To Fight Anti-Semitism In America We Need To Understand Its Sources


The attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh has impelled many American Jews to join the battle against anti-Semitism in America today, a campaign heretofore waged by a handful of dedicated Jewish communal organizations. But fighting American anti-Semitism begins with understanding its source, or more accurately—its sources.  The American Jewish Committee’s David Harris identifies three:  the jihadism of radicalized Islamists, the nativism of the alt-right, and the anti-Zionism of the far left.

Potentially the most lethal of the three are the jihadis, for whom Western ideas about social mobility, secular education, free intellectual discourse and political and religious liberty affront their Salafi fundamentalism. In the Middle East, a region believed by extremists to be Dar al-Islam (literal translation: house/abode of Islam), Israel poses a particular threat. As Natan Sharansky once explained; “The Jewish state” is perceived as “an embodiment of the subversive liberties that threaten Islamic civilization and autocratic Arab rule alike.  It is for this reason that, in the state-controlled Arab media as in the mosques, Jews have been turned into a symbol of all that is menacing in the democratic, materialist West as a whole, and are confidently reputed to be the insidious force manipulating the United States into a confrontation with Islam.”

Instability seeks a scapegoat and Jews have always been an available mark.

The second brand of anti-Semitism in the United States, more prevalent than jihadism and therefore the greater peril to life and limb, is white supremacy.  Shifting economic tides and social mores generate uncertainty.  Instability seeks a scapegoat and Jews have always been an available mark.  Our current climate of incivility has allowed for greater use of historic anti-Semitic tropes in casual discourse which, if unchecked, can incite a violent response.

But while neo-Nazi and white nationalist anti-Semitism remains a concern to Jews, historically Jews have been the canary in a larger coal mine.  Militant nativists, like jihadists, attack anyone different.  The Pittsburgh shooter’s loathsome rhetoric targeted Muslims and refugees, too.  The march in Charlottesville a year and half ago menaced African Americans and Jews.  Bigots are equal opportunity haters.  And now they have been emboldened by nativist rhetoric which certain elements of the Republican Party have been slow to repudiate.  When it comes to this source of anti-Semitism, all minorities lie in the crosshairs, no matter one’s faith, ethnicity, race, or gender identity or preference.

When it comes to this source of anti-Semitism [nativism], all minorities lie in the crosshairs, no matter our faith, ethnicity, race, or gender identity or preference.

The third strain of American anti-Semitism, and though the least threatening physically nonetheless the most insidious, is that of anti-Zionist intersectionality.  On college campuses and in academic assemblies, Israel is all too frequently portrayed as the cause of Palestinian suffering with insufficient regard to history or the role of other Arab states.  Jewish students — and non-Jewish students, too — who seek to travel to Israel, speak up for Israel, or in any way associate with Israel are increasingly tarred as supportive of an oppressive regime.  Universities present themselves as constrained by the principle of academic freedom, unable to reign in students and faculty when they express such hostile political views.  As early as high school, students are subject to them.  And as the 2016 Democratic platform debate demonstrated, even that party’s fringes have embraced them.  When activist groups exclude Jews from participation in other social justice causes such as women’s rights and civil rights because of their presumed association with Israel; when academicians or politicians or diplomats hold Israel to a standard different than other countries; when historical revisionists portray the Holocaust as but one of many genocides — their anti-Semitism reveals itself.

Because anti-Semitism in America today stems from these different sources, no single antidote will cure it.  To jihadism, our response is limited: Security.  Jewish institutions must reevaluate their safety procedures considering best practices, and acquire funding to enhance them.  But another aspect of security is gun control legislation.  If American residents have ready access to guns, those radicalized by Islamist influences can more easily inflict mass casualties.

The same holds true for militant white nationalists, the second source of anti-Semitic violence.  Had Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue with a knife instead of a gun, the outcome would have been different.  But beyond our ability to secure our synagogues and advocate for gun control, we can and must respond to the alt-right through education and coalition-building.  A diminishing number of Americans, including American Jews, recognize anti-Semitism’s dog whistles.  Our young adults and high school school students don’t know from Father Coughlin or Henry Ford or the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”  Nor do they know the anti-Semitism that kept their grandparents from certain country clubs, law firms and universities.  And they must be taught.  But even more critical to our future is fostering alliances with others of like mind, including religious and minority groups, so that we stand shoulder to shoulder with them against the ethno-nationalism being stoked in America today of which anti-Semitism is just one of many expressions.  Together we can offer a different view of what America and American discourse ought to be.

As American Jewry renews its fight against anti-Semitism, we must recognize that each strain requires its own targeted therapy.

To address the third manifestation of anti-Semitism, the anti-Zionism of the far left, coalition-building and education are equally critical.  We Jews need to remind our allies in religious and political circles just what Israel means to us historically, spiritually and for our wellbeing in a world where European Jewry is enduring its own frightening scourge of anti-Semitic violence.  We need to teach them the complete history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and not just its post-1967 chapters.  We need to protest Israel’s pariah status in the United Nations.  And just as significantly, we must educate our own people on these matters.  When confronted by the anti-Israel bias of classmates or professors, too many Jewish college students have no response and are easily misled.  And too many other American Jews, for lack of knowledge or exposure, consider Israel a moral blemish on their Jewish identity, not the vibrant, daring example of democracy and innovation it represents. In its seventy years, Israel has never known a day of true security on its borders.  First with Egypt and then with Jordan Israel assumed dangerous risks for peace.  If Hamas laid down its weapons tomorrow, there would be peace with Gaza tomorrow.

As American Jewry renews its fight against anti-Semitism, we must recognize that each strain requires its own targeted therapy.

Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.