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As antisemitism grows, it's easier to condemn than define

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For American Jews who grew up thinking that antisemitism was a thing of the past, the last several years have been startling. White supremacists marched in Charlottesville. A gunman massacred worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. And then came the Hamas attacks of October 7 and Israel's war in Gaza that followed. The Anti-Defamation League says since then, antisemitic incidents in the U.S. are up 361% over the same period a year ago. Both Congress and the White House have tried to address antisemitism in recent weeks, but there's still a debate about what it is.

Our next guests are two journalists who've been thinking and writing a lot about the forms antisemitism takes in the U.S. these days. Franklin Foer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, and Julia Ioffe is a founding partner and Washington correspondent at Puck. Welcome.

FRANKLIN FOER: Thanks for having me.

JULIA IOFFE: Thanks for having us, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Let's head to the college campuses where there have been these protests all over the country. And each of you has written about incidents of antisemitism around these protests in support of Palestinian rights. At the same time, we have heard protesters say accusations of antisemitism are too often being used to silence legitimate speech. Can both things be true?

FOER: Yeah. In fact, both things can be true. I think that the question that gets invoked at the core of this is, is anti-Zionism the same thing as antisemitism?

SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah. I intend to get to that.

FOER: OK.

SHAPIRO: Go ahead.

FOER: So do you want me to - I could steer clear of this stuff.

SHAPIRO: Take it away, Frank. Let's go there. Is believing in the existence of a Jewish state, which I understand you both do...

FOER: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Is opposing that - is saying, I don't believe Israel should exist, inherently antisemitic?

FOER: I would say it's not.

IOFFE: Yes.

FOER: I'd say it's not inherently. We'll have a disagreement in a minute. It's not inherently antisemitic.

SHAPIRO: We love disagreement.

FOER: There's a whole range of people who I know who are anti-Zionist, who believe in a binational state. And it's not something I agree with, and I think it's a dangerous idea. But I don't think that they are per se antisemites because, you know, just thinking through their motivations of the people who make these arguments, I don't think that they hate Jews. But...

SHAPIRO: Julia, I can see you want to jump in.

IOFFE: Yes. I think you can absolutely be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic. One of the main ways that you do that is by being Jewish.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

IOFFE: I think the problem with being anti-Zionist and being not Jewish is - and I think people - a lot of these people have noble intentions. They see what's happening in Gaza, and they're rightly incensed and horrified by it all. But then you get into questions of double standards. You know, if the Palestinians have a right to national self-determination, do the Jews not have that? And if so, why not?

FOER: Can I...

SHAPIRO: Frank, I know you disagree.

FOER: No, no, no, I agree with her on all of that, actually. But I would say - just add one thing. I think that when people use the word Zionist, it's oftentimes a synonym for Jew.

IOFFE: Yes.

FOER: And it becomes a way for expressing thoughts about Jewish villainy, about Jewish control, about a Jewish cabal that would be socially unacceptable if you use the word Jew.

SHAPIRO: Some of the pro-Palestinian activists, including some Jewish activists, say that the focus on antisemitism at the protests is a distraction, that this deflects from a more serious issue of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Do you think that's a fair criticism?

IOFFE: I think it is absolutely. I mean, I think the focus - I would put it differently. I would say that the focus on the college protests is ridiculous. And I think that for a long time, it did shift the spotlight away from Gaza. I think what is very hard for the younger generation of Americans to understand is, you know, why is antisemitism even an issue? You guys look white. Nobody pulls you over for one broken tail light and then shoots you for no reason.

And it's very hard to explain to people that what has happened in America over the last, I would say, 50 years - two, three generations - is the exception that proves the rule of thousands of years of Jewish history, which - Jews like my family, who came from the Soviet Union, where we were second-class citizens, where we were excluded from universities, from jobs, from overseas travel - that trauma is so deep because this has happened - you know, as we said in Passover, in every generation, somebody rises up to kill us. That's what we say in the seder.

I think that's very hard to explain to people who feel discriminated against every single day that we're talking about these phantom pains and the idea that it could turn on a dime and the genocide could come again tomorrow versus an active daily kind of trauma of the racism that other groups in America feel.

SHAPIRO: Frank, what do you think about the argument that the real trauma from past events and fear about what future events may bring should take a back seat to the ongoing killing of tens of thousands of Palestinians?

FOER: I would say it's not even just - I mean, I think that minimizes what Jews are experiencing on campuses and in the world just to say that it's an expression of past trauma, which -obviously it's filtered through past trauma, as Julia describes. But if you - on college campuses and in neighborhoods and - there are these very real examples of antisemitism. And just because there's one crisis that's happening in Gaza does not mean that there are not other crises that are happening in the world. And these protests are happening in the context of our Democratic crisis where we can't express disagreements in a mild sort of way, where everything escalates to incredible levels of vitriol and has a hint of violence to it.

IOFFE: Yeah. I also think - sorry. I also think one of the issues with our political discourse now but I think is just a problem of human brains in general is I think it's very hard for people to hold two things in their heads at once as being true simultaneously. You can absolutely protest what is happening in Gaza right now. You can absolutely be appalled and horrified and wanted to stop yesterday. That doesn't mean that antisemitism is not important, not a canary in the coal mine for our democracy, which it kind of has also been traditionally. You can be both.

SHAPIRO: The three of us are all roughly the same generation. We're all in our 40s. Are you surprised to see the level of antagonism that American Jews report experiencing right now? Frank, the title of your cover story in The Atlantic was "The Golden Age Of American Jews Is Ending." Does this feel like a surprising, unexpected shift?

FOER: It does. After October 7, I've seen things in my own neighborhood and in my own community that I never thought I would see - that my rabbi was walking down Connecticut Avenue just, you know, a couple hundred feet from my house, and somebody rolled down the window and started shouting antisemitic epithets at her and that at the...

SHAPIRO: In Washington, D.C.

FOER: Yeah. In my daughter's school, there was a Swastika that appeared in the middle of this crisis. And it suddenly started to feel local and intimate in a way that certainly defied everything I had experienced throughout most of my life.

SHAPIRO: Julia, are you surprised?

IOFFE: No.

SHAPIRO: I suspected you might say that, having grown up in the Soviet Union.

IOFFE: You know, I was 7 when I came over, and I had already experienced plenty of antisemitism as a child. I had a first-grade teacher in the Soviet Union who wouldn't let me eat with the rest of the class. The Soviet Jewish community looks at American Jews and sees them as these kind of polyanotypes. They've lost that Jewish vigilance. They've lost that Jewish pessimism, that they're just so optimistic.

FOER: Guilty as charged.

IOFFE: So, yeah, I remember the surprise among American Jews and being surprised by their surprise and kind of feeling like, we told you so. It never goes away.

SHAPIRO: Julia Ioffe of Puck and Franklin Foer of The Atlantic. It is so good to talk to you both. Thank you.

FOER: Thanks, Ari.

IOFFE: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLYING LOTUS' "FF4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.