The Rise of Anti-Semitism, and What to Do About It

August 28, 2019

In 1986, Steven Spielberg and Don Bluth’s animated “An American Tail,” about Jewish immigrants (portrayed by mice), declared American anti-Semitism not just dead, but nonexistent. The Mouskewitz family and friends saluted the Golden Medina — America — for having streets paved with gold and inhabitants blessed with golden hearts. The exuberant, down-is-now-up number “There Are No Cats in America” rejoiced that Jews finally have a welcoming home. In this extraordinary republic of liberty and equality, “the streets are paved with cheese” and there, you can “set your mind at ease.”

True, we sourpuss historians know Gen. Ulysses S. Grant banned Jews from Tennessee during the Civil War. We know that in the 1880s, when the great Eastern European Jewish immigration started, German Jews faced discrimination in fancy hotels. We teach that the immigration limitations of the 1920s reflected fears of the mongrel “kikes.” We recall that anti-Semitism peaked in the 1930s, as attackers branded Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as Franklin Rosenfeld’s Jew Deal. That is why a “Paper Wall” built by State Department bureaucrats and reinforced by hoodlums on the streets barred European Jews from the United States — sentencing some of them to die in Auschwitz.

Nevertheless, we agree America historically was different. President Abraham Lincoln countermanded Grant’s General Order No. 11, and Grant later repented. Many of the 2 million Jews who successfully came from Europe made it big in America — with their kids doing even better. In America, Levi Strauss could herald the jeans revolution; Betty Friedan could help launch the feminist movement; Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand could top the pop charts; Henry Kissinger could go from Nazi refugee to secretary of state; and Israel Isidore Beilin (aka Irving Berlin) could write our national hymn, “God Bless America.” These pioneers paved the way for our generation’s celebrated American-Jewish gamechangers, from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to tech giant Mark Zuckerberg.

Even more important than any one Jew’s success was America’s embrace of the Jewish people. More than 400,000 Americans died defeating Hitler, with many of the toughest soldiers liberating the Nazi death camps with tears in their eyes. Half a century later, in December 1993, more than 6,000 Billings, Mont., homeowners defied white supremacists by hanging paper menorahs in their windows after one hooligan broke a window decorated with a paper menorah. The United States consistently defended Israel while fighting the United Nation’s anti-Israel pile-on.

I had to admit Grandpa was right. The world still hated Jews.

I felt blessed to be born into this post-Auschwitz covenant, where the Western powers that failed to protect the Jews of Europe now vowed “never again.” This rejection of anti-Semitism was not just a slogan. It was a solemn global promise American idealism and power backed. “The world learned its lesson,” I would tell my Polish-born grandfather, who still saw anti-Semites behind every tree in Queens, N.Y., where I grew up.

Further proof came during the Sukkot holiday in 1986. On Oct. 19, Elie Wiesel, the newly named Nobel Peace Prize winner, threw out the ceremonial first pitch in a World Series game. Having received the ultimate global high-five days earlier, he was a symbol of Jewish wisdom, Jewish suffering and Jewishness itself, and people enthusiastically cheered for him at Shea Stadium as he performed this most sacred of all-American rites.

For me, the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl 16 years later broke that international pledge — or my deluded faith in it. My students wondered that after 9/11, “what kind of fool” would wander around Pakistan interviewing Islamists. I answered, “I was that kind of fool.”

I never knew Pearl, but I believe he also had a misplaced faith in the world. We both felt protected. We were born into the 1960s’ Pax Americana. We were educated at the best American schools — he at Stanford, me at Harvard. We were de-Jewified by our “objective,” “impressive” professions: he as a journalist, me as a historian. Our world-class institutions protected us: The Wall Street Journal! McGill University! We had won the post-Holocaust Jewish sweepstakes. We were the luckiest Jews ever, putting our people’s history of oppression behind us and living The American Dream – capital T, A, D!

