Kenneth Jacobson

A teachable moment about anti-Semitism

Despite Jewish success in America, Jews remain vulnerable and relevant to the struggle against oppression.

Anti-Semitism is a form of hatred that shares characteristics with other kinds of prejudice such as racism and homophobia. Included are the fear of the other and the unknown, stereotyping and discrimination.

On the other hand, anti-Semitism has a distinct history. What has made it distinctive and what goes a long way in explaining some of the historical anomalies about it – how long it has lasted, its contradictions, its lethality–is the idea that Jews are all-powerful, poisonous and a threat to society.

This theme has appeared time and again over the centuries to justify hatred of the Jew. It reached its culmination in the 20th century with the infamous fraudulent document known as The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and in the Nazi extermination of European Jews.

The Protocols, emerging in 1903, conjured up the fantasy of Jewish leaders’ secret plans to take over the world, despite the fact that at the time Jews had no country of their own, no army and no power. And the Nazis exploited that theme to implement their anti-Jewish program, which ultimately became the Holocaust.

All of this comes to mind with the images of the Charlottesville hate rally and the Vice TV video of it by reporter Elle Reeve fresh in one’s consciousness. Reeve pointed out that despite the president’s making it sound as if the rally was about maintaining Confederate leaders statues, in fact, the demonstrators were obsessed with Jews, screaming things like “Jews will not replace us” and claiming that Jews were behind all the evils in America.

This comes at a time when anti-Semitism, long a forgotten subject, had already begun to reenter the American conversation.

While Europe, from the beginning of the new century, saw a revolting resurgence of anti-Semitism, America until the past year seemed largely immune with the disturbing exception of the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement among student groups on some campuses, carrying with it certain anti-Semitic connotations.

Then came the dramatic rise of anti-Semitic incidents, an over 30 percent increase in 2016 and the first quarter of 2017, even if one doesn’t count the traumatic bomb threats against Jewish institutions in January and February, most of which it turned out came from a disturbed American-Israeli Jew.

Some of the increase was attributed to the rhetoric of the Trump campaign and the bias expressed toward various groups, which seemed to embolden haters of all kinds, including those filled with hatred toward Jews.

To see neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching on the streets of Charlottesville, drawing a relatively large crowd and attracting nationwide attention because of the violence that accompanied it, was disturbing and a direct outgrowth of the new enabling mood for extremism in this country.

At the same time it should serve as a teachable moment about the nature of anti-Semitism, which some in this country are either ignorant about or have chosen to forget.

Because Jews have been successful in America and because anti-Semitism has been significantly reduced in recent decades, there is a tendency among some to conclude that Jews should not be included in minority coalitions struggling for equal rights and against intolerance. It is even suggested that Jews are part of the white establishment, benefit from white privilege and are not a vulnerable group.

This, however, fails to take into account that unique and essential element of anti-Semitism, the accusation of alleged evil Jewish power, which often means that Jews paradoxically could be most vulnerable exactly when they appear to be doing well.

It has often been noted that Germany before the rise of Hitler was one of the places in Europe where Jews had advanced in society and played a role in many areas of German life. All of which became a focal point of Nazi propaganda and ideology.

The neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville would be anti-Semitic whether or not Jews were prominent in American life. But the fact that Jews are successful and have a good life in America adds credibility and strength among their followers to their charges of Jewish control of America.

None of which should lead to pushing any panic buttons. It should, however, send warning signals about avoiding complacency about anti-Semitism in America. (There’s been more than two dozen anti-Semitic incidents in the two weeks post-Charlottesville). And it should make many do some rethinking when they dismiss the notion of anti-Semitism as relevant to the struggle against oppression.

The good thing to take away from this experience is that, unlike the president, the vast majority of Americans, leaders, mayors and others, on the right and the left, understood and rejected what they saw in Charlottesville.

This is reassuring that America will remain a welcome home for the Jews of this great county.

Ken Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.