Responding to Anti-Semitism: Revisiting Old Assumptions, Understanding the New Threats

May 23, 2018
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

A renewed assault on Jews is now underway. The incidents of anti-Semitism are again on the increase. The forces that today are driving hatred in America, and more directly, contemporary anti-Semitism and racism appear to be fundamentally different and the responses will likewise need to incorporate alternative approaches if we are to effectively succeed in minimizing religious bigotry and ethnic and racial prejudice.

There exists a growing consensus that the political landscape in America is poisoned by the deep fissures found within the political culture. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2043, white Americans will cease to comprise this nation’s majority. This factor, among others, is contributing to a backlash among certain sectors of this nation that are fearful of a fundamentally different type of society. In response to these demographic shifts and changing economic conditions, there has been a significant growth in hate-based organizations, conspiracy-driven websites and media personalities expressing hostile views toward such ideas as pluralism, multiculturalism and globalism. This renewed focus on nationalism and race has given license to attacks on religious constituencies, ethnic groups and immigrant communities. The rise of factionalism and the politics of blame represent today the new political mindset requiring a Jewish response.

Indeed, the data revealing the growth in anti-Semitism must be seen as disturbing. The 2017 Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Audit on Anti-Semitism identifies a 57 percent increase, representing the largest single jump on record. The 1,986 incidents comprise cases of harassment (1,015 cases), vandalism (221) and assaults (36). These figures account only for specific actions but do not reflect the hostile messages delivered on social media. Yet, just a few weeks ago, the ADL released a study identifying some 4.2 million anti-Semitic tweets that have been posted this year.

Jonathan Weisman in his new book, “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump,” suggests that the 2016 campaign would bring to the surface the alt-right with its conspiracy theories and hate messaging. But the assault is evident as well on the left, as we observed leaders associated with the Women’s March and the Chicago Gay Pride Parade making statements and taking actions that must be seen as unwelcoming to Jews and hostile toward Israel. Case in point, Linda Sarsour, one of the organizers of the Women’s March, who suggested that one cannot be a Zionist and a feminist.

The initial question we should be asking when it comes to anti-Semitism, “Why now, and why here?”

To be certain anti-Semitism is not pervasive, but there are most certainly changes occurring within the fabric of American culture and intergroup relations. While we are reminded by opinion surveys that most Americans hold favorable attitudes toward Jews and Israel, the tenor of social interaction has become far more challenging and uncertain. Elsewhere, I have written about the toxic political climate as a contributing factor to religious and racial hatred. “As factionalism and the politics of blame have increased in this country, some Americans are fearful of the future, triggering their fury and anger against the current state of this society.”

The Cycle of Hate: Historian Jonathan Sarna reminds us that in fact this nation has experienced various periods of social unrest, when anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudicial behaviors were present. Sarna noted in particular that with the election of Warren G. Harding in 1920, the country would experience a period of heightened anti-immigrant responses and a spike in anti-Semitism. Social and political conditions promote the repetition of prior forms of racial and religious expressions of hate.

Responding to Anti-Semitism: For more than 100 years, the American-Jewish community has been managing its response against anti-Semitism by employing a set of accepted community relations tactics. In examining some of the core assumptions that defined the community’s understanding of anti-Semitic behavior and its “treatment,” is it possible that these strategies may no longer be effective?

The policy of “isolation” that defined Jewish practice for much of the 20th century no longer works. Historically, Jewish institutions opted to embrace this strategy of systematically “isolating” bigots and anti-Semites. Today, with the presence of social media and other vehicles of open communication, it is no longer possible to contain such voices of hate.

The motivation for minority political organizing was based on the collective proposition that these groups endured a shared sense of powerlessness. In this current environment, these “traditional” minority communities are no longer necessarily seen as marginalized or without power. As Jews, for example, became “white folks” or were seen by some to be part of the established order, their case for victimhood was diminished, just as certain enemies of our community now define American Jews as operating outside the boundaries of an oppressed peoples. Indeed, some have described the contemporary position of Jews in America as the new “WASPS” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). The current rhetoric critiques Jews as power brokers who are seen as part of the existing political elite class. By adopting this new definition, it is then possible to assign blame to the Jews for the problems that confront our society. If, in the past, Jews were defined by their enemies as the subversive outsider, today we are described as the “oppressive insider.”

