Robert Reich: Antisemitism? – OpEd


My father, Ed Reich, was haunted by antisemitism his entire life.

He grew up in New York City in the 1910s and 1920s. He was often taunted for being Jewish.

The colleges he applied to had quotas on Jewish applicants.

He and many in his generation witnessed or experienced the horrors of the Holocaust.

When he and my mother and their one-year-old baby (me) first moved to South Salem, New York, we were met by a delegation of old men who told us it was a “Christian community” and we would “not be comfortable” there.

He was a golf enthusiast, but his application to the local golf club was rejected because he was Jewish.

I have experienced far less antisemitism than he did but have not been free of it.

A kid in my grade school class told me he’d buy one of my prized baseball cards if I’d “Jew down” its price.

When I was secretary of labor, I received letters containing phrases like “You stinking Jew.”

This week, Joe Biden spoke out against antisemitism. I’m glad he did.

But I also worry that by speaking out against antisemitism without acknowledging what has sparked the student protests across America, he is conflating those protests with antisemitism. 

By and large, the protests are not motivated by antisemitism.

There may be some antisemites among demonstrators. Protest movements are often ignited by many different things and attract an assortment of people with a range of motives.

But after many talks with demonstrators and faculty, it seems clear to me this protest movement is centered on moral outrage at the killings of tens of thousands of innocent people in Gaza, most of them women and children.

Many of the demonstrators are themselves Jewish.

Jews have been involved in these protests for the same reason Jews were so involved in other social justice movements — such as the struggles for women’s rights, worker’s rights, civil rights, voting rights, free speech, and LGBTQ+ rights. And against the Vietnam War, apartheid in South Africa, and the Iraq War.

The oppression that Jewish people have experienced for hundreds if not thousands of years has taught Jews the necessity of standing up to injustice — whatever its form and whenever it appears.  

House Republicans continued their hearings on antisemitism. They called public school officials from three of the most politically liberal communities in the nation — Berkeley, California; New York City; and Montgomery County, Maryland. 

Their hearings on antisemitism in higher education helped topple the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania and pushed Columbia’s president to promise a crackdown on campus antisemitism. Her crackdown led to the arrest of more than 100 protesters at Columbia and a further surge in student activism there. 

House Republicans are politicizing and weaponizing antisemitism. They are using supposed antisemitism in education as a means of pursuing their cultural populist agenda, which for years has denigrated universities and public schools. They are also intent on splitting liberal Democrats over the war in Gaza.

Long ago, in kindergarten, I was cast as Baby Jesus in the school Christmas pageant because I was the shortest kid around. Another five-year-old told me it was unfair of me to play Jesus because I was Jewish, and the Jews had killed Jesus.

When I told my parents, they were livid — not only that I had to play Baby Jesus, but that any child would still believe that it was Jews who killed Christ. (Nine years later, in 1960, the Roman Catholic Church officially renounced the idea of Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death.)

I was reminded of this by the Antisemitism Awareness Act, passed in the House of Representatives on May 1, by a 320-91 vote. It would codify, for the purpose of enforcing federal civil rights law in higher education, a definition of antisemitism that includes rejection of Israel as a Jewish state. The bill also adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which includes “claims of Jews killing Jesus.”

Although the bill was initiated by House Republicans, much of the opposition to it has come from the Christian right, which wants to be able to continue saying that Jews killed Jesus.

In an X post, Rep. Marjorie Taylor (“Jewish Space Laser”) Greene announced her opposition to the bill because it “could convict Christians for believing the Gospel that says Jesus was handed over to Herod to be crucified by the Jews.”

As Congresswoman Greene’s words demonstrate, antisemitism lives on. And it should be condemned.

But antisemitism can’t and shouldn’t be legislated away. Once we start defining what views are impermissible on a university campus or in public schools — for getting a job, receiving research funding, or getting promoted — we’re back in the era of Senator Joe McCarthy and communist witch hunts.

And once we start conflating antisemitism with protests against mass brutality, such as the slaughter in Gaza, we invite blindness to injustices in which America is complicit. 

Kudos to Joe Biden for beginning to stand up to Netanyahu — saying he will block the delivery of weapons that could be fired into densely populated areas of Rafah. “If they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities, that deal with that problem,” Biden said in an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett.)

Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and writes at Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

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