jews that has presaged the death of so many seemingly civilized societies. A hatred that still, after centuries, exerts its powerful allure during periods of political and economic unrest, when the angry, the confused, the shortchanged and the scared look for simple explanations and a scapegoat. And even those who seek to uplift the marginalized can’t seem to find their voice when it comes to Jews facing anti-Semitism.
Take a look at some of the events around the Thanksgiving holiday, incidents that have kept Jews all over the world glued to their phones, and which have driven some to update their and their children’s passports.
Start with Britain. Last Friday night, a rabbi who had just left a synagogue was beaten on the street by teenagers screaming, “Kill the Jews.” These now-regular occurrences come as there’s a decent chance that the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will become the next prime minister — giving anti-Semites the imprimatur of a major Western government.
Mr. Corbyn’s long history of slurs against Jews and Israel, his warm words about his “friends” in Hezbollah, and his worldview, which finds far more to admire in countries like Russia and Venezuela than England itself, are well documented. To choose just the latest headline: The BBC, he said on Iranian state television, is “biased” toward saying that “Israel has a right to exist.” (My favorite remains his remark that British Zionists “who, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, don’t understand English irony.”)
The fish rots from the head, and so it has with Labour. According to Britain’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, there are 130 cases of outstanding complaints of anti-Semitism against Labour Party members. Ninety-three percent of British Jews say they won’t vote for Labour. Forty-seven percent say they will “seriously consider” emigrating if Labour wins. And yet the latest polling shows Labour rallying.
Other issues, Jews are told, are more important than their own safety. Sometimes their fears are dismissed as “hysteria.” The socialist filmmaker Ken Loach has called it a “witch hunt.” The powerful union leader Len McCluskey has accused the Jewish community of “intransigent hostility.” When Rabbi Mirvis took the extraordinary step of weighing in on the election, insisting that the very “soul of our nation is at stake,” he was accused, variously, of bad faith, of taking focus away from the real threat of right-wing bigotry, and of actually stoking anti-Semitism himself.
Jewish Voice for Labour, the party’s pet Jewish front group, has codified all of these gaslighting tactics in a document that helpfully lays out the strategy for how other political groups and movements with a will to power can shut down Jewish concerns about organized, systemic anti-Semitism.
Over in Italy, the town of Schio decided against establishing a Holocaust memorial — the subtle, brass “stumbling stones” called stolpersteine that dot the streets of European cities where survivors of Hitler’s genocide still stroll — on the grounds that 14 stones in a city of 40,000 would prove too divisive. “Let the victims rest in peace” said Alberto Bertoldo, a local politician. The memorial, he said, would risk “generating new hatred and division.”
While in Schio the Holocaust proves a divisive moral issue, in Montreal it was a planned trip to Israel. Jordyn Wright is a Jewish sophomore who sits on the board of the Students’ Society of McGill University. Over winter break, she is planning, like hundreds of other North American Jewish college students, to go to Israel with Hillel. As a result of that trip, the student government voted to call for her resignation. Never mind that the trip included time with Palestinians in the West Bank. Never mind that another student government leader is also going; apparently because that student is not a Jew, no resignation was required.
I toggled over the weekend between Ms. Wright’s chilling account of the history of anti-Jewish discrimination at her school and The Washington Post, which had published a frothy profile of Valerie Plame, the former C.I.A. officer who is now running for Congress as a Democrat in New Mexico.
There we learn that Ms. Plame looks “astoundingly good, at 56, as if the high-altitude desert air has preserved her skin since the day she arrived here 12 years ago.” Yet nowhere in the long article does the reader learn that two years ago, Ms. Plame tweeted an essay called “American Jews Are Driving America’s Wars” by a man famous for his anti-Jewish conspiracy thinking on a website that flirts with Holocaust denial. She also shared an article that linked Israel to the Sept. 11 attacks. It somehow didn’t merit mention.
Elsewhere in the Democratic Party, Linda Sarsour, the activist who was removed from her leadership position in the Women’s March thanks to her history of anti-Semitic scandals and who now serves as a surrogate for the presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, gave a talk on Friday to a group called American Muslims for Palestine. The part of her talk that circulated online focused on the apparent hypocrisy of progressive Zionists: How, Ms. Sarsour asked about people who are the No. 1 target of white supremacists, can they claim to oppose white supremacy when they support “a state like Israel that is built on supremacy, that is built on the idea that Jews are supreme to everybody else?”
Lest you think this is “just anti-Zionism,” consider that the Sanders surrogate was speaking at a conference that printed the following sentence in its program: “Zionism has come in like a disease to destroy the purity of Al Quds.” (Al Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem.)
Should I tell you about a Christian fundamentalist show on TruNews hosted by a man named Rick Wiles? TruNews was granted an interview by Donald Trump Jr. and its representative was called on by President Trump at a news conference. Last week on his show Mr. Wiles claimed that Jews are behind the impeachment proceedings against the president. A “Jew coup,” he called it, that would replace Mr. Trump with “a Jewish cabal.”
Should I tell you about the swastikas found at Sixth & I, a synagogue and a hub of Jewish cultural and intellectual life in Washington? Or the ones painted in red on a statue of the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem in Ukraine?
Or that on Monday morning in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a Jewish subway rider reported that another woman yelled slurs and threatened to throw her onto the tracks? And that the following day, also in Crown Heights, three teenagers hurled rocks at a Jewish elementary school bus, breaking a window.
When you look at each of these incidents, perhaps it is possible still to pretend that these are random bursts of bigotry perpetrated by hooligans lacking any real organization or power behind them.
But Mr. Corbyn’s electoral prospects in Britain tell a different, far more distressing story — that a person with some of the same impulses as those hooligans can stand within spitting distance of the office of prime minister. This is what happens when a culture decides that Jewish lives are stumbling stones.
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