Jews killing Christian children in the 15th century to use their blood for matzah. Distorted caricatures in 1930s Nazi newspapers, a prelude to murders. In 2007, former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told a meeting at the European Union that “the Jews of Europe were beginning to ask whether there was a future for Jews in Europe.” That was then, and over there.
However, last week, on a leafy Bronx street, American Jews were asking the very same question. Is there a future for Jews in the United States? After all, the country Lincoln once called “the last best hope of earth,” seems to be getting an awful lot like Europe.
What was changing for American Jews is the fear of anti-Semitism. It could no longer be dismissed as the work of lone wolves in the present tense, but was now welded to terror of historic magnitude, like zombies emerging from ancient graves to haunt again.
John Earnest, the suspected killer who, just before Passover Yizkor, burst into the Chabad of Poway, near San Diego, leaving one dead and three wounded, was identified in the news as a “white supremacist.” He was, of course. But that excoriation seemed too modern, somehow. The killer, in fact, was an old-fashioned 15th-century Christian anti-Semite; the alleged killer, himself, said so. Earnest said he was motivated by a medieval Italian blood libel, the murder of Simon of Trent, a 3-year-old Christian child who was supposedly abducted and murdered by Jews in the year 1475. “You are not forgotten Simon of Trent,” posted Earnest, “the horror that you and countless children have endured at the hands of the Jews will never be forgiven.”
If 1475 wasn’t enough, try 1938. The same week as the Chabad murder, the international edition of The New York Times ran a now infamous cartoon that spurred Times columnist Bret Stephens to write, “Here was an image that, in another age, might have been published in the pages of Der Stürmer,” the leading Nazi newspaper edited by the notorious Julius Streicher, later hung after the Nuremberg trials for being among the most virulent anti-Semitic propagandists in Hitler’s Germany, which is saying something, and a heck of a comparison for the Times. Actually, the cartoon was indistinguishable from what can be seen almost weekly in the Palestinian media, cartoons that concern almost no one.
And so it was last Shabbat afternoon, after the morning’s Torah reading (perfectly titled, “After The Death”), that a standing-room crowd gathered at the Riverdale Chabad to commemorate the murder in its sister Chabad in California by Earnest’s bullets. The crowd gathered mostly to simply cluster together, as if for spiritual warmth. In these religiously fractious times, the event was a joint venture of nearly a half-dozen synagogues across denominational lines. Rep. Elliot Engel (D-Bronx) was in the room, but didn’t speak. There was gentle singing, Psalms, and promises to help with security. The mood was battle-weary, somber.
As the crowd dispersed, some were saying, “I should have moved to Israel years ago,” and “this country is finished, for Jews, anyway,” and finished for everyone else, if Jews are the canary in the mine. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks warned, “anti-Semitism in a culture is the first symptom of a disease, the early warning sign of a collective breakdown.” As Rabbi Sacks asked when European Jews began emigrating to Israeli in heightened numbers, “would you stay in a country where you need armed police to guard you while you prayed? Where your children need armed guards to protect them at school?”
American Jews now ask the same question.
Behind every anti-Semitic statistic is a heartbreaking personal story, but like a fever requiring a thermometer, the Anti-Defamation League “thermometer” released a lot of numbers this week, and none were 98.6.
The American Jewish community, said the ADL survey, “experienced near-historic levels of anti-Semitism in 2018, including a doubling of anti-Semitic assaults.”
The synagogue shootings were the most dramatic and unprecedented events, but not all that surprising for American Jews whose consciousness and experience extends to Israel. The very morning of the Chabad shooting, we knew New York Jews saying Yizkor for family murdered by Palestinians in 2014 in Jerusalem’s Har Nof synagogue; Jews saying Yizkor for the 2011 massacre of the Folger family in Israel; the 2017 massacre of the Salomon family; Yizkor for Alisa Flatow, a 20-year-old student murdered on an exploding Israeli bus in 1995. I walked home from shul with a woman who said Yizkor for her brother, an Israeli murdered in his tallis in 2000.
The sense of anti-Semitism and death closing in didn’t distinguish between Har Nof and Pittsburgh, nor between Christian killers and Islamic ones.
The mood of American Jews mirrored something Sholom Aleichem wrote during the Dreyfus trial in the 1890s. He described Russian Jews reading a newspaper and relating to Alfred Dreyfus, the French Jew being court-martialed in an anti-Semitic scam, as if Dreyfus was family – and, as a Jew, he was. As Sholom Aleichem put it, “When it rains in Paris, we open umbrellas in Odessa.” Anti-Semitism, like a storm, travels with certainty.
The numbers keep ticking. The ADL’s annual Audit of Anti-Semitic incidents in the United States counted 1,879 attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions in 2018, the third-highest since the 1970s, when the ADL first began keeping the data. The ADL identified 59 victims of anti-Semitic assaults in 2018, up from 21 in 2017. The numbers were not the worst ever, but only if you weren’t one of the numbers.
The overall number of incidents declined 5 percent from 1,986 incidents reported in 2017, but was 99 percent higher than in 2015, and 48 percent higher than in 2016. In an anti-Semitic tsunami, one year’s wave may be lower than the next year’s wave, but the tide has yet to recede.
The ADL noted “high levels” of anti-Semitic activity on campus, both by students in quadrangles and professors in classrooms, often with the alibi that criticizing Israel isn’t anti-Semitism. But for Jewish Zionist students, the pain and fear of repercussions is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism. Deborah Lipstadt, the Holocaust scholar at Emory University, recently wrote in the Atlantic, “On my own campus, a pro-Palestinian group recently called for the boycott of all Jewish groups, including Hillel and Chabad. That’s anti-Semitism.” She added, “In truth, when it comes to anti-Semitism, the right and the left often find common ground.” She noted that the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke clicked “like” on Rep. Ilhan Omar’s tweet claiming that American support of Israel is “all about the Benjamins [$100 bills], baby.”
Last week, at New York University, the faculty of the social and cultural analysis department decided to end faculty exchanges and student study-abroad programs in Israel. That won’t count as anti-Semitism, but ask the Jews at NYU if it hurt.
Last October — on Halloween, to be more exact and frightening — The New York Times headlined, “Is It Safe To Be Jewish In New York?” The Times noted that New York “adamantly imagines itself as the capital of liberalism’s most cherished values of tolerance, acceptance and diversity. And yet, New York has become an increasingly unsettling place to be Jewish … . For several years now, expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment have made up the preponderance of hate crime complaints in the city.”
In the 22 months preceding that October story, reported The Times, “there have been four times as many crimes motivated by bias against Jews — 142 in all — as there have against blacks. Hate crimes against Jews have outnumbered hate crimes targeted at transgender people by a factor of 20.” Although white supremacists are driving much of the national narrative, in New York during those 22 months The Times found that “not one person caught or identified as the aggressor in an anti-Semitic hate crime has been associated with a far right-wing group.” Of course, until the murders in Pittsburgh or Poway, no one expected a right-wing killer to show up there either.
Outside the Riverdale Chabad, with the sun dipping and Shabbat ebbing away, the Jews dispersed, returning to their home synagogues for evening prayer. The same words, bittersweet yet defiant, were said in Berlin and New York, in Pittsburgh and Poway: “Blessed is the God who brings on the night.”