Michael Friedland
Rabbi of a small American Jewish community

Antisemitism is Not the Problem for American Jews

When I was a high school student at Albert G Lane Tech High School in Chicago in the 1970’s I never sat at a desk that did not have a swastika carved into the ancient wooden desks. I used to joke when I went to college at Brandeis University that I had to carve swastikas in the desks just to feel at home.

When I was 17, the school held its Brotherhood week in which every ethnic club (there were dozens, most from Central and Eastern Europe) would perform a cultural dance in the auditorium. Lane was a very large public school on the near west side with 5000 students of which 100-150 were Jews. The auditorium held 2000. The Jewish club performed an Israeli dance. In the midst of their presentation, the auditorium, almost all 2000 students broke into a chant of “Sieg Heil”. I was terrified. I had never experienced such group hatred. The principal of the school, himself Jewish, was standing near where I was sitting. He looked completely paralyzed and did nothing. The student I was sitting next to was black. He looked as scared as me. The only thing worse than being Jewish at Lane was to be Black. Lane Tech produced a daily school newspaper, run by students. As an assistant editor of the paper, I with the other Jewish student and the one black student in the class wrote an editorial that condemned the antisemitism and racism (during the African club dance people threw bananas on stage). Before it could be printed, the faculty sponsor of Brotherhood days pleaded with the class not to print the editorial because such criticism might be the end of Brotherhood days. The class voted 16-3 not to run the editorial.

To be fair, this was nothing to what my older relatives experienced growing up in the 1930s. One told me how every day was a battle between Jewish and Polish or Irish kids in the neighborhood. Another had to open his own law office because no law firm would hire someone with the last name Goldstein. Of course, they grew up during a time when the most popular media figure on radio was the vicious antisemite Father Charles Coughlin and the most prominent and richest industrialist of the day was Henry Ford, an admirer and collaborator with Nazi Germany.

Why share these disturbing events of my school experience from 45 years ago and my parent’s generation of 90 years ago? Because in the United States today, Americans are told regularly that antisemitism has risen to unbridled heights, we are at least on Def-Con 2 with Jews being attacked and murdered. The recent death sentence for the mass murderer at Tree of Life brings back the terrifying memories of the mass murders in Pittsburgh and Poway, CA and raise fears that at any moment similar tragedies may occur. Thus, every Jewish institution, synagogue, organization, JCC, school, must have security protocols in place. This has resulted in spending millions upon millions of dollars to protect ourselves. The Antisemitism Report of 2021 by the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency described an average of 10 antisemitic incidents a day. The ADL reported the highest and third-highest years on record for cases of harassment, vandalism, and assault against Jews in the United States in 2019-2020. In 2021 36% of Jewish respondents said they experienced some form of online harassment. Every day the Secure Community Network lets me know that somewhere in America a school or business has found a swastika or an antisemitic flyer. The message is clear: Antisemitism is the greatest danger facing Jewish Americans today.

And to that I say, you obviously did not go to Lane Tech High School in the 1970s or grow up on the West Side of Chicago in the 1930s.

Antisemitism has been part of the American tapestry as long as there have been Jews in this country, just as racism against Blacks and Asians, misogyny, homophobia and hatred of the ‘other’ have always existed. In some ways antisemitism has lessened – my Uncle Goldstein’s name would not keep him from getting a job in a white shoe law firm today. Admittedly, antisemitism may be more dangerous today. But not because it is more widespread or insidious. It is because of the lack of serious gun control and the contemporary phenomenon of the internet and social media.

In the United States, guns are ubiquitous. There are vastly more guns in private homes than there are people. And these guns are more dangerous than in the past.  Weapons of mass destruction, such as AR-15s and AK-47s are favorites among gun lovers and those who wish to hurt others. These are guns that were developed to eviscerate the human body on contact. While we Jews are told that we must improve security measures to keep potential murderers at bay so another Tree of Life will not happen, the reality is that in America a Jew is just as likely, no, more likely, to be murdered, as any other American, in a mass murder attack at the grocery store, or at one’s place of work or at an outdoor party.

Facebook and Twitter and every other social media institution did not exist when I went to Lane. If they did, how would I and the few other Jews have been negatively affected if we were picked out by the large number of bigots who resented the fact that the Jewish students were always at the top of the class ranks, along with the Asian and South East Asian students, at a semi-vocational school, where the majority of students did not go to college? How would Twitter and Google have helped increase the impact of Father Coughlin’s hateful attacks on Jews if such a form of media expression existed at that time?

The problem for Jews and other vulnerable groups in the United States is not an increase in hatred. Such hatreds and biases have always existed. The danger for Jews and others is the availability of guns, especially guns of mass destruction. Recently, there was a shooting attack on a Jewish school in Memphis, TN. Antisemitism?  The attacker was a Jewish former student with mental health issues and he was still able to buy numerous guns. The messaging devices that Facebook and Twitter and their ilk not only enable but, in fact, use algorithms to boost and reinforce the types of conspiratorial messages that viewers are fed.

If we Jews truly want to make our communities, and all of America safer, our emphasis on safety should be to elect legislators who promote sensible gun control. We need lawmakers at the local, state and federal level as well as judges who do not slavishly hold that gun ownership is a sacred right, but put human safety first.  Pressure should be put on gun manufacturers to make guns safer – an oxymoron?  Perhaps, but protests in the ‘60s led to safer cars. Jewish Americans should be allying with other vulnerable communities to lead the fight to hold social media companies to be responsible for the hatred they promote through their algorithms, demanding they change that system in which they champion profits over civility.

The American Jewish community is quite remarkable in its ability to act quickly in the face of trends that concern the community (Except perhaps to raise funds for Jewish education – a wishful dream). The SCN is a model for all vulnerable communities to monitor and keep their community up-to-date on threats.  However, Jew hatred is part of the American Jewish story. Always has been and probably always will be, because people are people. But if we Jews really want to protect the Jewish community from danger in 21st century America, putting funds and energy and enthusiasm in the fight to demand sensible gun control and to regulate social media against encouraging hate-mongering will save far more Jewish lives and psyches.

About the Author
I serve a small Conservative congregation in South Bend IN. I received my ordination from JTS in 1990 and my doctorate from Spertus College in 2022. I have served Sinai Synagogue since 1996 and served the Moses Montefiore Synagogue in Appleton Wisconsin from 1991-1996. I grew up in the large Jewish community of Chicago but have always served small Jewish communities and advocated for their importance.
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