10 Simple Rules for Thinking About Anti-Semitism in America

December 30, 2019
A Hasidic man walks by a police car in a Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Anti-Semitism is a sign of a society in crisis

When a majority of American Jews pointed at Donald Trump as the main culprit of anti-Semitism in America – it was both absurd and concerning, because it proved that many Jews no longer understand anti-Semitism and its main causes. Anti-Semitism is an ancient phenomenon for which the main reason is generally understood: a society in crisis tends to search for scapegoats, and the Jew is a handy scapegoat (but not the only scapegoat: hate crimes against other groups are also on the rise). Why is the Jew a handy scapegoat? Because the Jew is always in the minority, religiously and culturally. And also because there is a deeply-rooted tradition of suspecting the Jew. That is to say, anti-Semitism will decline only when the social crisis that America is going through subsides. Until then, no matter which candidate is elected president, brace yourself for this unpleasant challenge.


Jews are not responsible for anti-Semitism

It is most shameful, and yet very common, to blame the victim for his own troubles. Unfortunately, this is not only common among the haters of Jews, it is also somewhat acceptable among Jews. They’ll say things such as: they hate us because of Israel. Or because we are successful. Or because we are progressive. Or because we are against Trump. But in saying all these things we confuse a reason with an excuse. These aren’t reasons to hate the Jews – these are the excuses of people who hate the Jews.


This is not about political opportunities

I get the feeling that this lesson is something that Jews are finally beginning to understand. Benjamin Wittes wrote in The Atlantic that “the bottom line is that anti-Semitism does not align with any simple political narrative you try to map it onto. Jews should know better than to play games by trying to force an alignment that doesn’t exist. Doing so trivializes a weighty history.” I believe this is part of a new trend among Jews to finally get over their past instinctive tendency to politicize anti-Semitism. After the Pittsburgh massacre, I wrote here the following words: “treat this butchery of hate not as an opportunity to advance a political agenda. Make it personal. Make it about love. Mourn it.” Of course, I take no credit for changing the minds of Jews. I have no idea how such a thing can be done with this group of stiff-necked people. It is experience that begins to alter their response to anti-Semitic attacks. It is the realization that anti-Semitism is too serious to be treated as an opportunity to score a cheap political point.


America has not yet become anti-Semitic

Two of the three indicators of anti-Semitic trends in the United States seem to point upwards. These are the number and volume of actual attacks against Jews, and the way US Jews perceive the significance of the threat. But there is a third indicator – possibly the most significant of the three – that we tend to neglect. That is, public opinion towards Jews. For now, this indicator is a cause for comfort. The Jews are still a well-regarded minority in America, as the PEW warmth thermometer proved again in 2019. For now (and we must be cautious about such conclusions), “America” is not becoming more anti-Semitic. It is rather a small minority of bigots and haters who makes trouble. That’s important to remember.


Anti-Semitism is not the result of a lack of strategy

When there’s a crisis, there’s a tendency for institutions, governments, pundits and think tanks to come up with bureaucratic solutions. A world body that can direct the fight, for instance, or an office within a government that can push for more resources, coordination, and synchronization. On Sunday, Zvika Klein wrote that “The State of Israel and the Jewish communities need to establish a single headquarters to coordinate the issue.” The Jewish People Policy Institute, for which I work, recommended “that the Israeli government entrust the handling of anti-Semitic incidents to a single body with powers and executive ability.” By all means, let everybody coordinate their strategies and pool their resources, as long as we remember that anti-Semitism is not a problem that the Jews can fix by having a more efficient bureaucracy. It is a problem from which the Jews suffer, and from which they can merely offer certain escapes, be it Aliyah (as Israeli leader Avigdor Lieberman proposed), or self-defense (as David Suissa suggested).


