Orthodox Jews with the group Jews United Against Zionism gather outside the office of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MM) in a show of support for Omar’s right to free speech.
Like most places, America has always had potent strains of anti-Semitism — crude and polished, K.K.K. and country club. But unlike many places, we have always had important strains of philo-Semitism as well; there is a long American tradition, with both Protestant and Enlightenment roots, of really liking Judaism and the Jews.
And so the story of the Jews in post-World War II America is the story, not just of anti-Semitism’s marginalization, but of philo-Semitism’s triumph. Jewish Americans weren’t just integrated, like other ethnic and religious groups. They also attracted a particular sympathy and admiration, rooted in Holocaust remembrance, affection for Israel, and a distinctive pride in the scope of their success.
For American philo-Semites, the Jewish experience wasn’t just one minority experience among many, but a signal and elevated case. The outsize success of Jewish intellectuals and scientists and artists and businessmen and activists was an especially good thing, a unique proof of American exceptionalism — because ours was the one country where a people so long persecuted could not only survive but triumph. And attacks on Jewish success and influence, like attacks on the state of Israel, were treated as particularly dangerous, particularly un-American, because they threatened to undo this great achievement, and return the Jews to their historic state of constant threat and peril
This history supplies one way to understand the stakes in the controversy over Ilhan Omar, the Muslim congresswoman who keeps using anti-Semitic clichés in her criticisms of the American-Israeli relationship. The part of the American left that’s defending her, or at least mitigating her offense and accusing her conservative critics of bad faith, doesn’t see itself as defending Jew-hatred, and since many of those defenders are Jewish — including the arguable front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders — it’s reasonable to take them at their word.
But the defend-Omar project is a project that seeks to push us away from the age of philo-Semitism, the age in which both American Jews and the American-Israel relationship were considered special cases among the range of minority groups and foreign policy partnerships.
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