In modern times, anti-Semitism has metastasized to encompass anti-Israelism and other manifestations of political and religious hate. Rather than containing anti-Judaism as a religious expression, the community has experienced an increase in the different forms and varieties of anti-Jewish sentiment. In the past, the national defense agencies have treated all varieties of anti-Semitism through the same lens; this proposition no longer has merit.

If anti-Semitism was at one time seen as either being generated by the “right” or from the “left,” today there is a simultaneous assault on Jewish interests by groups on both edges of the political spectrum, creating new challenges to our community.

One of the propositions adopted by the Jewish community relations enterprise contended that history must be seen as linear, implying that past injustices and prejudices will give way over time to a more enlightened understanding of the human condition. Under this notion, anti-Semitic behavior and other forms of social hatred will dissipate as individuals are exposed to the shared story of all peoples. Education would free folks from their prejudicial past, empowering them to better manage ethnic and racial differences. This supposition has not proven to be correct.

If, in the past, Jews were defined by their enemies as the subversive outsider, today we are described as the “oppressive insider.”

The promise of 20th century nationalism and the founding of the Zionist movement held out the mistaken assumption that creating a “nation state” for the Jewish people would forever end anti-Semitism. If Jews had their own national identity, they would be seen and treated “like other peoples,” removing the seeds of anti-Jewish rhetoric and behavior.

At one point, Israel was seen as vulnerable, making its case more appealing to potential allies. Today, Israel has become the lynchpin for the new anti-Semitism. The enemies of the Jewish state, for example, have craftily employed Nazi symbols and terms, applying these images to Israel’s conduct. The Jewish community viewed the Nazi experience as unique to a particular ideology and political culture. Jews would contend that any cross-reference to Nazism is inappropriate and has no comparative basis. Many of Israel’s enemies reject this argument, as they move forward to impose Nazi labels on the Jewish state and introduce their Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) proposals. Today, anti-Israel sentiment is one of the major challenges in our fight to push back against anti-Semitism. Clearly, we need to separate out those who express particular criticism of Israel in connection with specific policy matters from the opponents of the Jewish state who seek to challenge its very existence.

Anti-Semitism is driven by the un-educated and uninformed. For the past 100 years, the community relations establishment held to the position that in order to “defeat” anti-Semitism, educational initiatives would need to be employed to offset misunderstandings, ignorance and prejudicial judgments about Jews and Judaism. Indeed, for decades our national agencies launched a series of informational programs designed to dispel myths that were fostered about Jews. Today, however, the new reality suggests that well-educated individuals know very well their case against Jews and Israel is designed to influence public opinion and to seed doubt about the role of Jews in our society. Today, we face a highly sophisticated strategy directed against Judaism and the Jewish community.

In the early decades of the 20th century, the model of Jewish organizing was constructed around the proposition that other like-minded communities will want to coalesce with Jewish organizations and leaders in opposing hate-based activities. This assumption was based on the common plight of prejudice endured by minority constituencies. Today, there are significantly different and individualized approaches employed by groups in responding to hate-directed attacks. There appears to be no longer a shared strategy for opposing prejudice and racial hatred, nor are some communities necessarily interested in being identified with the Jewish community.

Social elites were seen as the essential civic glue necessary to build public support in opposition to anti-Semitism. For decades, the Jewish “defense” strategy was directed toward mobilizing these elites as a wedge in condemning anti-Semitic rhetoric and behavior. As societies have radically changed, these leadership elites in such disciplines as government, business, the arts and religion no longer carry the same credibility or leverage that they once held, minimizing their impact on social behaviors.

For much of Western history, Jews contended with Christian theological anti-Judaism. Over the course of the 20th century, Christian-Jewish encounters would significantly alter the negative historic patterns associated with Christian religious views on Jews and Judaism. In the Western experience, Jews never formally had to deal with Islam. This is no longer the reality. As Islam has become an integral part of Western political culture and as Muslim influence has expanded, at this point in time, Jews are bereft of a strategy in managing Jewish-Muslim connections on a broad scale.

As anti-Semitism reasserts its presence on the political stage, these new assaults present significant yet different challenges to the Jewish community relations enterprise. Traditional responses appear to be no longer appropriate. The historic practice of “containment,” as an example, does not represent a viable strategy, but neither are the existing operational principles. The Jewish communal system will require a different framework for political and religious engagement in managing these contemporary threats against Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. A version of this article appeared on eJewishphilanthropy.com. His writing can be found on his website, thewindreport.com.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

Are Jews Cursed or Blessed?

Religious or secular, it is impossible to deny that there are many tragic chapters in the long history of the Jewish people.

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.