As the anniversary of the Tree of Life massacre approaches, recent anti-Semitic rhetoric proves that many Americans have learned nothing from the attacks.


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Ye, rapper Kanye West’s social media outburst this month may be the most attention-grabbing example of anti-Semitism these days. But we would be remiss not to place this case of anti-Jewish bigotry in a larger social setting.

Just days after Ye’s scandal (and after rebuking comedian Sarah Silverman for suggesting that black Americans don’t condemn Ye; read here to learn more about the complicated dynamics at play), former President Donald Trump repeated dangerous tropes about Jews and loyalty.

Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano and former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard have also expressed concern in recent weeks about the adoption of language that draws on ancient anti-Semitic narratives.

The rhetoric comes just before the fourth anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting – the deadliest attack on Jews in the US – and underscores the persistence of anti-Semitism.

“It’s hard for me to say that we, as a country, have learned anything,” Emily Tamkin, editor-in-chief of The New Statesman, told CNN. “Frankly, I don’t think the lessons that should have been learned from the attack were learned by Americans in general and certainly not by right-wing American politicians.”

Tamkin explores some of the aftermath of the Tree of Life shooting in his new book, “Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities,” in a combination of historical analysis and memoir. But it doesn’t just focus on tragedy. On the contrary, it adds dimension to American Jewish life at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise.

“It would be impossible to write a book about the history of American Jews no including anti-Semitism. But this is not a book about anti-Semitism,” he explained. “This is a book about American Jews. The history of American Jews is the history of American Jews, not the history of people who hate us.”

Tamkin and I talked at length about this history and how it might inform our present day. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What has the social climate been like for the past few months too – by Whoopi Goldberg Declaration on the Holocaust in FebruaryYe’s anti-Semitic remarks – revealed about the way many in US society view the Jewish people and the Jewish experience?

I grew up in a town without many Jews and experienced anti-Semitism in my daily life. So I’m not surprised that anti-Semitism exists. As an adult, I have been a bit surprised by the extent to which some of our politicians have taken it.

I think what Ye said was awesome. Personally, I’m more concerned about being on a TV show hosted by a person who has guests who espouse anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes.

Just because many people know better than to say “Jews” or “Jews” does not mean that what they are saying is not anti-Semitic. The same week Ye tweeted about Jews, we told Tulsi Gabbard she was leaving the Democratic Party because it’s run by an “elitist cabal.” And Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano blasted his Democratic opponent, Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish, for sending his children to a Jewish day school.

It’s important that we don’t point to a famous person and say, “Oh my gosh, how could he say that?” Instead, we should look at it in the context of the current political moment.

What tension do you want to capture with the notion of “bad Jews”?

“Bad Jews” is a term American Jews throw at each other and ourselves. It is a concept that many of us have deeply internalized, that somehow we are doing it wrong. It is a label that people try to force others to wear, to claim that they are somehow less authentic, that they have not properly inherited the tradition. And this book tries to go back.

Right now in US politics, and particularly American Jewish politics, it sometimes feels like we’re throwing the “bad Jew” label back and forth at each other. Part of what I wanted to do is put this political moment in context. I started writing this book during the Trump years, when you had a president who said that American Jews who vote for Democrats, which is the majority of American Jews, are disloyal.

I think when you look at the history of American Jews, what you find is that there has never been a consensus about what it means to be a good American Jew, or even just an American Jew. And as things are changing today and as people can feel that we are in crisis today and things are polarized and politicized today, what I wanted to do was put the moment in this broader context.

In one of your chapters, you tell a more complex history of Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement. Tell me more about why it is important to complicate this history.

I joked that another title of the book could have been “The stories we tell ourselves and why they are incomplete”. The common narrative is that American Jews were very supportive of the civil rights movement. In general, this is true: there were many American Jews who supported the civil rights movement. At the same time, there were American Jews who did not. There were Jewish Americans who said that instead of fighting for the civil rights of black Americans, we should focus on our “own” issues. The larger context is that for most of US history, most Jewish Americans have lived as white people and been treated as white under US law.

And all this is important to understand. Last week we saw some Jewish Americans calling out the civil rights movement and asking why more black Americans weren’t speaking out against Ye’s remarks about Jews. First of all, asking black Americans to answer to a rapper is wrong. But also, this idea that all American Jews came forward during the civil rights movement, is not true. It is ahistorical. If we are going to mention our history, we should at least understand that history.

I think there is also a tendency in some parts of the American Jewish community to point to the civil rights movement and as if our work in the US to build a fairer and more just country is over. For this book, I interviewed Susannah Heschel, scholar and daughter of Rabbi Heschel, who famously marched with Martin Luther King Jr. He pointed out two things. He said a lot of people who said they supported the movement at the time didn’t have it in tangible ways – material ways – and they still lived in white neighborhoods and maybe resisted the affirmative. And that was because of their historical reasons, how quotas were used against American Jews. But still.

And he has often gone on record saying that this is not how he wants to use his father’s memory. It’s no excuse to dismiss your demands for justice today or act as if racism and racial inequality have nothing to do with you.

It’s important to recognize that there are Jews of color, there are black Jews, the face of American Jewish life as such is changing, and when we talk about black-Jewish relations, we do so. a way that does not erase the existence of black Jews.

What do you think is being overlooked in our conversations about anti-Semitism?

One thing to keep in mind is that when we talk about anti-Semitism, people use it in very different ways. They understand differently.

That said, I think that an important element in understanding anti-Semitism is that, within the anti-Semitic vision, Jews are always strangers. They can never truly be part of the nation. When you look at the conspiracy theories that the Jews are trying to corrupt or ruin the nation, what would they do it for? Because they can never really be. You see this over and over again throughout Jewish history. And that’s part of what’s so disturbing to me is what I’m hearing. You’re telling me you don’t think I’m really American and Jewish.