That delusion survived the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the Entebbe selection separating Jewish from non-Jewish hijack victims, the rising tide of anti-Israelism starting to fester in universities and the U.N. — even the post-9/11 murmurings that thousands of Jews knew to skip work that day. But then Islamists kidnapped Pearl as an American, slaughtering him as a Jew, forcing him to say, “My father’s Jewish. My mother’s Jewish. I’m Jewish.” Something snapped, particularly because it occurred as Palestinians were blowing up Israelis in cafes and buses, yet “the world” blamed Israel, despite Israel’s unprecedented attempts to make peace.

I had to admit Grandpa was right. The world still hated Jews.

Author’s Battle Plan to Combat Anti-Semitism 

Insightful New York Times columnist Bari Weiss enjoyed her “holiday from history” for longer. Yes, she arrived at Columbia University a year after Pearl’s 2002 murder and, according to her, was “taught in many classes, in the dining halls, and in campus bars that you couldn’t be both a progressive in good standing and a Zionist.” Yes, lovely fellow liberals would kindly, curiously ask her, “So how can you be a Zionist? How can you support a racist ideology?” Yes, when she defended Israel in her essays, critics cast her as (horror of horrors) a conservative, even though she considers herself a “left-leaning centrist.” Yes, she watched Jewish colleagues get bullied when they dared to criticize Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign; she, too, has been trolled as a “rootless cosmopolitan.” Still, her delusions only died in October 2019 when a crazed, gun-toting white supremacist shot up the Pittsburgh synagogue where she had been bat mitzvahed, killing 11 congregants. 

Bari Weiss’ book shows why the irrational hatred fueling this old/new anti-Semitism threatens every American.

The chilling moment when her sister Molly texted, “He’s screaming ‘all these Jews need to die,’ ” made Weiss fear a New American anti-Semitism metastasizing.  That unhappy “aha” moment resulted in Weiss’ compelling, equally chilling new book, “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.”

Whether the Pittsburgh shooting was a turning point in U.S. history or merely in Weiss’ understanding of Jewish history remains to be seen. To her credit, she is working hard to prove herself wrong and maintain America’s distinction as the least anti-Semitic non-Jewish state. Weiss’ book is her battle cry and battle plan. “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” bravely diagnoses the problem. It shows why the irrational hatred fueling this old/new anti-Semitism threatens every American, and it ends with thoughtful suggestions detailing how to combat the hatred.

New York Times Op-Ed writer Bari Weiss

It’s hard to praise a book you wish never had to be written. Every word is etched in sorrow and highlighted with the blood of our new martyrs: Daniel Pearl, the Pittsburgh 11, Lori Gilbert-Kaye of the Poway Chabad shooting, the HyperCacher Four and the hundreds killed by Palestinian terrorists after Israel voluntarily entered into the Oslo Accords.

In 1944, Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht, who had his own historical wake-up call “thanks” to Hitler, called his attempt to explain anti-Semitism “Guide for the Bedevilled.” This title emphasized the reasonable person’s reasonable surprise that this unreasonable hatred persists. Weiss’ book is a modern handbook for such good — but justifiably befuddled people — as well as an expose of today’s devils, including their many enablers. 

The anti-Semitism of intellectuals and social justice “warriors” is refined and elusive. Skulking behind self-righteous rhetoric about “intersectionality” and “white privilege,” it obsessively targets the Jewish state, forcing progressive Jews who wished to be known for their liberalism to become modern-day Marranos, hiding their Zionism.

Most haters of Jews hate America as well as Israel. They poison our overall public discourse, not just the discussions of Jews and the Jewish state.

Even while identifying the anti-Semitic forces stirring the politically correct pot on campus and white-nationalist plots online, it helps to distinguish American anti-Semitism from the harsher, more dangerous and more prevalent Islamist and European varieties.

Anti-Semitism is a stain on the body politic we just can’t remove. It not only is the “longest hatred” (in historian Robert Wistrich’s words), but it is the most plastic hatred: adaptable, flexible, artificial, durable and mass produced. It keeps mutating like a computer virus, targeting our ideological vulnerabilities. That malleability also makes it the most congenial hatred, embraced, enhanced and enabled by some of the nicest — and most self-righteous — people.

