The paradox of today’s anti-Semitism

March 8, 2017
A children’s playground in Brooklyn Heights, New York was vandalized with a swastika in November 2016. Screenshot from Twitter

Jewish community centers and synagogues have received threatening calls. Headstones at Jewish cemeteries have been overturned in suburban St. Louis, Philadelphia and Rochester, N.Y., and perhaps even in Brooklyn. Jewish writers have found their Facebook pages filled with vitriolic anti-Semitic hatred. Faculty offices have been painted with swastikas and defecations outside the door. Clearly, anti-Semitism is on the rise, and the American Jewish community is rightfully uneasy.

And yet, a recent Pew Research Center survey found yet again that Judaism is the most popular religion in America.

Consider the paradox: How can both be true at once, that anti-Semitism is on the rise yet Judaism is the most popular of America’s religions?

Let’s begin with the Pew survey. What Judaism is the most popular religion in America really means is that Judaism is the least unpopular religion.

Eastern religions are not understood. Muslims are feared and commonly identified with terrorism. Roman Catholicism is in the midst of a deep credibility crisis. Protestantism is divided between evangelicals and liberals, and evangelicals are divided generationally, with younger evangelicals having different views on homosexuality, for example.

Judaism is thus respected and admired — or less disrespected and less disliked than other religions. Little do outsiders know how deeply divided we are.

Why, then, the seeming explosion of anti-Semitism? This, too, must be seen in context.

I doubt there has been an increase in anti-Semitism as much as there has been an increase in the permissibility of the expressions of anti-Semitism and its amplification by the tools of social media.

A bit of history: American anti-Semitism was at its height in the 1930s during the crucial years just before World War II and the Holocaust. Those with anti-Semitic views did not disappear or alter their views in the immediate postwar years. What changed was that they did not feel comfortable expressing anti-Semitism without feeling some social stigma and rebuke both in public and even in social situations. Therefore, many in my generation grew up without hearing many anti-Semitic comments. That changed in the late 1960s with the tensions between Blacks and Jews; it changed again later with some hostility toward Israel and American Jews during the oil crisis of 1973 and 1979. And it has changed more rapidly since the turn of the century with the distance that has developed with the Holocaust. The tools of social networks and the internet magnify anti-Semitism and reinforce those who spew hatred.

No one can deny that the expressions of hatred have intensified the more polarized our society has become, and the explosion of anti-Semitism must be seen as but one dramatic, though not necessarily central, expansion of the expression of all hatreds — toward Muslims, toward immigrants, toward African-Americans, toward gays, toward the poor, toward any minority group, including white Americans without a college education who were at the core of President Donald Trump’s support in the November election.

Although I am deeply hesitant to put this in writing because events even in an hour from now can prove me wrong, it must be noted that in recent days, threats of violence against living Jews — not actual violence — have been sufficient to unnerve the Jewish community. Bombs threats have been called in, but there have been no actual bombs. Cemeteries, however sacred, have been vandalized, tombstones overturned — these are attacks on dead Jews and on the loving memory of living Jews, but not direct assaults on the living. How long this shall continue we do not know, but the costs to the Jewish community in terms of security and even in terms of the enrollment of Jewish children in preschool and day schools and camps are significant.

We also must note that the interests of Israel and the interests of the Diaspora Jewish community are not identical and can diverge easily. When Trump averted directly condemning anti-Semism — he has done so subsequently — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s answer was instructive. “There is no greater supporter of Israel or the Jewish state than President Donald Trump. I think we can put that [the question of condemning anti-Semitism] to rest.”

Trump may be a huge friend of Israel and a stupendous supporter of its prime minister, but while that may be terrific for the Israeli right, it does not necessarily translate into safety and security for American Jews.

It is not the first time Netanyahu misjudged the needs of a Diaspora community. His support of the Mexican border wall was an obvious gesture to Trump, but a slap in the face of Latino Americans whose views of Jews and Judaism are less well developed than other groups and who don’t know that Netanyahu doesn’t necessarily speak for the Jewish people or represent their views.

In the aftermath of the Hyper Cacher killings, the French prime minister and president made bold statements: “France without Jews is not France,” claiming these Jews as Frenchmen and committing themselves to defend the place of Jews and the safety of Jews in French society and culture. Netanyahu went to the main synagogue in Paris and then invited French Jews to come “home” to Israel where “we will protect you,” seemingly forgetting for a moment that Iran was an existential threat to Israel with the potential of nuclear annihilation. Just as France was claiming these Jews as they own, Israel pushed for burial in Israel, seemingly underscoring a perception that they were not Frenchmen, which was a blow to all French Jews.

Similarly throughout Eastern Europe, Israel is enjoying political support from ultra-nationalist, right-wing governments that are rewriting the history of World War II to cleanse their nations of the stigma of collaboration. Local Jewish communities speak out, scholars and public officials speak out while Israel remains silent.

I believe that Jews cannot fight the battle against the explosion of anti-Semitism without combatting all expressions of hatred, reaching out to others and even dialing down the vitriol that has characterized all political discourse. If the expression of hatred is unabated, Jews will be its victims — certainly not its only victims, and in all likelihood, not its primary victims. If we combat this promiscuous hatred together, new alliances may be struck and new possibilities emerge.

MICHAEL BERENBAUM is a professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University.

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