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Confronting Antisemitism: Bringing Meaning and Context to Our New Reality

We are experiencing a hate war being orchestrated against us. Now we must effectively organize to fight this battle, protecting our community while employing our collective resources in responding to this challenge.
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January 18, 2024
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If the 19th Century afforded Jews the opportunity to identify and to adopt Western liberal political ideas, to create our own national liberation movement through Zionism, and to access and assimilate into democratic and civic institutions, then, in this century, American Jews are feeling for the first time a systematic rejection of their standing and place within modern society.

We are experiencing an era in which our liberal political moorings are being upended, our embrace and identification with Zionism is being questioned and our positions and roles within democratic societies are being challenged.

We are experiencing an era in which our liberal political moorings are being upended, our embrace and identification with Zionism is being questioned, and our positions and roles within democratic societies are being challenged.

The transformative events of the 20th century —  the two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the formation of the Jewish State — all served to motivate Jews to advance their distinctive political self-interests as well as their universal priorities. By contrast, in this 21st century, many of the major transformative events — the 2008 recession, the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the 2018 assault on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, and the October 7th Hamas pogrom directed against Israelis — have contributed to the most significant expressions of antisemitism in a century.

There is a striking dichotomy here, according to a series of recent studies about American attitudes towards various religions and faith communities, showing both Judaism and Jews are highly admired.  Yet the incidents of antisemitism currently are at an all-time high, even as there are today more organizations, both Jewish and non-Jewish, engaged in the fight against antisemitism and anti-Zionism than at any point in American history, and more financial resources being dedicated to this effort than at any prior time.

The ADL studies on American attitudes towards Jews offers us some important insights:

In the original 1964 poll, ADL found that 29 percent of Americans believed in six or more common stereotypes about Jews, out of a total of 11 such stereotypes that they were asked about. That percentage has declined significantly over the ensuing 55 years and, indeed, has stayed relatively flat at the lower end over the past two decades.  

However, a 2023 survey of antisemitic attitudes among Americans found 20% of adults believed in six or more of the 11 stereotypes that ADL employs to measure anti-Jewish sentiment: a sharp increase since 2019, when 11% were recorded holding such views.  How can we explain this sharp acceleration of antisemitic beliefs? Sociologists hold that a number of factors are contributing to this acceleration of hate. 

The normalization of antisemitic conspiracies has also contributed to the spreading of hate messages by white supremacists; such incidents have more than doubled, with 852 incidents in 2022, up from 422 incidents in 2021.  One such conspiratorial notion fostered by white supremacists involves “Replacement Theory.”  This belief holds that people from minority populations, both here and in Europe, are replacing the existing white, largely Christian populations and existing governmental leadership, and that all this transformation is being facilitated by Jews, who are seeking to garner control of Western institutions. 

The issue of race and whiteness simply was not part of the conversation about how Jews perceived themselves, yet today it has become a central tenet of the political rhetoric of both the political right and of the extreme left. The “whiteness” of America’s Jews is now a racial barometer of acceptance. For the far right, the Jewish pedigree is defined as non-white and therefore any Jewish aspirations to operate in the political mainstream, as part of the “white establishment” are rejected. The Alt-Right and others see egalitarianism, globalism, and multiculturalism as Jewishly inspired liberal initiatives that run counter to American nationalist ideas and values. On the left, Progressives are seeking to discredit Jewish (Zionist) participation as legitimate liberal actors on the basis that “Jews are white” and therefore by definition belong to the oppressor class, possessing no claims as authentic political partners on behalf of communities of color. Indeed, if you are categorized as a “Zionist,” then you have no standing!

We have held the belief that Western liberalism offered for Jews a political home. But today we are no longer so sure, as many of the core tenets of our liberal political tradition are being challenged, questioned and rejected by those who oppose us, as we face a new illiberalism. The moral “truths” we affirmed are now being challenged by our enemies, and even by some within our community. 

Two other factors are contributing to these contemporary expressions of antisemitic hate: the continued presence of religiously based views and perceptions about Judaism and Jews and the employment of conspiratorial ideas extracted from “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a publication released in the early years of the 20th century that was widely circulated posting a wide assortment of untruths about Jews.   

Today, many of these new forms of antisemitism are expressions of opposition to Israel.  The accessibility of social media and the high profile of Israel and Jews provides the “perfect storm” for what we are expe-riencing.

No doubt, two other factors may account for this recent acceleration of hate: the presence of political instability and economic uncertainty and the documented increase of mental illness.    

Recent antisemitism is also a reflection of destructive forces tearing at American and Western European societies, where stability and democracy are already under pressure. 

How best can we respond? The Jewish community sadly has experience in having to manage such hate expressions at various times in our history. These ten steps reflect successful past efforts and provide a formula for moving forward:

• Providing Education and Engagement: History provides us with a practical lesson that education and exposure make a profound difference. An effort to formally push back against ideas, individuals and institutions that promote various forms of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel expression becomes essential.

• Creating Experiences: Offering folks we identify as “influencers” particular opportunities to meet and connect with Jews, experience Israel, and learn about Jewish history and texts alters perceptions and attitudes.

• Monitoring Social Media Platforms: As we know, the most significant growth in hate messaging is happening online.How hate speech is managed, isolated, and called out will be essential to minimizing the extent of our current problem.

• Engaging Government as a Partner: Historically, the US government along with our state and local officials must be seen as a critical ally in both monitoring and assisting in the necessary responses to hate speech and antisemitic actions. Working with legislators, law enforcement, and the courts, all represents essential pieces to this strategy.

• Mobilizing Elites, Key Civic Institutions, and Coalitions: Our ability to identify and work with high profile influence makers and credible organizations in business, culture, religion, and civic affairs can help in offsetting hate expressions. Forming coalitions of key ethnic, religious, and social justice leaders and groups represent an essential organizing principle.

• Setting the Record Straight: Untruths and misrepresentations need to be countered by prominent individuals and institutions to minimize hate messaging.

• Identifying and Isolating Bad Actors: Historically, focusing on and isolating the “problematic players” can go a long way in limiting the effectiveness and access of these individuals to the broader public square.

• Managing the Problem Effectively: As in the past, coordinating and managing tasks essential to minimizing the impact of antisemitic rhetoric and action requires the collective involvement of all the institutional players in harnessing their collective talents, resources, and energy.

• Maintaining and Expanding Research: Jewish agencies have benefitted greatly from the scholarly and scientific work that has been done on understanding and monitoring what triggers both such prejudicial ideas, analyzing the motivations and actions of those who market hate, and developing strategies to minimize and counter such groups.

• Ensuring Jewish Security: Fundamental to this work must be the collective efforts of Jewish communal and religious institutions, working with governmental agencies and law enforcement units in providing security updates and on the ground protection.

We are experiencing a hate war being orchestrated against us. Now we must effectively organize to fight this battle, protecting our community while employing our collective resources in responding to this challenge.


Steven Windmueller is Professor Emeritus of Jewish communal studies at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles.  His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.

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