(JTA) — Saturday’s assault on a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, has renewed the familiar yet always harrowing question: How should Jews combat antisemitism?
Contemporary Jewish leaders, organizations and pundits have offered various answers to this question in the past, but they rarely target the specific socioeconomic, technological, legal or other systems that give antisemitism life today. Beyond synagogue security measures, American Jews have yet to rally around a coherent policy agenda that may help diminish antisemitic violence.
One obstacle is the way so many Jews and their spokespeople view antisemitism: as ineradicable and inevitable and otherwise unique among prejudices. However, as someone trained in the academic study of modern Jewish history, I see that while Jewish history is rife with Jew-hatred, such hatred takes many forms and has many causes, often specific to various times and places. By separating and distinguishing these causes, perhaps we can recover old solutions as well as open the door to new strategies to combat antisemitism.
The current approach to antisemitism can be seen, for instance, in the July 2021 “No Fear” rally in Washington, D.C., held in the wake of attacks on American Jews during the most recent Gaza flareup.
That “Rally in Solidarity with the Jewish People” was intended to be a unified Jewish communal response to antisemitism. It offered the ideal forum for politicians, celebrities, and other dignitaries to roll out their vision for how to stop Jew-hatred in its tracks. What the speakers at the rally provided, however, were mostly attitudinal or public relations solutions, urging the crowd to embrace vocal protest, bipartisanship, Jewish education and pride.
Or consider one of the most successful books to grapple with the question, Bari Weiss’s 2016 manifesto “How To Fight Antisemitism.” Weiss’s answers to the titular query included calling out antisemitism even when it’s hard, displaying one’s Jewish pride without fear, expecting solidarity from neighbors and allies, disavowing identity politics, remaining committed to “liberalism,” supporting Israel and striving to “nurture” one’s Jewish identity.
Many feel that these are important first steps, but Weiss’s suite of answers is puzzling given her view that antisemitism is ubiquitous in American politics and culture. By her own argument, antisemitism is part of the west’s “cultural DNA” and therefore teeming on the political right and left in the United States. It is similar to how Nikole Hannah Jones, the journalist behind The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” asserts that “anti-Black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”
Regardless of one’s opinions of anti-racism activists in the United States, their efforts have birthed ambitious policy proposals that seek to revamp criminal justice, policing, housing, schooling and more. Why haven’t activists against antisemitism done the same? If antisemitism is indeed a systemic bigotry on par with other varieties of prejudice, doesn’t it demand more thoroughgoing responses than pride and protest?
I don’t pretend to possess any panaceas for an inordinately complex problem, but I can imagine what bolder and more proactive rejoinders to violent antisemitism might look like.
If extremist rhetoric is more of a threat today, maybe Jews should propose limits on group libel that are as of now shielded by First Amendment protections. There is historical precedent for this, as explored in a 2019 article by Jewish historian James Loeffler. In the 1940s and ’50s, American Jews engaged in pioneering legal and legislative advocacy to criminalize group libel. Their efforts resulted in a major 1952 Supreme Court victory in the case of Beauharnais v. Illinois, which held that a white supremacist’s campaign against Blacks amounted to libel and was therefore beyond constitutional protection. That this history is largely forgotten and required Loeffler’s uncovering is instructive.
If social media is a repository of antisemitic bile, Jews should be at the front of those pushing for tech companies to moderate their content more vigorously. The Anti-Defamation League has taken this on, but it appears to be alone in the Jewish space.
If violent antisemitism flows downstream from socioeconomic despair, or if it in some way overlaps with the scourge of mental illness, as this latest attack once again suggests it does, maybe Jews should get behind reinvigorated social welfare programs.
If the danger comes from easy access to guns,which may have played a role in Colleyville as well, perhaps gun control ought to be a higher communal Jewish priority. True, gun reform has attracted the tireless work of a number of laudable Jewish organizations, but there’s still much more that could be done to place it at the top of the communal agenda.
The dearth of widespread conversations about these or other far-reaching measures, let alone communal consensus, is all the more baffling when you consider the one notable exception: anti-BDS laws that have been enacted in over 30 states. Even as the constitutionality of these laws appears increasingly dubious, many American Jewish organizations continue to support them. But why unify around legally brash solutions that may depart from the American Jewish legacy of free-speech liberalism and that invite negative attention only when it comes to boycotts of Israel, and not around remedies that ensure our safety at home?
These are complicated questions. The ways most Jews understand antisemitism adds to that complexity. This includes the notion that antisemitism is the oldest and severest form of group hatred, that it is endemic to Christian civilization, that it ultimately stems from a consistent set of beliefs about Jews that rarely changes across time and place, and that it is inherently different from other forms of bigotry in its ontological salience.
If that is the consensus, it is natural to embrace responses that focus more on how Jews orient themselves relative to their enemies rather than actually taking on the problems of Jew-hatred. If one sees antisemitism through the prism of ahistorical pessimism, maybe it cannot be taken on at all.
We need not see antisemitism in this way. We might instead conceive of Jew-hatred as not unlike other forms of prejudice even if Jew-hatred, like all prejudices, has certain unique characteristics. We might instead consider how Jews have devised all sorts of ways of dealing with animosity — against themselves and others — and while some have fallen short others have successfully met the particular social and political problems of their era and may hold great promise in our own.
Approaching the problem with a more critical eye will help us see our specific challenges in context and, even if daunting, as surmountable. And that might invite bolder responses than the ones currently in play.