“Down at the Dinghy” helped make J.D. Salinger’s reputation when it was published in 1949, but 70 years later a lot of people would have trouble understanding the story. Four-year-old Lionel Tannenbaum overhears one household servant say to another that his father is “a big sloppy kike,” and though he thinks “kike” means “kite,” he registers the force of the insult and runs down to the lake and sulks for hours in his father’s dinghy till his mother manages to get him, in tears, to tell what he heard then come back to the house. The maid fears she has lost her job — even as she says Lionel is “gonna have a nose just like his father.”
We were born in the 50s, so we’re old enough to remember real anti-Semitism in mainstream life. North’s lower middle class neighborhood in Chicago was nearly a third Jewish, but the private country club along Lake Michigan there excluded all Jews with one exception, a distinguished local pharmacist. Weiss’s father was subject to anti-Semitic discrimination at Johns Hopkins medical school. Norman Podhoretz and Alan Dershowitz made their names documenting the bars against hiring Jews in American literature departments and Harvard Law School; many clubs excluded Jews, and the classic novels that we were taught to admire had descriptions in them like the gangster Meyer Wolfsheim’s nostril hair and human-molar cufflinks in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Robert Cohn’s irritating Jewish superiority complex in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
That’s genuine anti-Semitism. Social exclusion, job discrimination and vicious name-calling. Any Jew — any American — under 50 would have trouble recognizing that world because institutional and social life has changed so much since then. There isn’t a job or a club Jews can’t join. Jews have prominence in the media and sports franchise ownerships. The daughters of presidents want to marry Jews with their parents’ blessing. Does anyone even know anymore what the word “sheeny” is?
So what does “anti-Semitism” mean today? Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar talking about AIPAC using money to sway Congress in support of Israel. Ilhan Omar questioning the arguments of Americans who show allegiance to Israel.
Omar has been roundly condemned and the words shoved down her throat. Because, we are told, they are anti-Semitic “tropes and canards.”
What is a “trope”? Trope means, he or she didn’t really say anything anti-Semitic in any genuine meaning of the term, but if we shine a harsh spotlight on the phrase it will seem unsavory and anti-Semitic so we’re good to go. And that direction is obvious. It’s support for Israel. Anyone who is a strong critic of Israel, like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the only members of Congress to endorse boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), is subject to smearing as an anti-Semite.
Ilhan Omar “is at it again – this time using an accusation of dual loyalty – among the oldest and most dangerous anti-Semitic charges,” says an organization of AIPAC veterans aimed at keeping Democrats on board for Israel. “This reckless rhetoric should be beneath a member of the United States Congress.”
Make no mistake: the rise of Donald Trump has provoked a disturbing revival of classic anti-Semitism. It was manifest in Charlottesville in 2017 and in Pittsburgh in 2018, the biggest mass murder of Jews in American history. The ADL’s “audit” of anti-Semitic incidents in the country is growing and convincing. Trump’s hatred toward Mexicans and Africans has unleashed resentment and bigotry against the Jewish minority, too. Rightwing nationalism is a real danger to Jews, and we’ve watched its expressions with growing alarm.
But the ADL “audit” includes anti-Israel statements on campus and in the activist grass roots that have everything to do with Israel and nothing to do with Jews as such. Many of these statements come from people who feel solidarity with Palestinians and want a democracy over there and an end to U.S. funding for Israeli massacres. The fear among Israel supporters is that such attitudes will be mainstreamed and break up the monolithic political support. So everyone from Obama to Macron proclaims that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, and it is urgent business to marginalize two courageous Muslim women for standing up for human rights.
Israel has been persecuting Palestinians for three generations, and counting on American Jewish organizations to hold the bag. Criticizing that relationship is fair game, and it has absolutely nothing to do with calling someone a “kike.”