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  • Andres Spokoiny

Fighting Antisemitism Is More Complicated Than You Think

American Jews are anxious. Antisemitism and Judeophobia, which didn’t used to be overriding concerns in the daily lives of Jewish Americans – and of Jewish leadership and organizations – now dominate the public communal discourse.

This piece doesn’t seek to explain the phenomenon of contemporary antisemitism, as others, like Deborah Lipstadt and Bari Weiss, have done that masterfully already. Nor will I weigh in on which manifestations of antisemitism are most alarming, whether from the right, left, or the Islamic world. Rather, as the president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, I am focusing on the Jewish philanthropic response to antisemitism and offering some guidance for funders on what to do, and most importantly, what not to do, based on what is effective versus what is not just ineffective, but destructive.

Based on our collective experience and on our critical observations of the field, we can distill a few principles that funders can follow.

1 – Primo non nocere

I used to believe that philanthropy is like pizza: Even when it’s bad, it’s good enough. That is not true in the area of antisemitism. A bad program on fighting antisemitism can be harmful. We’ve seen programs backfire; others that divide the community, some alienate potential partners and/or create dangerous illusions and vain hopes. A bad grant in this field is not just a waste, but dangerous, and the adage of “first do no harm” is more relevant here than in other fields. Funders should be extra careful and thoughtful in this space and be aware of the many ramification and unintended consequences that programs can have.

2 – Don’t conflate antisemitism and security.

These two issues are of course linked; we need to secure our institutions and people because there is antisemitism. Providing security for Jewish communities in the face of murderous attacks such as the shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh or at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, N.J., is an urgent and undelayable necessity. But the security challenge has concrete and practical solutions that only need funding to be implemented. Antisemitism is a different type of challenge, an extremely long-term one, and not one that gets solved by simply “throwing money” at it. Security is the work that TSA does to protect travelers, whereas fighting antisemitism is like the government’s long-term, complex and uncertain, fight against Islamic fundamentalism. We can and must fund security measures quickly, whereas addressing antisemitism is a more complicated and long-term project that requires a more thoughtful response.

3 – Keep a historical perspective.

The increase in antisemitism is worrisome and, coupled with the easy access to deadly weapons in America, very dangerous. However, we are not living in the 1930s. All in all, Jews are safer, more prosperous and powerful than at any time in history. Contrary to most periods in history, no country with a significant Jewish population has state-sponsored anti-Semitism. We rightfully worry about BDS and demonization of Israel, but let’s not lose perspective: BDS hasn’t made a dent on Israel’s trade or diplomatic relations. Israel today enjoys diplomatic relations with 163 out of 193 countries of the United Nations, and its foreign trade is booming. Campus anti-Zionism is a problem, but let’s not forget that only a few decades ago many elite universities (that now have Jewish presidents) had quotas restricting Jews. While we rightly worry about anti-Israel voices in Congress, we forget that Congress passed, last year, it first anti-BDS resolution with only three votes against (out of 435). As a teenager in Argentina 30 years ago, I would have never thought of reporting a swastika on a Jewish building to the police as an antisemitic attack; it was a given, a part of the landscape; occasional verbal abuse was just the way things were. The reason why antisemitism shocks us so much now is precisely because it has become so rare. Much of the discourse on antisemitism today veers into a critique of “our times” or a cynicism about liberal democracy and modernity. Let’s not forget that “our times” are still the best ever to be Jewish. This, by no means, seeks to minimize the challenge, but to put in perspective. We don’t need to compare our times to the 1930s to give it urgency. This leads us to the next point.

4 – Avoid the purveyors of panic and hysteria.

From my JFN perch, I see many grant proposals for efforts to fight antisemitism, and there seems to be an arms race of catastrophic language. Part of this is understandable: Nonprofits believe that if they don’t paint a doomsday picture they won’t be funded. They think that strident language is necessary so as to be heard among the cacophony of requests and causes. As funders we need to be clear eyed; as concerning as the situation is, panic and hysteria are not justified. Overreaction in this field can be dangerous. My rule of thumb: Expressions like “existential threat” are a red flag. In more general terms, organizations and practitioners that use simplistic narratives that lack depth and nuance are to be avoided. Antisemitism is not a simple or one-dimensional phenomenon; it needs a thoughtful response, and panic leads to wrong decisions.

5 – Hubris equals failure.