Consider the new campus fad: finding Jews guilty of “white privilege.” This backlash to white nationalism marks the flip side to the victimization Olympics. Just as some minorities brandish genuine suffering to amplify their voice and demonstrate their virtue, branding rivals with the mark of “white privilege” shuts them up. “White privilege” caricatures Jews as rich and white, treating “whiteness” as a crime while mischaracterizing millions of Jews who aren’t wealthy and the majority of Israelis who are nonwhite and not rich. That helps tee up Israel as not just “white” but — the latest offensive accusation — “patriarchal.”

When Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) supported a resolution condemning anti-Semitism last March, Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour called Pelosi “a typical white feminist upholding the patriarchy, doing the dirty work of powerful white men.” This libel renders pro-Israel women invisible, too.

This is the American Jews’ “double bind,” Weiss writes. “They are at once white and nonwhite; the handmaidens of white supremacy and the handmaidens of immigrants and people of color; in league with the oppressed and in league with the oppressor.” That’s anti-Semitism’s stretch-to-fit plasticity for you. When being white welcomed you into the powerful elite, Jews were not considered white. Today, on campuses and other places where whiteness has been deemed a crime, Jews have suddenly become white.

The Myth of Jewish ‘Privilege’

All this Jewish “privilege” negates Jewish suffering through the millennia, not merely at the hands of Palestinian terrorists or anti-Semites today. One student told Weiss that during a Holocaust class, a classmate called Auschwitz survivor Wiesel “privileged.” Why? Because he “was a white, able-bodied man.”

“This,” Weiss concludes, “is your brain on intersectionality.”

Here is anti-Semitism as an ideological X-ray. It reveals the extremes of the left and the right today, just as many of the greatest stupidities of each succeeding era have been exposed in all their absurdities when applied to Jews. 

These days, we see how anti-Semitism helps gut the political center, which “is bending toward and being distorted by the extremes on both the ethnonationalist right and the anti-colonialist left,” Weiss writes. “Each day, it seems, faith in liberal institutions and ideas — respect for free speech and intellectual gadflies, faith in the open society and the value of immigration, trust in democratic institutions, admiration for expertise and reason — erodes further.”

A book published last year by historian Deborah Lipstadt deftly exposes what she calls “the enabler,” the “dinner-party antisemite” and the “clueless antisemite,” whose more subtle behaviors are symptomatic of broader pathologies. While putting anti-Semitism in historical context and calling out today’s unapologetic “extremist” bullies, Lipstadt warns “that sometimes the most harm can be done, not by the violent, in-your-face, self-professed Jew-hater, but by ordinary people who have acquired these views almost through cultural osmosis.”

The spelling change (of antisemite) is no typo. It reflects the depth of Lipstadt’s thought-provoking analysis. She exiles the hyphen because hyphenating misleads. “Anti-Semitism” suggests “that one opposes ‘Semitism,’ ” like the anti-immigrant movement opposes immigrants. But there are no “Semites.” “Semitism” is an artifice. Dropping the hyphen suits this “illogical, delusional passion full of self-contradictions and absurd contentions.” It “doesn’t deserve the dignity of capitalization, which in English, is reserved for proper names.”

Weiss’ book feels like one long, soul-wrenching letter, written in a charmingly accessible style by a proud American reeling from the realization that the haters are on the rise in this land we love. Lipstadt’s “Antisemitism: Here and Now” is written as a three-way correspondence. Two composites — “Abigail,” a “whip-smart Jewish student” and “Joe” a non-Jewish academic — struggle “to understand the phenomenon of antisemitism” by questioning Lipstadt, the world-renowned expert. The technique makes a book with a most-depressing and complex subject as easy — and painful — to read as Weiss’ work.

