A retired physician in Stony Brook, L.I., Jeffrey Margulies has put up a sukkah in the backyard of his family’s home for three decades.
This year, in the wake of the deadly attacks at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh one year ago this week and the Chabad of Poway, Calif. in April, he and his family discussed whether or not they should again make such a public display of their Jewish identity.
“Do we want to do it? Are we afraid of doing it?” they asked each other.
Their concern comes amidst a rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents — from verbal threats to vandalism to murderous rampages while Jews were at prayer — in the United States in the last few years. And that concern is mirrored in a new survey, conducted by the American Jewish Committee and released this week to coincide with the Tree of Life anniversary, which finds American Jews on edge.
“Nearly nine out of ten American Jews (88%) say anti-Semitism is a problem in the U.S. today, with more than a third (38%) calling it a very serious problem,” according to the AJC. Eighty-four percent of the 1,283 Jews who participated in the phone survey said “anti-Semitism in the U.S. has increased — and a plurality, 43 percent, say it has increased a lot — over the past five years.”
According to the AJC survey, 31 percent of the respondents said they have avoided publicly wearing carrying or displaying “things that might help people identify them as Jews.”
The survey was conducted Sept. 11-Oct. 6.
The statistics confirm what the Jewish community has known anecdotally, said the AJC’s CEO, David Harris. “We all saw it, we all felt it,” he said. “For the first time we have solid, reliable data. It confirms what we all were feeling … the concern is very high across the board.”
The survey found consistent views across age cohorts, Jewish denominations, and political affiliations,
According to the AJC, “84% of Ultra-Orthodox (charedi), 80% of Modern Orthodox, 91% of Conservative, 94% of Reform, 92% of Reconstructionist, and 87% of secular Jews” call anti-Semitism here “a very serious or somewhat of a problem.”
Although organizations like the AJC have kept a close eye on anti-Semitism from the left and right, respondents were more concerned about threats from the right: 78 percent said “the extreme political right” represents a very serious threat or moderately serious threat, while 36 percent gave that answer for “the extreme political left.”
The shooters in Pittsburgh and Poway both appeared to be inspired by white nationalist and anti-immigrant ideas. This week the Anti-Defamation League reported that in the year since the Tree of Life shooting, at least 12 white supremacists have been arrested for plotting to attack or threaten Jews, and white supremacists have targeted Jewish institutions’ property on at least 50 occasions.
By a more than three-to-one margin (76-22 percent), respondents to the AJC survey say they have an unfavorable opinion of “the job President Trump is doing,” and a total of 73 percent said they somewhat or strongly disapprove “of the way President Trump is handling the threat of anti-Semitism.” The numbers no doubt reflect the views of the Jewish majority that tends to vote Democratic, although Trump has been criticized by nonpartisan groups for showing insufficient concern over the threat from the far right.
Nonetheless, 85 percent of respondents said radical Islam posed a threat, and 64 percent identified extremism from the extreme left as a threat, with 36 percent calling it very serious or moderately serious and 28 percent saying the threat is slight.”
The study is the first large-scale survey by AJC dedicated to perceptions of anti-Semitism, Harris said, because it didn’t seem necessary before Pittsburgh and Poway. “We did it because of a general sense among many American Jews that things are getting worse” — not as bad as in Europe, where many Jews say they are thinking of emigrating, but bad enough. “There are lots of reason for concern,” said Harris.
A recent United Nations report found that the world body was “alarmed” by rising international anti-Semitism. (See story on page 12.)
David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said he agreed with Harris’ interpretation of the survey’s findings. “The perception is that it has gotten worse,” he said.
According to the NYPD, anti-Semitic incidents have comprised the majority of hate crimes in the city, where numbers are increasing, in the last year.
Mark Weitzman, New York-based director of government affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said the survey emphasized the need for the White House to appoint a liaison whose mandate is to deal with domestic anti-Semitism. “Not much is being done [on a national level] to coordinate it,” said Weitzman, who has urged leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties to “depoliticize” their fight against anti-Semitism.” (The Department of Homeland Security recently announced that it would begin to focus on domestic terrorism.)
Harris said the AJC will use the survey’s findings to strengthen its anti-Semitism work among presidential candidates and elected officials, “beginning with the bully pulpit of the Oval Office.” They will also focus on the police and representatives of other minority groups, which also have become the frequent targets of bias crimes. “We’re all in this together.”
In the end, the Margulies sukkah in Stony Brook went up again — without incident, Jeffrey Margulies said.
But he and his circle of Jewish friends wonder where anti-Semitism will next strike in the U.S. His synagogue, Kehilat Chovevei Tzion, has, like many congregations, incorporated several enhanced security measures in the last year.
Margulies said he often removes his kipa while driving to shul, carries his tallit in a nondescript “plain shoulder bag,” and has attended active shooter drills conducted by police at his synagogue.
“All my friends share the same concern,” he said. “Everyone is worried.”