By Gerard Leval
As I was growing up in Paris a decade after the end of the German occupation, I became aware that my family, and especially my grandparents, had a sixth sense. They had a refined ability to detect an anti-Semite. However, that label was never actually used, any more than was the word “Jew,” with its echoes of the yellow star and of German oppression.
Rather, we identified ourselves as “Israelites” (with the word “French” closely attached) and we had a special word for those we considered to be anti-Semites. They were “rosche.” This term was an Alsatian-Yiddish version of the Hebrew word “rasha” or “wicked.”
Ferreting out a “rosche” was an art practiced with discernment by members of my French family. Post-war France had very few outright anti-Semites. The virulent anti-Jewish practices of the Germans and their French collaborators had taken care of that.
Anti-Semitism was relegated to subtle acts. But in spite of that subtlety, in my family the anti-Semites were easily outed.
Even as a very young child, I rapidly learned to be wary of those who by their social offense or a misplaced word could be identified as a “rosche.” I developed a radar of my own for the detection of those who hated us because we were Israelites.
My skills as a detector of the “rosche” amongst us were further developed when my family moved to the South Side of Chicago, where anti-Semitism was actually much more in evidence. It was infinitely easier to recognize anti-Semitism American-style — it was totally devoid of subtlety. In our neighborhood, the children of the Eastern European immigrants who populated the area were anything but discreet or subtle. They happily launched snowballs or other projectiles at us to the cries of “dirty Jew.”
As a consequence, over the course of growing up, I learned to recognize and be very wary of any anti-Semites. Of course, the steady reduction in such behavior around me as my family moved to Skokie, Ill., whose citizens were largely Jewish — and then when I moved to Washington and engaged in a legal career, where Jews were also abundant and, in some cases, even predominated — may have dulled my skills in detecting anti-Semites and their vile behavior. Nonetheless, I still consider myself quite adept at identifying those who hold anti-Jewish sentiments.
It is in this context that I have observed the tide of accusations of anti-Semitism against the nascent Trump administration.
Strangely, in spite of the claims being bandied about, my well-refined sixth sense has not been alerted.
I have not found that the exclamations of the president-elect suggest that he is an anti-Semite. His remarks may sometimes have struck me as being discourteous, boorish and certainly on occasion very contrary to the usual public dialogue, but they have not triggered within me that internal warning of looming anti-Semitism. He does not seem to me to be a “rosche.”
In fact, I am steadily developing a contrary feeling and a concomitant concern. The president-elect’s sometimes inarticulate and unvarnished remarks about Jews and Israel have actually suggested quite the opposite. He seems to me to be more philo-Semitic than anti-Semitic and, as his recent actions demonstrate, very pro-Israel.
If my radar for the detection of anti-Semitism is always working, my tendency to launch an accusation of anti-Semitism, however, is very restrained. I am personally wary of unfairly or improperly accusing someone of that prejudice. As a consequence, the rush to attack Donald Trump or his minions for alleged anti-Semitism seems to me not only erroneous, but also and, importantly, to be detrimental — for falsely asserting such a claim is to diminish the importance of the charge and to dull the impact of the assertion when it is truly appropriate.
I have noted that a number of prominent Jewish organizations have raised substantial funds with the assertion that we are in the throes of a new era of virulent anti-Semitism. While raising the alarm may be a successful means of raising funds, it can also serve to undermine the credibility of those organizations and their role, and thereby diminish the strength of their role when a truly serious occurrence of anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, as, alas, inevitably, it will.
Assuredly, we must always be vigilant for anti-Semitic statements and actions, but we must also be careful not to be like the boy who cried “wolf.” We must not make a charge of anti-Semitism when it is questionable at best and potentially wrong.
That sixth sense that I developed as a child, giving me the ability to detect the “rosche” in our midst, was intended as a protective instinct. It was a precious gift given to me by my family and I continue to rely on it. But it has not led me to feel any anti-Semitism on the part of the new political team about to come to Washington. My radar for detecting anti-Semitism remains fully operational, but I am cautiously optimistic that it will not be activated in the coming months and years by our new leaders.
Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington office of Arent Fox LLP.
Gerard Leval’s argument is refuted in this same issue of WJW, in Barry Dwork’s letter to the editor: ” The Anti-Defamation League has produced a report documenting how Trump supporters sent out 19,000 anti-Semitic tweets to journalists who were predominantly Jewish. Trump himself once told an audience of Jewish Republicans that he did not need their money, an anti-Semitic reference in itself.”
Mr. Leval’s smug (Trump-like!) arrogance in setting himself up as the world’s “bestest, greatest” expert on anti-Semitism is ridiculous.