Jewish Journal

Five Myths (((We))) Tell Ourselves About Anti-Semitism

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

My print column this week went to press just hours before news broke that the source of numerous bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers across the United States is a troubled Jewish teenager in Israel.

That crazy turn of events changes everything and nothing.

It doesn’t obviate the problem of anti-Semitism on the Left or Right. It doesn’t explain the increase in cases of anti-Semitic vandalism and online harassment.  It does fuel the partisan divide over anti-Semitism, with the right pointing to the evidence that American Jewish concerns, or “panic,” are veiled attacks on President Donald Trump, and the left countering that there’s more to the problem than one troubled Jew.

Last week, on this very issue,  I got into one of those online winner-take-nothing tugs of war with Washington Post columnist David Bernstein.

He wrote a column criticizing what he called “panic” within the Jewish community over anti-Semitism. Bernstein said it’s not clear that anti-Semitism from the right is on the rise, or that the many reported acts of bomb threats and vandalism are even coming from the right. He argued that the left may be using the reports as a way to delegitimize President Donald Trump (whom, he made clear, he did not support), and that, in any case, these critics willfully dismiss anti-Semitism when it comes from the left, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

I wrote a column in response, and in the course of our back-and-forth, it became evident to me, based on the hundreds of comments that followed, that anti-Semitism, like Israel before it, is turning into a political football game, and we Jews, for no good reason, are being forced onto opposing teams. 

That makes no sense.

If we can’t come together with a common understanding and response when we are all being attacked, we are in trouble. Circling half the wagons never did the cowboys any good.

So here’s my attempt to get us on the same page: five contentious points on which we can reach some consensus.

1. “Jews are panicked.” No, we aren’t. This was the original point of contention between Bernstein and me, and it’s important. “Panic” implies that vandalism and threats are creating terror in Jewish life, changing our patterns of behavior. There is no evidence of this. Local Jewish groups have wisely reviewed and strengthened their security measures. Life goes on. There is definitely concern, just as you’d expect. But more Jews are upset about Russian hacking and having to cook two Passover seders. Saying Jews are “panicked” gives a victory to the perpetrators that they don’t deserve.

2. “Anti-Semitism is getting worse.” Maybe, maybe not. The Los Angeles and New York police departments both report 100 percent increases in anti-Semitic incidents over the same period last year. But the FBI, which tracks statistics nationally, has yet to release the numbers for 2016. So the answer is: We don’t know. And even if the numbers come in high, we need to be wary of pointing fingers. According to the New York Hate Crime Task Force, from 2011 to 2012 hate crimes in New York City jumped 54.5 percent, from 242 to 375. That was long before Donald Trump.

3. “Jews don’t pay attention to anti-Semitism on the left.” Can this pernicious talking point go away? It simply isn’t true. The entire mainstream Jewish community, which includes all those Obama-loving liberals, has mobilized far more time and resources countering the BDS movement than it has this recent outbreak of anti-Semitism. New initiatives, conferences, policy studies — heck, entire organizations — have been launched and funded to counter BDS and the anti-Israel push on college campuses. Liberal Jewish groups like New Israel Fund and J Street have taken clear stands against BDS precisely because it is founded on the deeply anti-Semitic idea that of all the people on earth, Jews alone have no right to live securely in their own country. These left-leaning groups deserve as much support and praise as the conservative Jews who have stood up to forces from the Trump camp at the risk of losing support within their own constituency.

4. “It will pass.” No, it won’t. Whether you lean left or right, don’t think of anti-Semitism as a pimple to be popped, but more like a chronic disease to be treated.  It’s not going anywhere.  Witness the rise of hard-core fascist movements in Europe.

“Before, pro-fascist sentiments were kept hidden,” a Slovakian activist told The New York Times’ Rick Lyman. “Parents would tell their children, ‘You cannot say this at school.’ Now, you can say things in the public space that you couldn’t say before.”

This is true on the left and right fringes of American life as well — and nothing indicates it is ever going away for good.

5. “Israel will save us.” It may, or it may throw us under the bus. So far, the response from Israel and the Israeli press has been a combination of ignorance, obfuscation and wish fulfillment. In his first public meeting with Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, instead of speaking forcefully against anti-Semitism and Trump’s refusal to mention Jews in correlation with the Holocaust, stayed mum. The opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, went to the other extreme, asking for a plan to absorb American Jewry, who presumably would evacuate en masse at the first tipped-over tombstone. And the Israeli press is full of foreboding stories on the beginning of the end of American Jewry, though, of course, more of them end up moving here. As Shmuel Rosner has pointed out in these pages, how Israel reacts will always have more to do with Israel’s agenda. American Jews have to assume we’re on our own — which means we are better off united than apart. n