OPINION - Michael Wolff: an old poison is back in the US — just who exactly is an anti-Semite?

Supporters of Israel protest in Times Square, New York (AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of Israel protest in Times Square, New York (AFP via Getty Images)

How do you identify an anti-Semite? Or, a somewhat different question, does an anti-Semite know he or she is an anti-Semite? A unique point of modernity, at least American modernity, is that the reflex to see Jews as, foremost, Jews, and Jewishness as a disagreeable anomaly or eccentricity, and to hold on to the historical impulse to blame Jews for well… everything, seemed to all but disappear. The Jewish experience and the American experience became seamless. America was, finally, the promised land.

This transformation happened in an extraordinarily compact period, from the end of the Second World War when anti-Semitism was a prevalent social and cultural norm, to its sentiments being unutterable, if not gone, by the Seventies — coincidentally or not, concurrent with the rising dominance and might of Israel.

Many Jews yet suspected that a certain sort of person continued to secretly harbour those feelings, but, more and more, their Jewish children did not. My father, born in the 1920s, faced the predictable hurdles as a Jew in the still-gentile advertising business a generation before the industry happily accepted Jews as capable hucksters. But a good possibility, even likelihood, is that if you were a Jew born in the Fifties, as I was, you would have been among the first Jews in written history never to experience any instances of anti-Semitism at all. Most Jews in America married non-Jews. Everybody seemed to become a little Jewish (and if you weren’t, wanted to be).

The triumph over anti-Semitism — with no one actually having experienced it — adds a further difficulty to recognising if it is back.

At a recent dinner party the conclusion was that anti-Semitism had become the scourge of our time

Still, Jewish consciousness, passed among if not shared by all Jews, holds that anti-Semitism is a unique condition, irrational and viral, and has occurred throughout civilized time, and to assume that history has now erased it is foolish in the extreme. At a recent dinner party in New York of several generations of Jews at an enviable Park Avenue address, the conclusion of the evening’s discussion was that anti-Semitism had again become the scourge of our time.

True, no one at the dinner had personally interacted with an anti-Semite. But the vitriol directed at Israel, a nation of Jews for Jews that exists because of historic anti-Semitism, can start to seem awfully personal. The case against Israel, on the part of the Palestinians and their overt allies, long ago became difficult to distinguish from a case against the Jews. The Hamas attack on October 7 was obviously very much an attack, one full of pogrom-like fury, on Jews. The development so alarming at the Park Avenue dinner was the outpouring of support around the world for Palestine, with its overt tolerance for Hamas and venomous condemnation of Israel and the Jews.

At university campuses across the country, Palestinian supporters, enraged by Israel’s brutal response — and throwing the harsh containment of the Gazans into the mix — are protesting at a level one college administrator said had not been seen since the Sixties. Jewish students, at least in the telling, were cowering in their dorm rooms. The protests, wrote three Ivy League college students in the New York Times, has turned campus life “into a daily trial of intimidation and insult for Jewish students”.

One problem with this picture is that more than a few of the doctrinaire and Left-leaning protestors are Jewish. A friend’s half-Jewish daughter who has availed herself of both a free birthright trip to Israel, and, as well, a summer study break sponsored by the Palestinians, has become a bitter and emotional social-media critic of Israel’s “war on Gaza”, adopting the language of rage and doubtlessness: Israelis — Jews — are colonisers and occupiers. The Palestinian cause has won the social media war: Israel is the unholy demon.

The intellectual point is that Jewish suffering, including the epochs of open anti-Semitism, is no more unique than other kinds of suffering. And, proportionally, Palestinian suffering is now greater. In this new view, the Palestinians are the real Jews, beleaguered people historically abused by the powerful, so how can those defending Palestinians against their gross and evil oppressers — who, in an ideal outcome, many Palestinians hope to see eradicated — be anti-Semitic? This now appears to be a reasonable enough opinion among the world’s new fair-minded — as well as bewildering in its notion of history to anyone who is Jewish (or, perhaps, Jewish of a certain age).

A friend’s mother, an Iranian-born businesswoman of global sophistication, believes Israel should be driven from the land, and that the dominance of world Jewry is complicit in supporting Israel’s crimes against humanity. “So, okay,” I said to my friend, a senior figure at a major American news organization with perfectly liberal bona fides, “your mother is an anti-Semite.” “Of course, she’s not an anti-Semite,” scoffed my friend, making me realise — beyond what might be in her mother’s heart — how absolutely not Jewish my friend is.

The old script of homeless Jews after the Second World War making the desert bloom while defending it from the Arab monolith, and faithfully aligning with the US and building and maintaining a beacon of Democracy in a despotic part of the world, still has a Joe Biden-Mitch McConnell bipartisan sort of currency. Of course, two decades of Netanyahu along with the rise of a militant religious orthodoxy in Israel (not unlike the US), as well as Israel’s reflexive charge of anti-Semitism as a stonewall defence against any criticism, hasn’t done it any favours — nor for the ageing politicians trying to defend it. Practically speaking, Netanyahu and the political turmoil and security laxness that he fostered seems as responsible for October 7 as anti-Semitism — even if in fact Hamas would be pleased to kill all the Jews.

Would a Jew more easily wear a yarmulke at a Trump rally or a Palestinian rally?

Confusing too, is that politicians of the new Trumpian populism which might fairly be associated with many of the currents of anti-Semitism — the case against the elites, with only a little critical interpretation, is a case against the Jews — are now among the most ardent defenders of Israel and enemies of the Palestinians, quite agreeable to bombing Gaza into dust.

Does supporting Israel make you not an anti-Semite? Would a Jew more easily wear a yarmulke at a Trump rally or a Palestinian rally?

Perhaps anti-Semitism is an outdated concept. Israel is a state player with vast resources, economically and militarily, and should be held accountable for the misuse of its power. History does not give it a pass. Except what if, as it has so often seemed, the world does hold some special and inexplicable antipathy for the Jews — could Jewish might be the only true alternative to Jewish oblivion, that familiar next step of anti-Semitism? If it’s your Jewish consciousness, as well as your Jewish person, on the line, you might find it hard to bet against this formula.

Michael Wolff is the author of Fire and Fury and The Fall: The End of the Murdoch Empire