In the 1920s, the French Government sought to take stock of its recent encounters with Germany and protect itself from its aggressive neighbor. Twice within less than 50 years, France had seen German armies enter French territory from the northeast and inflict terrible military damage.
Drawing upon past experience and seeking to avoid the horrible losses in human life that it had experienced, France decided to build a string of fortifications along its border with Germany. Thus, the “Maginot Line” was constructed and it became the strongest, most sophisticated defense installation in history.
Unfortunately for France, in the Spring of 1940, in their third attack on France in less than a century, the German military simply bypassed the Maginot Line and entered France through Belgium further to the north. Within 27 days, in spite of the formidable fortifications, France had capitulated to the German forces.
Fighting the last war is, as France dramatically found out, frequently a fatal mistake. It seems that the Jewish community in the United States appears to be falling into the “last war” trap. The focus of Jewish leaders in the ongoing battle against rising antisemitism seems to be on right-wing skinhead “white supremacists.” This is somewhat understandable since for centuries those who chose to attack Jews in the West usually did so from the Right.
From autocratic Czarist Russia with its pogroms to Republican France with its Dreyfus Affair, the Right would regularly use antisemitism as a weapon with which to inflame the local population. With attacks regularly emanating from the Right, the Jewish communities instinctively feared the Right and relied on the Left to assist in warding off antisemitic attacks.
It is, therefore, rather natural that, as antisemitism grows in the United States, many in the Jewish community and their allies, continue to distrust the Right and seek to rely on the left for support. The recent antisemitism exposé on CNN, which sought to bring focus on the growing anti-Jewish prejudice in the United States, did just that. Anyone watching the program could only conclude that right-wing militias and their conservative allies across the nation were the primary sources of antisemitism.
It can be suggested that those watching that program were actually staring at a modern and virtual Maginot Line. CNN and those who chose to support its reasoning were confronting antisemitism that, while still in existence, is hardly the real existential threat to Jews.
The CNN program seemed to suggest that President Donald Trump and his followers are at the center of growing antisemitism. Never mind that the former president has observant Jewish children and grandchildren, that many of his closest friends and colleagues in New York and Florida are active members of the Jewish community and that he has regularly and vociferously condemned antisemitic acts and pronouncements, not to mention providing unparalleled support to Israel.
It was interesting to note that the CNN broadcast, which heavily featured the recent attack on a synagogue in Texas, failed to note that the attacker was an Islamist, whose hatred of Jews was not born of right-wing ideology, but of Islamic theology. Never once were the many attacks on Jews which have been occurring almost on a daily basis in the New York area mentioned. The source of most of those attacks is assuredly not white supremacist ideology.
Only a single incident of college campus antisemitism was cited, seemingly in an effort to make it seem rare, when, in reality, it has become an integral and destructive part of many of our institutions of higher learning – institutions not known to be hotbeds of conservatism.
In other words, the CNN program created a kind of Maginot Line. It focused the Jewish community’s concern with rising antisemitism on the old sources of anti-Jewish activism. It vilified the right – the fascists and racists, who have since 1945 and the sound defeat of international fascism been completely marginalized and discredited. Yes, they still exist, and, yes, they still pose some danger, but they are hardly the source of the rising tide of antisemitism.
On the other hand, not once did CNN cite Ilhan Omar or Rashida Tlaib, members of Congress, who spout flagrant antisemitism (couched in the guise of anti-Zionism, of course) and who use their positions of authority in our national legislature to foment anti-Jewish sentiment (remember Omar’s refence to “Benjamins” as being the source of Jewish influence). There was virtually no mention of the various radical professors and authors who ascribe to Jews “white privilege” and a history of racism and colonialism. Yet, the marginalizing of Jews caused by those people is potentially far more nefarious than the words and actions of a few delusional extremists who wander around trying to revive Nazism and fascism.
Instead of providing protection, the Maginot Line engendered a false sense of security. Today’s attempt to place essentially the entire focus of antisemitism on some Right-wing misfits is as misguided and as dangerous and illusory as the construction of an impregnable defense line intended as protection against yesterday’s threats.
• Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington, DC office of a national law firm. He is the author of Lobbying For Equality, Jacques Godard and the Struggle for Jewish Civil Rights during the French Revolution, published earlier this year by HUC Press.