September 21, 2019

Have we been stupid about anti-Semitism in America?



Let me show you something quite incredible, and please forgive me for opening an article with a graph. I know this might not be the most appealing start. Still, bear with me and take a look. In many of the Annual Surveys of American Jewish Opinion that have been published in the last decade and a half, a simple question was asked, in almost exactly the same way: Is anti-Semitism currently a problem in the United States?

Well, is it?

In most surveys, the Jews had three options to choose from: yes, a very serious problem; yes, somewhat of a problem; and no, not a problem at all. Generally, a majority of them answered that anti-Semitism exists, that it is still a constant in the US. Sampling these polls and making a graph out of them, one can easily see that the “somewhat” category is the one most Jews choose. The problem of anti-Semitism is not severe enough to deserve to be called “serious,” and it is not negligible enough to be treated as “not a problem at all.”

Here it is:

And here is what happens when we divide the Jews into just two groups: those who think there is a problem – large or small – and those who believe there is no problem (namely, those answering the question by saying “no, not a problem at all”):

Do you see where this is going? In the last decade and a half, the trend among Jews was to be growingly convinced that anti-Semitism in America is gone, a solved problem, non-existent. In 2016, a quarter of all Jewish Americans responded to the survey by saying there is no such problem. That is more than 20 percent above the numbers of the early 2000s.

So now we must assume one of two things: either the Jews were gradually fooled into believing that anti-Semitism is fast diminishing when it was not. Muted maybe, but not gone. Or we must assume that it truly was declining until some sinister force brought it back.


Were we fooled into thinking that anti-Semitism is a relic of the past that does not belong in modern-day America? Look at another interesting survey for clues – the famous Portrait of Jewish Americans by the PEW research center. An interesting thing happens when you search for anti-Semitism in this survey: you come up with nothing. Not one mention of anti-Semitism in America, not one question about anti-Semitism in America. That is two say: when the good people of PEW strived to paint the portrait of Jewish Americans just four years ago, they assumed that no mention of anti-Semitic fears was necessary. In fact, the only time anti-Semitism is mentioned in the PEW report is when Jewish Americans are asked whether anti-Semitism is a major threat for Israel.

There have also been studies that did tackle anti-Semitic incidents in recent years, especially in college campuses. In most of these studies, the assumptions and findings all pointed in one direction – Israel as the ignitor of anti-Semitic incidents. “Connection to Israel is the strongest predictor of perceiving a hostile environment toward Israel and Jews on campus and, to a lesser extent, of personal experiences of antisemitic verbal harassment,” concluded a study published by the Cohen Center at Brandeis University.

Jews could feel safe in America, except that Israel makes it difficult.


We do not yet know why there is a sudden uptick in anti-Semitic incidents. Arguing that it has something to do with Israel does not seem like the right choice. There is no such indication. But this raises the question: Have we (Jews) been wrong to assume – as a group – that anti-Semitism is in decline? Have we – as a group – showed a misguided tendency to ignore the reality around us?

Three options come up as an answer.

1. We were right all along. Anti-Semitism is not a “serious” problem in America. The current wave of incidents is just noise made by a very small group of bigots and idiots, and it will soon pass. I spoke this morning to former Israeli minister Moshe Arens, one of the most prominent American-born Israelis, and he bluntly told me: “when we see a surge in Aliya – immigration of Jews to Israel – then we will know it is serious.” Since no one currently envisions a wave of Jewish immigration from America to Israel, no one should assume that the problem is very serious.

2. We were right all along, but then something happened. Anti-Semitism was in decline, and Jews were right to claim, in growing numbers, that it is no longer a problem, and surely not a “serious” problem. Now the tide has suddenly shifted. Maybe because of Donald Trump – as many Jews seem to believe (with questionable evidence to prove it). Maybe because of other reasons (blaming Israel is again becoming fashionable – see this article in the Forward, which brings back to life one of the oldest themes in the history of anti-Zionism).

3. We were plain wrong. We were fools. Anti-Semitism is still a force to contend with in America. Of course, American society is not anti-Semitic. It is pro-Jewish. But there are more than marginal elements in society which keep harboring the age-old hatred of Jews, who keep nurturing this hatred, and who keep waiting for an opportunity to bring anti-Semitic tendencies back into the mainstream. In this narrative, Jews in the last decades have been blind to social undercurrents that oughtn’t be ignored. Maybe that’s why many of them look at Trump as a suspect – because their blindness to the possibility of his surprising ascendency is reminiscent of the blindness to the possibility of anti-Semitism’s surprising ascendency.


There needs to be more calm in the discussion about anti-Semitism. That is, because the current wave feeds on hysteria and benefits from it. Waves such as this one – like waves of terrorism, and waves of suicide – tend to have a self-igniting quality. The more we talk about a wave of people committing suicide, the more people are likely to kill themselves. The more we talk about a wave of threats to Jewish centers, the more people are likely to pick up the phone and make such threats – it’s really the easiest thing to do.

Of course, this does not mean that Jews in America, and elsewhere, must ignore the threat or completely dismiss it. But It does mean that, for now, they would be wiser to reduce the level of hyperbole and deal with it more calmly. And it also means that making anti-Semitism a focal point of a political battle against President Trump is unwise.