Both authors advocate a less partisan approach to fighting this scourge.  Unfortunately, many right-wingers give most supporters of President Donald Trump passes because he is pro-Israel. And when liberals call out anti-Semitism on the left, they run into claims that “the white nationalist, xenophobic far right is the clear source of rising anti-Semitic violence in this country,” as Dylan Williams, vice president of government affairs at J Street, recently asserted. “Instead of seriously combating that threat — which the president has stoked with his own hateful rhetoric — the Trump administration and its allies in the right-wing minority of the Jewish community prefer to focus overwhelming attention on nonviolent campus critics of Israel, and to wield false accusations of anti-Semitism as a partisan weapon against progressives.”

In truth, both authors ignore a vexing source of rising anti-Semitic violence. You have to read through 633 words of the 948-word New York Times article from February 2019, “Anti-Semitic Attacks Fuel Continuing Rise in Hate Crimes in New York,” before discovering “many of the assailants arrested by the police have been young men of color.” Nevertheless, the statistics are used to fuel fears of the “spike” in the more ideological Jew-hatred the authors — and most of us — are talking about these days.

I know I am not only being impolite here but impolitic. I am approaching the third-rail of modern American politics. Honest discussions linking the words “crime” and “people of color” increasingly are off-limits. 

There is a long, sad history of burying this problem. The most outrageous example occurred during the Crown Heights riots of 1991 in Brooklyn. Politically correct descriptions of a “racial clash” between two equally guilty and violent groups covered up angry cries from African Americans of “up to the Jew neighborhood.” Only 20 years later did a former New York Times reporter, Ari Goldman, confess his editors had refashioned the copy he and his colleagues sent in, to suppress the targeting of Jews that fueled the riot. 

This disturbing phenomenon is not an anti-Semitism of words. It’s not an inviting target for the left like Trump, for the right like PC-idiocy on campus, or for Westerners like Islamist terrorism. This street hooliganism against Jewish neighbors is more sociological, situational, impulsive and instinctive than ideological.

Still, it’s no less painful and traumatic for the victims. It deserves the kind of sensitive analysis Weiss and Lipstadt otherwise provide. Like all forms of hatred, it risks cascading if camouflaged behind politically-driven sensibilities that consciously or unconsciously validate the violence with silence.

Modern Jew-Hatred

For all that I learned from both books, I wish each had wrestled more intensely with such subtleties and worked harder to distinguish American Jew-hatred from the other global strains. Even if both authors believe there are “cats in America,” America remains distinct. Weiss acknowledges the United States is not Europe. America is built on inclusivity and equality, shares the Jews’ Bible-based sense of mission, and lacks centuries of Jew-hatred. Lipstadt rejects the numbers game. Even if a few thousand annual hate crimes in a nation of 330 million represents a statistical blip, modern Jew-hatred’s ugliness and irrationality compels her to take it seriously.

Still, listing anti-Jewish incidents risks re-creating the Wiki history of anti-Semitism. Clicking on the Wikipedia entry for American anti-Semitism provides a litany of bigotry, from Peter Stuyvesant in 1654 to Henry Ford in the 1920s and Rep. Ilhan Omar and neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, alt-left and alt-right, today. The catastrophic cataloguing is devastating and misleading. As Weiss and Lipstadt acknowledge, anti-Semitism remains a marginal gutter phenomenon, especially in America. Jews not only belong to America’s most admired religious group, but non-Jews are marrying non-Orthodox Jews en masse.

A memorial from the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Photo from Reuters

The strong sense of American decency that counters anti-Semitism is powerful, even in our age of partisan thugishness. “It may sound strange,” Weiss admits in her book, “but the reaction to Pittsburgh gave me a tremendous amount of hope that we are not alone in this fight.” In a moving tikun of Jewish history, thousands of Christians poured out of their churches after prayers the next day, wielding flames and marching toward synagogues. But this was the New World, not medieval Europe; they paraded with love in their hearts, candles in their hands — not menacing torches — and heartfelt, anguished vows of “Never again,” “Not here” and “He is not us” on their lips.

