A quarter of a century ago, there was hope that the scourge of anti-Semitism that had culminated in the Shoah had receded in a more or less permanent way.
Much had changed in the world. The lessons of the Holocaust were being taught. Fascism was seen as beyond the pale. The Soviet Union, a major disseminator of anti-Semitism in the post war world, had collapsed.
And in America, institutional anti-Semitism, in universities, housing and employment had largely disappeared. American Jews had achieved true equality and an unparalleled comfort level in this country.
Of course, anti-Semitism still existed, particularly in the Arab world, but overall things were looking up.
Today, in contrast, anti-Semitism is resurgent most everywhere in the world, even in the United States.
All one has to do to recognize this resurgence is to hear names or concepts. In Europe, it’s the UK Labor Party, Islamist extremism in France, the rise of right-wing populism in Germany, classic anti-Semitism in Poland and Hungary talk of Jews emigrating from Europe.
In America anti-Semitism spans communities and affiliations. It’s white supremacists taking violent action in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh and Poway. It’s individuals attacking Jews on Brooklyn streets. And its’s some who propagate anti-Jewish assertions and conspiracy theories in expressing their opposition to Israel and Jewish statehood.
Why did things take this negative turn?
First, is the loss of shame about anti-Semitism. Following the war, when the first pictures of Auschwitz appeared, there was a sense of shock and shame over what centuries of deeply embedded hatred of Jews had led to. This shame did not mean that anti-Semitic attitudes suddenly disappeared. They did not. It did, however, act as an inhibitor of
the acting out of anti-Semitism.
Today, two generations later, the emotional connection to the Shoah is dramatically weakened and distant. With it has come a loss of shame about anti-Semitism.
Second is the essential nature of anti-Semitism. It shares with other forms of bigotry–racism, homophobia, Islamophobia–characteristics such as stereotyping, discrimination, xenophobia.
The fact, however, that at its core anti-Semitism is different goes a long way in explaining its unique history: how long it has lasted, how lethal it has been, the phenomenon of anti-Semitism without Jews, and the contradictory accusations against Jews.
That difference is embodied in the idea that Jews are secretly powerful, poisonous and working against the interest of society. The peak of this view of Jews, which existed in different form for centuries, was the appearance of the fabricated document The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion in Tsarist Russia in 1903. It claimed to be the discovery of secret plans of Jewish leaders to take over the world. It was an obvious fraud but it had and has the most damaging impact because millions of people believed it to be true.
This insidious belief leads to Jews being blamed for all kinds of things and for the realization that any time society is in crisis or in a heightened sense of political, economic or social anxiety, Jews can be identified as the underlying source of the problem.
It is no accident that when things started down a negative path at the turn of the century with 9-11, financial collapse, the rise of populism, identity issues, together with the increasing presence of social media, anti-Semitism once again took center stage. Social or financial upheaval frequently leads to the resurgence of virulent anti-Semitism.
What are the features of this resurgent anti-Semitism?
First, it can come from anywhere, the right, the left, majority communities and minority communities. This again relates to the underlying purpose of anti-Semitism, to explain away things in society people are unhappy with.
This was evident on the extreme right when Robert Bowers, the murderer of eleven Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue, justified his action with the claim that Jews were behind the “invaders” on our southern border “that kill our people” – that is, that Jews were behind “white genocide.”
In the United States, however, it is white supremacists whom are killing and inciting violence against Jews and other vulnerable minorities.
While anti-Semitism is far more violent on the extremist right in the United States, we see other manifestations of this bias as the far left has often sought to marginalize or exclude Jews – particularly, but not exclusively on campuses — because their identity becomes a stand-in for anger at Israel.
All too often, whether Jews believe in the right to a Jewish homeland, regardless of whether they are critics of the policies of any given Israeli government, becomes the litmus test by which left-wing groups determine the progressive “bona fides” of Jews.
Second, sometimes it is exactly when Jews seem to be doing well that the anti-Semitic idea reaches its full capacity.
Jews don’t have to be doing well to be accused–the Protocols appeared in Russia when most Jews there were poverty stricken. But when Jews are seen as successful, such as in modern day America, the notion of dangerous Jewish power takes on an appearance of reality.
Third, like everything else in society, anti-Semitism has been politicized. The right sees it coming only from the left, the left sees it coming only from the right. The real test that leaders are serious about combatting anti-Semitism is the willingness to condemn it when it comes from your side of the political spectrum.
Fourth, there remain significant differences as well as similarities between European and American anti-Semitism. European Jews identify anti-Semitism as their most serious problem; many have experienced it personally and many wonder whether Jews have a future in Europe and think of emigrating.
In America, Jews continue to have a good and stable life, but are surprised at the resurgence of anti-Semitism which they thought had largely disappeared.
The challenge for American Jews is to find the right balance between protecting the security of Jewish institutions–a necessity after Pittsburgh and Poway–and keeping an open, free and optimistic outlook in Jewish communities. We don’t want to become Europe where Jewish institutions have become armed fortresses but we need to protect our communities.
So what to do? We need to stand up whenever anti-Semitism appears.
We need to share facts about this longest hatred. We need to work in coalitions with the recognition that anti-Semitism is not a Jewish
problem but a problem and a danger for society at large.
That is why ADL is hosting Never Is Now, the largest conference in the world on anti-Semitism, on November 21st at the Javits Center.
The day-long conference will address all these issues in a highly interactive format: the reality of resurgent anti-Semitism, understanding what it is about, the need to avoid the politicization of anti-Semitism and the many ways all of us can take on this challenge to prevent it from spreading.