Pragmatic suggestions ought to be considered with pragmatism

After Pittsburgh, I wrote that “the question of security, of guards, of locked gates, is not very interesting. It is a technical question, one of risk assessment, of cost-benefit assessment.” What I mean by this is that part of being serious about anti-Semitism is to also cast aside certain ideologies and become more pragmatic about guarding Jews. Imagine the following dilemma: One opposes current US gun laws. But then one discovers that such laws can be useful for those wanting to be better prepared for attacks on Jews. What is to be done in such a case? My argument is that a wave of anti-Semitism ought to point us away from ideological purism, and towards pragmatism. Does this mean that I think Jews must purchase guns? No, it does not. But this does mean that they ought to be able to consider it as a pragmatic means to a certain aim – defending Jews from attacks – rather than as a broad ideological question.


Anti-Semitism weakens the commitment of many Jews

As much as we (Jews) would like to think that anti-Semitism brings us together and unite us in a fight against a common enemy – this is not exactly true. The Jews respond to anti-Semitism in two main ways. Committed Jews are becoming even more committed. They find purpose and meaning in the fight against the baseless hatred of anti-Semites, and are rejuvenated by it. Alas, there are quite a few Jews in America who cannot be defined as highly committed to their Jewishness. For a large share of these Jews, the natural response to anti-Semitism is going to be simple: they’ll lower their Jewish profile even further. If they used to attend a synagogue once a year, they will now skip it. If they tended towards having a Bar-Mitzvah for their children, they might now reconsider. If they had a Menorah (maybe alongside a tree), they might consider the possibility that this exposes them to attacks. In other words, anti-Semitism is not just a physical challenge for Jews who want to practice their Judaism, it is also a challenge for those of us wanting as many Jews as possible to keep their attachment to the tribe.


Israel cannot do much more than offer itself as refuge

Israel cannot eliminate anti-Semitism. In fact, it tried and failed. When the early Zionists were thinking about their revolutionary project, they were naïve enough to believe that when the Jews had a state, the hatred of Jews would subside (because they would no longer be different from other nations). As we all know, this proved not to be the case. Israel thrives as a Jewish State, and yet many people continue to hate Jews. So what can Israel do to help the Jews who suffer from anti-Semitism? Unfortunately, not much. To quote what I already wrote and explained in some detail: “The only thing that Israel can really offer in response to anti-Semitism is something tried and true: its existence. Israel can and must continue to be a Jewish safe haven, ready to accept Jews in distress from anywhere in the world. Israel’s law of return enables every Jew who feels the need to flee persecution to find a home in the Jewish state and become a citizen.”


Anti-Semitism is normal

This is as depressing as it is true. The short respite from anti-Semitism that Jews experienced in many western countries in recent decades was the aftermath of the horrors of the Holocaust. For some decades, the still-fresh memories were powerful enough to erase most anti-Semitic thoughts from the public sphere. But as with all other memories, this one also fades with time, and is becoming less effective in the way it impacts societies. As a JPPI report phrased it recently: “The proliferation of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe and the US… amounts to a quantum leap and reflects a waning of Holocaust awareness.” Does this mean that the Jews must accept this reality? Of course not. But they do need to come to grips with the possibility that what the current generation of them (us) consider normality was in fact a mirage. For a few decades we lived in abnormal times, and could entertain the belief that anti-Semitism was no longer a significant factor of Jewish life, or that America was a place where the rules of history were different. Now, we must acknowledge the possibility – if not yet the certainty – that we were wrong. That the waning of anti-Semitism was merely a temporary halt, and that this halt is over.


Anti-Semitism is not the end of the world

For many decades, for centuries, our ancestors had to live with anti-Semitism. Today, we have more power than most of them had, more wealth, more resources, more connections, more allies. Anti-Semitism is a threat to Jews, but it is not a new threat. And luckily, for American Jews, it is very far from becoming existential threat. Thus, our response to this wave of nasty hatred ought to be measured, calculated, and calm. In their long history, the Jews have proved that they can overcome much greater challenges than a few bigoted Americans who think they’ve found an easy victim. This means that there is a certain standard we have to meet. As a famous Israeli song says it: we overcame Pharaoh, we can overcome this.


Shmuel Rosner’s book #IsraeliJudaism, Portrait of a Cultural Revolution (with Prof. Camil Fuchs) is available on Amazon.


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