In 2011, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro tweeted: “The Jewish people has always been plagued by Bad Jews, who undermine it from within. In America, those Bad Jews largely vote Democrat.”
It is a sentiment that has become prevalent in the past year. Last August, President Trump said that Jewish Americans who vote for Democrats are disloyal. The Republican Jewish Coalition jumped in to say that such Jewish Americans are indeed disloyal toward themselves (Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, helpfully clarified that the president meant that they were disloyal to Israel). A speaker at this month’s solidarity march against anti-Semitism in New York issued what many considered to be an attack on YAFFED, a nonprofit dedicated to improving secular education in ultra Orthodox schools, which he said was as dangerous as physical violence carried out against Orthodox Jews.
Arguably the most brazen example came last month, when Giuliani told New York Magazine that he, a Catholic, is “more of a Jew” than George Soros, a Holocaust survivor, because Soros “doesn’t go to church, he doesn’t go to religion — synagogue” and is an “enemy of Israel.” I heard a similar defense of anti-Semitic critiques of Soros while reporting for my forthcoming book on him; the idea was that calling Soros a puppet master or dabbling in anti-Semitic tropes couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the Hungarian-born billionaire’s Jewish identity, because he isn’t religious.
The undercurrent to all of this is that there is a right way and a wrong way to talk about Israel, a right and wrong way to observe or not observe your religion, a right or wrong way to try to hold your own community accountable — that, in short, there is a right and a wrong way to be Jewish. If you are not the right sort of Jew, you risk being labeled anti-Semitic or bad for the Jews, a self-hater, a threat to your own community.
There are a few issues with this.
To get the most obvious out of the way: It is not, nor has it ever been, up to Rudy Giuliani to determine who is Jewish.
It is also not up to Ben Shapiro or the Republican Jewish Coalition. Roughly 80 percent of Jewish Americans voted Democratic in the 2018 midterm elections, and their electoral priorities don’t make them less Jewish. One might find it reprehensible that Jewish Americans working in the White House are helping an administration that is working to keep out refugees given the long history of Jewish persecution, but it is not for those concerned parties to say that they are somehow less Jewish because they took different lessons from their Jewish upbringing.
Jewish people are not a monolith. We disagree on matters of politics and principle, on whether the left or the right is the greater threat to Jewish people, on the ways in which things can and cannot be done in our name, on the degree to which American Jews should criticize Israel, on the extent to which Jewish Americans need to tackle racism in our own communities, and so on. Some of us are right and some of us are wrong, but all of us are Jewish.
Shapiro was right, in a way, on one thing: None of this is new. Jewish people have been disagreeing over the correct way to be Jewish long before the current era, and to pretend that there has always been a consensus on the extent to which Jewish people should be Zionist is deeply ahistorical. There may be some who argue that the horrific violence committed against Jewish people over the course of the 20th century should have resolved those differences and solidified Zionism as the only path forward, an argument to which one could respond. But it didn’t. Soros, for example, came away from his experience of hiding out as a Christian youth during World War II committed to universal human rights, not to Zionism.
That doesn’t mean that his wasn’t a Jewish experience. As he once told an interviewer: “Put yourself in my place. I was facing extermination at the age of 14 because I was Jewish. Wouldn’t that make an impression on you?” That impression led him to give billions away toward the cause of human rights, including, incidentally, the human rights of Palestinians. There are some who believe he is a bad person for having done so, but, again, it is not for them to decide that he’s a bad Jew.
Emily Tamkin is a freelance writer and reporter. She is the author of the forthcoming book “The Influence of Soros.”