Anti-Semitism in America now: Here’s what we’re up against

It's two particular kinds of denial: One claims anti-Semitism isn't really a thing, the other negates Israel's right to exist

Outside of Israel, more Jews live in the United States than in any other country. While America has never been altogether free of antisemitism, most American Jews have not had to contend with ongoing hostility of a seriously threatening kind. Social prejudice of an antisemitic nature has been a fact of American life, and there have been instances of episodic violence directed against Jews and Jewish institutions. Compared to the experiences of Jews in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, though, American Jews have not lived with concerns about chronic persecution and lethal attacks. Especially in the decades following the end of World War II, most Jews have felt accepted, safe, and at home in America.

This sense of security and relative normality can no longer be taken for granted. Antisemitism has been on the upsurge globally over the last two decades, and America is not immune. Hostility to Jews, in both word and deed, is now a growing presence and appears to be moving from the fringes, where it has long existed, closer to the mainstream. Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, and Monsey name the sites of recent and particularly brutal attacks, but in less dramatic and often underreported ways, assaults against Jews in sections of Brooklyn and elsewhere have become commonplace. According to recent surveys, in fact, the numbers of attacks against American Jews and Jewish institutions appear to be increasing year by year, to the point where the United States is now on a par with several European countries in this respect.  To date, however, there has been too little serious attention focused on this troubling phenomenon and the people behind it.

A few things are by now clear. America is in a badly polarized, overwrought state and is in the midst of a growing climate of social and political intolerance and openly expressed hatreds. The major perpetrators of Jew-hatred in today’s America are a diverse group of people driven to attack Jews for a variety of hostile reasons. The angry agents of anti-Jewish animosity are found on the extreme political right, including white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis; on the extreme political left, including self-proclaimed and often militant anti-racists, anti-Zionists, and social justice warriors; within radical strains of Islam, including militant Jihadist preachers and their disciples and aggressive anti-Israel activists; and in segments of African-American communities where anti-Jewish hostility seems fueled by class- and race-based resentments about  relative victimhood, oppression, income inequality, and “white privilege.” Add those demented individuals who find encouragement to act out their murderous fantasies from anti-Jewish sites on the internet, and the picture becomes more disturbing still.

On the face of it, these assorted groups have little in common except their suspicion of Jews, fear of Jews, envy of Jews, and a desire to carry out increasingly unrestrained attacks on Jews. The hostility bred by these irrational attitudes is occurring with such frequency and in such a variety of places—at the street level, on college campuses, within political discourse, on the internet, and in certain religious circles—that it now seems clear that we have entered a new and dangerous moment.

What can be done about it? The answer is: not much, unless one understands what we are truly up against. And such understanding must begin by acknowledging two kinds of denial that need far more attention than they normally get. The first is antisemitism denial, which is closely linked to Holocaust denial. Simply put, Jew-hatred is not just another form of bias, bigotry, or racism, but a social pathology that has its own history, vocabulary, motives, passions, and goals. In its milder forms, it shares exclusionary aims with other forms of social prejudice. In its most extreme manifestations, it seeks not just to marginalize Jews but to murder them.

To advance their aims, antisemites will deny or minimize past histories of Jew-hatred, even as they set about to reenact them. Moreover, such people believe that the sufferings of other groups are rendered invisible by “too much” attention to the sufferings and mass murder of the Jews during the Holocaust. Simply put, they have had enough of hearing about the Jews and their sorrows and want no more of that.

In addition, we are witnessing an escalation of what might be called “Israel denial,” a widespread and increasingly determined opposition not just to individual policies of the state of Israel but to the country’s very existence. Since almost 50% of the world’s Jews reside in Israel, a vital and vibrant Jewish future is simply inconceivable without the Jewish state. On the ideological level, opposition to the idea of Jewish peoplehood as such, especially as it is embodied in a strong and sovereign Jewish state, is at the core of one prominent strain of today’s antisemitism, particularly among segments of the political left.

Awareness of these forms of denial is crucial to understanding and combating major strains of today’s Jew-hatred. To safeguard Jewish life, it is imperative that we deny the deniers their will to bring still more suffering our way.

About the Author
Alvin H. Rosenfeld is a Professor of English and Jewish Studies at Indiana University.
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