How Different Is America?


Until recently, most American Jews believed that the worst anti-Semitic threats occurred over there, in Europe or the Middle East. But with attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., in the span of six months, the deadly shooting at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City this month, and ongoing assaults against Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and Manhattan, anti-Semitism has come home with a vengeance. A rash of bomb threats in 2017, later revealed to be the work of a disturbed Israeli teenager, and a simultaneous wave of vandalism in cemeteries, served as a warning for what followed. August 2017 brought hate into full view as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Va., carrying torches, displaying swastikas and chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

Jews were the victims of a staggering 58 percent of all religious bias crimes this year, according to the FBI, despite making up just 2 percent of the population. The Anti-Defamation League recorded the third-highest number of anti-Semitic incidents in 2018 since it began tracking them 40 years ago. With individual Jews feeling vulnerable, Jewish institutions have responded by implementing rigorous security measures.

What is propelling this resurgence and intensification of anti-Semitism? Unlike other periods in American history, it is growing significantly on both the left and the right. Anti-Israel sentiments, fueled by intersectionality and “woke” politics and often indistinguishable from anti-Semitic tropes, are particularly prevalent on college campuses and embraced by the far left wing of the Democratic Party. Support for BDS has become a litmus test of progressivism. On the right, the internet has been a breeding ground for white supremacists to spread their hateful ideology and attract followers. We are witnessing a global realignment of electoral politics towards anti-immigrant sentiments, hyper-nationalism, authoritarian tendencies, and anti-Semitism, fostered in part by our own president. This is new and worrisome.

Whatever the source, left or right, secular or religious, as in other times of cultural and political turmoil, Jews find themselves today as a principal target of hatred and vilification. They are being reminded, in ways too numerous to ignore, of the role Jews play in the fantasy life of the world as the locus of blame for the social, economic and political ills of society. America is different, but maybe not different enough.

Michael Dobkowski teaches in the religious studies department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.

More essays from The Decade In Review: 2010 – 2019 as well as snapshots from our editorial team on the last ten years in Jewish Journalism, including the key issues they covered locally and nationally.