Antisemitism has been with us for 3,500 years. It will exist until the Messiah arrives. There’s no “eradicating” antisemitism and, in fact, this old scourge ebbs and flows of its own accord. Nothing that Jews do or say brings it about, and we can only mitigate it, not eliminate it altogether. That is not a reflection on the quality of our programs, but of the nature of the phenomenon. So whoever says that they are going to “solve” or “eradicate” the problem is either naïve or deluded. Instead, funders need to insist on clear, modest and achievable goals. Funders also need to push their grantees to learn from the experience of others (rather than claim that others failed and “they alone” know how to solve the problem). Learning from experience can’t be limited to North America. Antisemitism is a global phenomenon and much of what we see today in the US has happened in other places before.

6 – It’s a long game.

Whenever an issue becomes “fashionable,” organizations mushroom overnight. People tell us that “what’s been done until now didn’t work and we need a new approach.” That is tempting: The “startups” have the allure of the fresh and new, and the “grassroots” has the appeal of the maverick. Yes, innovation is needed in this area like in any other, but this particular issue is one in which virtually nothing can be achieved in the short term. Creating an organization takes time, and you don’t get it right the first time. Think about how many mistakes you made when you started your business/organization, how long it took you to master your work and be excellent at it. That is even truer in this issue. The work of building bridges with other communities, cultivating allies, learning the intricacies of legislation, understanding the dynamics of social media, developing contacts in news outlets, building partnerships in government, etc. take years and even decades. Love them or hate them, but the “legacy” organizations (ADL, federations, AJC, JCRCs, etc.) have a track record of decades and are in the game for the long run. They have a wealth of contacts and alliances that are impossible to replicate in the short term. So even if they are far from perfect, these organizations must be your first stop. Many of them are open to “intrapreneurship” (using innovative approaches within an old structure). Of course, there is a role in the broader ecosystem for startups and innovative organizations. Some things are structurally impossible to do for a legacy organization and some local, very targeted initiatives can benefit from the nimbleness of a grassroots effort. Sometimes, an individual or a small organization with a very specific expertise can operate more rapidly in a more focused way, but coordination is critical, and duplication needs to be avoided. Also consider that, although local initiatives are useful, going to scale and having impact at the national level requires a well-oiled and experienced national structure that, again, takes years to build. We criticize the “bureaucracy” of the large organizations, but a multiplicity of small ones ends up having – in the aggregate – a much larger overhead. Smart funders need to optimize resources by leaning on legacy organization when possible and using startups judiciously and in a synergetic way. In all cases, funders need to understand that investing in fighting antisemitism requires staying power and (very) long-term thinking. A 3,500-years-old problem doesn’t get solved in six months.

7 – To avoid like the plague: Those who use the fight of antisemitism as an excuse to demonize and vilify other Jews.

In the past, antisemitism was the great unifier; Jews could be divided on everything, but when attacked, we came together. Now, in times of hyper polarization and partisanship, antisemitism is used (by Jewish and non-Jewish actors) to divide us more. Antisemitism gets weaponized to foster partisan goals; the right uses the presence of antisemitism in some pockets of the left to smear the entire movement, while progressive Jews accuse those on the right of enabling white supremacy. People are quick to condemn antisemitism on one side and ignore it on the other. Antisemites also got smart; they are not against “all Jews” but only against “liberal Jews” or “Zionists”, etc. Antisemites have their “good Jews,” and Jews have their “good antisemites.” When we too, use antisemitism as an excuse to divide between “good Jews” and “bad Jews,” we are simply doing the antisemites’ bidding. Those organizations and individuals that consistently attack other Jews, or that use the fight on antisemitism mostly to criticize the work of other Jewish organizations, should be a no-go zone for funders that care about the health and resilience of the Jewish community as a whole. That is not to say that Jewish organizations or individuals are beyond criticism, but when much of the modus operandi of somebody that claims to be fighting antisemitism is to rile against other Jews, smart funders should stay away. This, by the way, should be a general funding principle: Simply put, if somebody can’t speak about fellow Jews with whom they disagree with respect and empathy, they don’t deserve your support. And be careful even of those who, while they don’t resort to demonization or ad-hominen attacks, use phrases like “why is nobody talking about…” (fill in the blanks: white supremacy, black antisemitism, progressive antisemitism, etc.). That is generally a bad sign. The truth is that tons of people are talking about all types of antisemitism all the time. “Nobody is talking about…” actually means “I only want to talk about ONE type of antisemitism to the exclusion of others.”

In the same vein, those that use antisemitism as an excuse to attack an entire group (Blacks, Muslims, Conservatives, Liberals, Europeans, Brexiters) have ulterior motives and their main goal is not fighting antisemitism but advancing an ideological agenda (in some cases a hatred agenda).

