As you might have heard, a few days ago ultra-Orthodox extremists disrupted Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies that were being held at the Western Wall. The rioters called the ceremony attendees "animals" and "Nazis", one desecrated a Siddur by tearing out a page and blowing his nose with it.
Deeply disturbed by the troubling actions of a group of extremists last week at the Kotel. Let us make no mistake, had such a hateful incident — such incitement — happened in any other country, there’d be little hesitation in labeling it antisemitism.
Deeply disturbed by the troubling actions of a group of extremists last week at the Kotel. Let us make no mistake, had such a hateful incident — such incitement — happened in any other country, there’d be little hesitation in labeling it antisemitism. https://t.co/t1eUs0Fm3b— Special Envoy Deborah Lipstadt (@StateSEAS) July 5, 2022
Quite a few critics have pushed back on Lipstadt's tweet, contending that it was wrong to label the incident "antisemitic" (even if it was otherwise risible), presumably because it was a "Jew-on-Jew" incident. These include former Ambassador David Friedman, David Collier, and Ami Magazine. But there are also staunch progressives in the critical camp, such as Abe Silberstein and Joel Swanson.
Some, in turn, have defended Lipstadt by suggesting that she did not actually call the incident "antisemitism", but rather said it was an incident of a sort that would be labeled antisemitism if it had "happened in any other country." (This somewhat more diplomatic framing, in turn, was seized on by a different set of critics -- including Mitchell Plitnick -- who thought Lipstadt was being too wishy-washy, thus proving once and for all that Lipstadt's position is absolutely unwinnable).
Whether or not Lipstadt's precise framing constitutes her calling this antisemitic, I will not say. But whether she said it or not, I will: yes, this incident was antisemitic, and we shouldn't have trouble saying so.
The argument against calling this attack antisemitic is, simply put, that it was an attack done by Jews. The problem is that, while it is fair to say we should be especially cautious in accusing Jewish actors of antisemitism, very few critics believe that it is impossible-in-concept for a Jew to act in an antisemitic fashion. Collier, for example, strongly believes that the Jews in organizations like "Jewish Voice for Labour" (a group dedicated to dismissing antisemitism allegations against Jeremy Corbyn as "smears") are antisemitic. Others believe similar things about, e.g., Tablet Magazine publishing a conspiratorial screed positing a shadowy cabal of Jewish financiers pushing a trans agenda. So then the question is whether this attack falls into the category -- limited but not null -- of Jews acting in an antisemitic fashion.
The answer, to me, seems a clear "yes". Indeed, I have trouble wrapping my head around the argument to the contrary. It is hard to imagine a cleaner case of antisemitism than violently attacking Jews for engaging in a Jewish religious ritual at a Jewish holy site. I will once again refer to the Nexus definition of antisemitism, because I think we get it right and we particularly get it right here:
Antisemitism consists of anti-Jewish attitudes, actions or systemic conditions. It includes negative beliefs and feelings about Jews, hostile behavior directed against Jews, and conditions that discriminate against Jews and impede their ability to participate as equals in political, religious, cultural, economic, or social life.
The attack on the Bar Mitzvah was a very clear and tangible attempt to "impede [Jews'] ability to participate as equals in ... religious life." It therefore is antisemitic. Full stop. A great virtue of our definition is that it is less concerned with mining people's psyches to determine whether they have the precise mental attitudes towards "Jews" in order to qualify as antisemitic, and instead looks to tangible effects on the equal standing of Jews in concrete spaces. Few can deny that the Jews who were seeking to engage in this sacred ritual were denied that equality by their attackers. And in our frame, it simply does not and should not matter what underlying ideology provided the attackers' particular apologia for their assault.
Lipstadt's critics' attempts to recast what happen as some sort of intra-communal theological debate miss the point. Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews have all sorts of disagreements on matters of Jewish law and practice. Those disagreements, even if passionately stated, are not antisemitic and are not what drives labeling this incident antisemitic. What makes it antisemitic is the very direct and tangible obstruction of these Jews' ability to participate as equal in religious life -- an obstruction that targeted these Jews in their capacity as Jews and in the course of them living as Jews.
Some have sought to frame their problem via the risk of turnabout: what of certain liberal Jews who take a dim view of Haredi or other Orthodox compatriots? I don't find this objection compelling. If the claim is that it is conceptually impossible for a Jew to engage in discourse or practices directed at Orthodox Jews that are antisemitic, I don't believe it. If the claim is that Lipstadt's tweet will set a "precedent" whereby in a future DeSantis administration the bulk of American Jewry is deemed "antisemitic" because it dissents from Orthodox Jewish ideologies, I think it's irrelevant -- what Deborah Lipstadt does or doesn't tweet is utterly epiphenomenal to the inevitable abuse that will pour out of a DeSantis administration.
Better, then, to focus on the specifics of this case, and what happened to these Jews. They were vicious harassed and attacked for the sin of practicing their Judaism in a Jewish holy place. If it were any other country, or any other set of perpetrators, it'd be antisemitic without question. I fail to see compelling evidence that the extremists who attacked Jews at the Western Wall in Israel deserve some sort of special exemption from the general rule. Our concept of antisemitism is capacious enough to include them. And one that couldn't, I'd wager, is one too cramped to do much useful work at all.