Cultural antisemitism only encourages pro-Israel sentiment: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the foolishness of hassling Diaspora Jews ‘for Palestine’

Social media post by British writer Nicole Lampert—a previous guest on the Bonjour Chai podcast.

My local café—the place I chat with fellow public-elementary-school parents after drop-off, where I buy coffee beans, and indeed where I have meetings with colleagues from The CJN—has taken a stand on the Israeli-Gaza war. It is, how to put it, all in for Palestine. There’s a sign in the window. There are flyers spread across the counter. Message received. I think?

I took note of this when I was there the last time, and had the following thoughts, all muddled together:

  • Does this mean I can’t go here anymore?
  • But I am ALSO upset about all the death in Gaza, even if I suspect I’d have a different let’s say geopolitical interpretation than my local coffee shop does.
  • Does the cafe even have a coherent position on Palestine?
  • Is their ‘Free Palestine’ aligned with the ‘Victory to Palestine’ neighbourhood signage (which I am not on board with) or more of an ‘everyone stop killing each other’ (which I very much am)?
  • How pathetic am I that here I am, wondering where I will now buy coffee beans (theirs are very good and extremely convenient), when people are starving in Gaza, when Hamas is still holding hostages, when [insert the usual reel of dead babies and wartime horrors that has been playing in my head but in other people’s actual lives since Oct. 7]?

There is little to disagree with in the headline to Maris Kreizman’s recent Literary Hub essay, “There are bigger problems in the world than ‘antisemitic literary-related incidents.'” This is reference to the Jewish Book Council’s antisemitism hotline-of-sorts.

There are, objectively, worse things happening than some hyperlefty poetry journal refusing to publish your sonnet because it’s convinced Jewish poets in Canada or wherever are personally sitting there determining Israeli military strategy. It’s arguably worse to be an infant kidnapped by Hamas than to be 24 or 54 and denied the doubtless lucrative opportunity to get a semi-autobiographical short story you’ve penned into the world.

Obviously casual bigotry is not the same as being bombed or, for that matter, kidnapped, or violently attacked in any other physical manner. (I say “obviously” as if there weren’t the whole speech-is-violent movement of the past few years, but I digress.)

Where I part ways with Kreizman’s argument (among other places) is here:

“Antisemitism exists and it is a problem. But it is not THE problem at this moment, nor is it THE problem in the literary world. There are so many more marginalized people who need to be heard.”

I must have missed the memo about the world being permitted one problem at a time, or the one about how only one group of people can legitimately assert victimhood. Kreizman is correct that pro-Palestinian speech gets stifled. So does pro-Israel speech. There are like five free speech absolutists, and they spend their days deflecting accusations of hypocrisy for having not yet called out speech violations they have yet to even hear about. Which views get suppressed is a matter of where you’re trying to express them. The literary world in the U.S. and in Canada is often-not-always in step, aesthetically-politically, with the independent coffee shops of North America and beyond.

Speaking of “beyond,” I don’t know how seriously to take the claim, made by Stephen N. Games in a public Facebook post, that per “one of London’s best-known literary agents,” it’s the case that “about half the publishing houses in the country [the U.K.] will now not take books that have any Jewish content or are by identifiably Jewish authors.” As in, I have no reason to distrust the story itself, but it would take a bit more investigative reporting on the British literary sphere to have an answer-answer about whether Jews are being pushed out of British publishing on that scale.

It’s also not great that it’s even plausible. Consider that the specific example Games gives of a book getting a hard time is one about a Jewish goat farmer in the English countryside. Admittedly I have not read the goat memoir but it does not sound like a pro-IDF manifesto.

I don’t know what to do with an anecdote I saw on X from a woman under the impression that the mere fact of a mom at a children’s birthday party being Israeli struck her as cause for a political confrontation. Because Palestine you see.

The thinking appears to be that a sort of BDS-ing of Jews generally, a cultural boycott of Jews, will somehow tilt things in favour of the Palestinian cause. That a bit of social antisemitism in the West is a necessary price (or, one suspects, for many, perk) of saving Palestinian children’s lives. Forgive me for having my doubts.

It’s not just that I am one of those dreadful Zionists who thinks that yes, Hamas deserves rather a lot of blame here, albeit not a Zionist who’d be entirely on board with the Israeli response. There are far too many people dying! I just don’t understand the mechanism by which harassing Jews locally is meant to do anything other than send them all directly to if not Theodor Herzl specifically then some TikTok version thereof.

What’s happening with antisemitism isn’t pressure on Jews to hold specific ideas about or make specific demands of Israel. No, it’s about making Jews feel like crap. Feel scared, feel less-than, for being Jewish. This is supposed to make Israel as a concept seem less appealing? Less worthy of support?

At the risk of repeating myself: If what you want is for Diaspora Jews to be more critical of Israel, you want Jews to find not-Israel parts of the world tolerable. To insist that Jews shrug off cultural antisemitism fails to account for how people actually respond to things. Kreizman may speak to the handful of other Jews who could plausibly write something like, “the Jewish Book Council could use their platform to promote intersectionality,” but this leaves one or two other Jews. Jews whose concerns about antisemitism, so soon after a gigantic massacre in Israel, while there are still hostages, really ought not to be brushed aside as privileged problems.

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on X. She is also on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.