8 – Bridge building: Effectively fighting antisemitism requires building bridges and coalitions.

That is not always simple, because it requires working with people whose moral universe is radically different than ours. It’s hard for a supporter of marriage equality to work with Evangelical Christians on defending Israel but it’s necessary; it’s hard for conservatives to work with liberals that have positions antithetical to theirs, but it’s effective. To do that work effectively one needs to genuinely engage with the other, work on areas of agreement and put disagreements in the parking lot. It requires understanding the conceptual world of our potential allies and “speaking their language.” Building bridges implies, by definition, reaching out to folks who are not in your tribe, and you can’t expect full agreement (or submission) from them. Ultimately, the fight against antisemitism is a fight of the entire society not just of the Jews (more on that later); for that we need allies, and the definition of an ally is not somebody who agrees with me on everything, but somebody with whom I can find at least one common objective. Lately, we demand “litmus tests” from our potential allies and we “cancel” those that fail to meet them. It’s understandable that we seek to know whether our allies espouse views that are totally abhorrent to us. I personally wouldn’t make an alliance with Hungary’s Victor Orban, who has run an entire antisemitic campaign and harassed the local Jewish community, even if he’s supposedly “pro-Israel.” But in some cases, the line is not so clear: What would have happened if, for example, the US had demanded an ideological litmus test from the Soviet Union before joining the Allies in World War II. And the standard has to be consistent: If you don’t excuse things on the left, you shouldn’t excuse those same things on the right, and vice versa.

Also, the Jewish community often insists on the uniqueness of antisemitism as the oldest, most pervasive hatred in human history, something that makes us reluctant to link antisemitism to other forms of racism and discrimination. This is understandable, but not necessarily wise. Linking antisemitism to other forms of hatred doesn’t weaken our case, it strengthens it. Working with other minorities is not only morally right but strategically smart.

9 – It’s the whole society.

As we said before, antisemitism ebbs and flows on its own, mostly influenced by societal trends that transcend the Jewish community. There is an ironclad historical rule: The higher the level of freedom, civility, respect and tolerance in a society, the less antisemitism there is. In other words, the stronger the institutions of liberal democracy, the better the situation of the Jews; the higher the degree of respect for all minorities, the less antisemitism. It is not a coincidence that antisemitism is resurging in America at a time when civility and tolerance are at an all-time low; when democratic institutions, are eroded by populism; when those in power regularly demonize and attack others; when minorities are scapegoated, and identity politics replace the notion of common good. It’s not a coincidence that this golden age of conspiracy theories – think InfoWars, QAnon, the “deep state,” antivaxxers, and 9/11 truthers -, coincides with a comeback of antisemitism, the conspiracy theory par excellence. Ultimately, the only proven antidote to antisemitism is a better, more tolerant, more enlightened society; a society based on fact and reason instead of irrational beliefs and conspiracies. To be clear, tolerant and enlightened societies don’t eradicate antisemitism, but they reduce it significantly. So, if as funders we strive to be evidence based and fight antisemitism in the only way that has a proven track record, we need to engage in work towards tolerance, pluralism, democracy and enlightenment in the society as a whole. It’s not only the right thing to do according to our values, but also the most reliable way of sending antisemitism back to its hole.

10 – Antisemitism Is Not Jewish identity.

In times of threat, there’s a tendency to make antisemitism (and the fight against it) the cornerstone of Jewish communal activity, and even a critical piece of our identity. But the fight against antisemitism must not come at the expense of programs in Jewish identity, Jewish education and, in general, positive engagement with Israel and Judaism. Fear is a bad fuel, like paper: It burns bright but fast, generates no heat, and leaves you full of soot. A community based on fear is not a healthy or vibrant one. Despite millennia of persecution and hatred, our outlook on history is positive and optimistic; we thank God every day for loving us and blessing us. If the victims of pogroms and massacres didn’t surrender to victimhood who are we, who live in the safest, most prosperous community in history, to base our identity on antisemitism? In times when Jews are attacked, one of the main priorities of the community – after physically defending and securing our institutions – should be to highlight the positive, meaningful aspects of Judaism. Judaism, we need to tell our community, is not just something people hate you for, but something that can give you meaning, community, pride, comfort and answers to the deep challenges of existence. Besides, even if we put all of our resources into fighting antisemitism, the results will be marginal or partial in the best of cases; so let’s not make the mistake of mortgaging our future. That would be the anti-Semites’ biggest victory.

This article was published in eJewish Philanthropy.

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