Is anti-Semitism surging, or simply cyclical?
With more than 90 bomb threats to JCCs, two Jewish cemeteries with overturned headstones and a rise in anti-Jewish incidents, “in recent weeks and months we have witnessed an unprecedented and inconceivable escalation of anti-Semitic acts in the United States,” said World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder. After decades of being told by Jewish leaders that nothing can be comparable to the Holocaust, Lauder said American anti-Semitism is “chillingly reminiscent of the pogroms the Jewish people suffered for centuries in Eastern Europe, and in the years of the Nazi rise to power,” even though there has been nothing approaching a “pogrom” in America since the Crown Heights anti-Lubavitch rioting of 1991.
Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told The Jewish Week that “there’s the sense that white supremacists feel emboldened, that the highest office in this country implicitly, if not explicitly, supports their general ideology. They appreciate what they hear as dog whistles from the administration. I don’t recall a time when white supremacists felt that they had a champion in the highest office. I don’t recall a time when such vandalism and anti-Semitism was connected to a presidential campaign.”
And yet, Agudath Israel, the charedi umbrella group, declared they are “grateful” to President Trump “for his clear condemnation of anti-Semitic acts” and to Vice President Pence “for his personal participation in the cleanup efforts” at the vandalized cemetery near St. Louis. The Orthodox Union also praised Trump’s condemnation.
While almost every Jew who lived through European pogroms and Nazi ascendance were in agreement that they were living through “unprecedented and inconceivable” anti-Semitism, there is a remarkable absence of that consensus today. After all, even the ADL’s Segal acknowledged in an interview that almost no Jew has been harmed. If anything about this wave of anti-Semitism is unprecedented, it is that all the alleged dog whistles, “harassment, threats and vandalism,” said Segal, “have not resulted in physical attacks against Jews.”
The NYPD reports that in the wake of Trump’s election, hate crimes against Jews more than “doubled” in the first six weeks of 2017 (Jan. 1-Feb. 12), compared to last year. That means that there were 13 hate crimes against Jews in the first six weeks last year, and 28 such crimes this year. Yes, 28 is more than double 13, but in a city of 1.1 million Jews are 15 additional crimes statistically significant? As Segal acknowledged, “the average person is more likely to come across hate on their phone than in their neighborhood.” While the phone calls are obscene, isn’t a telephone call pretty mild, as anti-Semitism goes? “That’s right,” said Segal.
The Southern Poverty Law Center tallied 1,094 bias-related incidents in the month after the 2016 election, but only 33 of the incidents were against Jews. That statistic was itself doubled back in 2011, long before Trump, when, according to the FBI, anti-Semitic hate crimes averaged 68 per month under President Obama, which is not to incriminate either president.
In the month following the 2016 election, 108 swastikas were discovered around the country, but swastikas, a most versatile cudgel, were at times used to intimidate other minorities, so not every swastika is considered to be an anti-Semitic incident, in and of itself. Last August, three swastikas were found at Swarthmore College, a progressive, Quaker college, hardly a white supremacist outpost, reflecting the difficulty of easily assigning blame. (Seventeen percent of Swarthmore’s student body of about 1,600 is Jewish.)
Nor has American anti-Semitism approached the sadism, such as what happened recently in Paris, when two Jews wearing yarmulkes were kicked and punched by several men “having a Middle Eastern appearance,” until one of the beaten Jews had his finger sawed off. Jews in Berlin and Paris hesitate to wear yarmulkes in the street. That is not the case over here, in the first weeks of Trump.
For many American Jews, fear has outpaced the facts, but fear is a reality all its own. The more statistics were dissected, the more hesitation there was to declare a crisis. The Washington Post recently headlined, “Is anti-Semitism truly on the rise in the U.S.? It’s not so clear.”
Without negating the hundreds of Jewish journalists who were the recipients of anti-Semitic tweets, predominantly from the alt-right during the 2016 presidential campaign, Mark Oppenheimer wrote in the Washington Post, “As bad as 2017 has been for anti-Semitic incidents, 2016 wasn’t great, either. Nor was 2015, when the Anti-Defamation League reported 90 anti-Semitic incidents on campuses, twice as many as the year before. … A journalist could stay very busy writing about anti-Semitic graffiti in higher ed — and not at right-wing Christian schools, but at ostensibly liberal ones.”
Hate crimes have always come in waves; blame is elusive. Hate crimes in 2014 were up 21 percent from the year before. In New York City, from 2011 to 2012, hate crimes increased by 54.5 percent. In 2011, white supremacists were violently active in Jewish Brooklyn.
Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Knesset member Michael Oren, a former ambassador to the United States, absolved Trump. Oren told The Times of Israel, “there is anti-Semitism on the left, and nobody blamed Obama for that. During my time in Washington [as ambassador], I never encountered right-wing anti-Semitism, but I experienced a lot of anti-Semitism, mainly on campuses. Ask Jewish students in America if they fear anti-Semitism. They do — not from the right, but from the left.” Obama shouldn’t be blamed for that, said Oren, and Trump shouldn’t be blamed for anti-Semites on the right. Oren said American anti-Semitism “is very precedented. Anti-Semitism was a fact of life when I grew up [in New Jersey] … Our windows were broken, I got into fistfights all the time. There were quotas [for Jews] at Ivy League universities.”
Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli observer of the American scene, asked, “Is there really a rise in anti-Semitic incidents, or merely a rise in awareness?”
David Suissa, publisher of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, told his readers, “everyone seems to be up in arms about the apparent ‘resurgence of anti-Semitism in America.’ Why am I having trouble jumping on this bandwagon of hysteria?” The reason, said Suissa, is that “No country has ever been better or safer for the Jews than America.”
In these first weeks of 2017, the very same weeks of the anti-Semitic surge, the Pew Research Center found that Jews are the best-liked religious group in America. But liking can coexist with loathing. Jews were also the most victimized religious group on the FBI’s annual list for hate crimes, and have been every year since 2000. As much as Trump was accused of being slow to address the problem in 2017, both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama spoke far more often about the problem of Islamophobia than anti-Semitism, even as Jews were the most targeted religious group in America.
We asked Paul Goldenberg, national director of the Security Community Network, a group under the leadership of the Jewish federations and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, whether he had any hunch where all the anti-Semitic threats are coming from. “No,” he said. What is known is that the caller of bomb threats “is technologically savvy, which has made the investigation a bit more challenging,” using “voice-disguise technology.”
Goldenberg told CNN: “I’ve been in this business 20-plus years, and this is unprecedented. It’s more methodical than meets the eye.”
There have been “nearly 170 acts of intimidation, harassment, assaults and threats, just in the past 45 days,” he told us. “That is a remarkable number of hate incidents in a short period of time. We have seen such spikes before, usually tied to geo-political events,” said Goldenberg, citing spikes coinciding with Israel’s invasions of Gaza and Lebanon. To the extent that a presidential election is a geopolitical event, it fits that pattern. The threats are not from “only the right or the left,” said Goldenberg, “we’re seeing it coming from both sides.”
Despite the administrative changes from one president to another, said Goldenberg, “I see the same unwavering commitment and dedication from the men and women at DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and the FBI, partnering with our community.” The DHS and FBI “have been absolutely remarkable with constant communication to our communities. I have not seen one iota less of commitment from these people. I know that the new secretary of Homeland Security, Don Kelly, is fully committed to providing whatever resources are necessary to ensure that we remain safe.”