In a country menaced by 39,773 gun deaths in 2017, during an era of church shootings, school massacres and gay nightclub slaughters, two murderous attacks on synagogues are two too many. Yet might they reflect how Jews fit in rather than stand out? How much of the synagogue shooters’ stories center on hating Jews, and how much on hating themselves, others and life in general while targeting life-affirming places or vulnerable places where people gather, be they shuls or schools?

“It may sound strange, but the reaction to Pittsburgh gave me a tremendous amount of hope that we are not alone in this fight.” — Bari Weiss

I don’t deny the problem of an American anti-Semitism, but it should be put in the context of the larger plague of an American nihilism that also warped these killers’ minds while poisoning their souls.

So even while identifying the anti-Semitic forces stirring the politically correct pot on campus and white-nationalist plots online, it helps to distinguish American anti-Semitism from the harsher, more dangerous and more prevalent Islamist and European varieties.

Professor Judea Pearl, Daniel Pearl’s heroic and brilliant father, suggests using the word “Zionophobia” to zero in on the irrational, Israel-obsessed Jew-hatred festering in academic and progressive circles. Similarly, it might help to use the word “Judeophobia” to zero in on the American strain of this global illness. Beyond evoking the xenophobia behind white nationalism, calling it a “phobia” puts the onus where it belongs: on the hater, not the hated. Weiss and Lipstadt correctly complain that more than with any other targeted group, people often blame Jews for being disliked.

Targeting Zionophobia and Judeophobia might unite left and right against both pathologies, rejecting left-wingers who claim to like Jews while hating Israel and right-wingers who claim to like Israel while hating Jews.

A Presidential Leadership Test

Most important, calling American anti-Semitism “Judeophobia” acknowledges the United States’ unique acceptance of Jews and Judaism. The U.S. remains that place where so far, major party nominees compete over who is more pro-Israel rather than who can scapegoat the Jews the most. It’s a place where Americanism and anti-Semitism inherently clash. It’s a place still broadly committed to its core ideals and to an all-American decency the far left refuses to acknowledge and Trump keeps violating.

Of course, there’s a presidential leadership test here, which Trump is failing, despite his pro-Israel actions. Weiss writes, “In the end, Trump’s incessant dog whistling is less significant than the larger charge of which he stands guilty: the systemic removal of what my colleague Bret Stephens has called ‘the moral guardrails that keep bigotry down.’ Trump has done this by denigrating both the most heroic and the weakest people in our culture, by stoking angry mobs, by showing contempt for the rule of law and disdain for the very best of American traditions.”

By contrast, consider two other presidents — one Republican, one Democrat. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush offended many Jews by calling himself “one lonely little guy” facing “powerful political forces” after more than 1,200 Israel activists lobbied Congress, seeking loan guarantees to help Israel resettle emigrating Soviet Jews. Shoshana Cardin, chairing the Conference of Presidents, privately met the then-president. She explained that rhetoric about Jewish lobbyists outmuscling the president echoed traditionally bigoted exaggerations about Jewish power.

“Don’t trust people who seek to divide Jews. Even if they are Jews.”
— Bari Weiss

“Mr. President, I think you need to understand how deeply American Jewry was hurt by your statement,” Cardin said. “Because of your statement, you drew blood and the sharks came swimming.” Bush pointed out he didn’t use the word “Jews.” Cardin explained he did not have to. “Everyone understood that the people you were referring to were Jewish. That’s why the White House switchboard lit up with so many messages of support from anti-Semites.”

“I never intended to hurt anyone,” Bush said, “or give encouragement to anti-Semitism.” He then apologized to the American Jewish leaders he had invited to the White House to meet him. 

Yes, the United States once had a president who could listen carefully to critics and sincerely say he was sorry.

On a broader scale, after Timothy McVeigh’s truck bomb destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, President Bill Clinton fought back against the white militia movement, not just McVeigh’s co-conspirators.

While deploying America’s full legal might, Clinton also subtly asserted moral leadership, condemning the militia traitors while refusing to demonize all forms of dissent. “I’m hoping that we can draw the lines of things that we think are unacceptable, that are just purely fostering hatred, division and encouraging violence and still have a conversation with differences of opinion,” he told a reporter. “… My job as president is not to try to silence people with whom I disagree, no matter how bitterly I disagree. My job is to try to see that the Constitution is protected and that the laws are upheld, that the American people are safe and secure to lead whatever lives they want to lead, to do whatever they want to do, and to express whatever political views they have.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, by 2001, the number of militia or “patriot” groups had plummeted from 858 to 194. Its analysts and other opponents rejoiced that the movement had been reduced to “a shadow of its former self.”

Unlike many liberals and journalists today, Weiss doesn’t blame everything on Trump. She acknowledges the internet gives once-marginalized haters a reach they lacked just a decade ago. She sees Trump as a symptom of the problem as well as a force making the fight harder. She ends her book with 27 suggestions for combating anti-Semitism from the left and the right.

Weiss divides her proposals into three parts. First, she examines “how we orient ourselves toward our enemies,” insisting we call out Jew-hatred wherever it festers. Trust your gut, she urges, offering a kippah/Jewish star test. If you can’t feel comfortable openly displaying symbols of Judaism, it’s time to fix your environment — or move away. She also advises, “Don’t trust people who seek to divide Jews. Even if they are Jews.” Here, Weiss demands a boldness in the fight the Jewish response often lacks.

Next, Weiss examines “how we orient ourselves toward our allies. Notice your enemies. But even more, notice your friends. Follow ‘the Pittsburgh principle,’ ” she writes, appreciating the loving non-Jewish mainstream, not the Judeophobic fringe. She urges an ideological house-cleaning, with liberals attacking left-wing Zionophobia while conservatives confront right-wing Judeophobia.

It’s true. The best response to Jew-hatred is to embrace Jews, Jewish peoplehood, Judaism and Israel. If we don’t stand up, we will keep getting knocked down.

Finally, and most exhaustively, she examines “how we orient ourselves toward ourselves.” She says everyone must fight “first and foremost, as Americans,” voting for freedom, preserving liberalism and supporting Israel. She also urges Jews — as Lipstadt does — to “Lean into Judaism. … Nurture your Jewish identity — and that of those around you.” Finally, Weiss encourages her readers both to “Know that one person can change history” and to “Tell your story.”

It’s true. The best response to Jew-hatred is to embrace Jews, Jewish peoplehood, Judaism and Israel. If we don’t stand up, we will keep getting knocked down.

Weiss’ proposals are more strategic than tactical. Most make the book feel like it’s written for American Jews when all Americans should read it. Sadly, the need to start there reflects the deep confusion among American Jews who have been so sucked into the partisan whirlwind that it’s blunted one of the Jews’ most basic historic instincts: the ability to identify our enemies.

Still, the suggestions she provides are overwhelming. Specifics would have helped.  For example, I would solicit assistance from America’s power centers. Where in Hollywood are the successors to Darryl F. Zanuck, Elia Kazan, Moss Hart and Gregory Peck, who helped make “Gentleman’s Agreement” an Academy Award-winning blow against anti-Semitism in 1947? Where on the right are the successors to William F. Buckley, who started writing an article in 1991 that turned into a book, detailing why Pat Buchanan’s anti-Semitism didn’t belong in the Republican Party? Where on the left are the successors to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who said “when people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews, you are talking anti-Semitism”? 

When targeting plutocrats, Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Judge me by the enemies I make.” By that standard, I am proud to be hated by white supremacists and uber-nationalists of the right; by the illiberal liberals and intersectional bigots of the left; by the Islamist terrorists who somehow bridge left and right; and by Jew-hating street hoods.

But judge me by my friends, too. By that standard, I feel blessed to be in league with smart, proud writers such as Bari Weiss and Deborah Lipstadt. 

I’m not naive enough to predict that with tellers of truth such as they are, we will prevail. Still, with prophets like them, at least some of us will keep honest and centered and inspired to fight for what’s right — for all our sakes.

Gil Troy is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University in Canada and author of the recently released “The Zionist Ideas.”

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