Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

Managing Hate: Perspectives on Confronting Antisemitism in America

If the earlier article, published on these pages several days ago, focused on methods of treatment of antisemitism employed by the Jewish community in the early decades of the last century and what we might take away from this encounter,[1] here attention is being given to dealing with the realities of experiencing hate, managing and defining such behaviors and expressions, both on a personal and communal basis.

We are now five years passed Charlottesville, providing us with a perspective on how hate has been reframed, repackaged, and reinstated.  Indeed, when antisemitism comes into our community, how do Jews react?[2]  There has been a robust discussion examining how Jewish identity and engagement might be altered in the aftermath of heightened concerns in connection with overt acts of antisemitism.  Beyond acknowledging our reactions, even our anxieties, how do we respond, personally and collectively?

Do such hate incidents accelerate Jewish consciousness? Can we identify if there is any difference in reactions to incidents within one’s own community as against a more general threat or even a more distant act of hate?

Personal Behaviors:

Based on various demographic and community studies, in the aftermath of incidents of hate, we can identify shifting personal behavioral outcomes. Four of behavior patterns seem evident:

  • Heightened concern or fear in the aftermath of such an event (anxiety/fear)
  • Defined changes in certain personal behaviors and practices often result (internalization of the experience)
  • Formation of a different mindset about the society and one’s own sense of security (reassessment of one’s status and sense of safety)
  • Increased involvement directed to causes designed to fight hate represent definitive behavior patterns that occur in the aftermath of antisemitic incidents (mobilizing to action, fighting back!)

In the past, when examining personal responses, there is evidence that Jews in the United States experiencing the threats of intense antisemitism, would take more definitive steps, such as changing their names so as to “better fit” into the mainstream. In some other settings, we can identify situations where Jews undertook to alter facial features, so as not to appear “too Jewish”.

In the thirties an effort was made to “correct” the behaviors of Jews who were identified as “too loud” or whose practices in business were seen as “causing shame to the Jewish community.” National Jewish organizations during that era suggested that conduct was a contributing factor to antisemitic attitudes and actions, and that Jews needed to act appropriately if they were to be accepted.

There is some evidence in the early decades of the 20th Century, Jews who were living in neighborhoods where they felt that their presence was “unwelcomed” or where they actually experienced harassment or threats because of their Jewishness took steps to move to more traditional Jewish areas.

Becoming more involved in Jewish communal life represented one possible outcome, following such threats.  By contrast, we can identify other Jews who withdrew or decreased their communal and religious engagement in response to such overt hate, whether acting out of fear or simply seeking to remove themselves from possibly be exposed.

Institutional Outcomes:

Beyond personal practice, we also can reference changing institutional practices. As this writer has noted elsewhere, issues such as the rise in antisemitism create correlary institutional responses.[3] Where there is a heightened and shared concern over a communal problem, there is a corresponding increase of institutional responses.  In a competitive marketplace, we can account for the emergence of various new organizational expressions and disagreements over how we define and treat antisemitic actions.[4]

Further, when members of the community perceive a lack of action by either Jewish or public authorities or believe the formal response is not effective, we have seen the emergence of vigilante operations promoting self-defense and protection, among these of course have been such organizing efforts as the Jewish Defense League or various neighborhood-based initiatives designed to defend or protect lives and property.

Reframing the New Antisemitism:

The new antisemitism is being driven by a number of factors.[5] In the end, the attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions are really about a larger question, what type of American ethos and culture will emerge over the decades ahead? This dual-edged war is directed toward questioning the status and place of America’s Jews, just as it permits others the opportunity to marginalize Israel and its legitimacy as a Jewish state. For the political right this is the first salvo in their war against multiculturalism and diversity.[6]

 Where once Jews were seen as “marginal” players to the American economic and political story, today we are being described as the “New WASPS” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), as important and visible power brokers within this society. For our enemies on the right this development is seen as threatening to their definition of a “white” America. As political impostors, we are being viewed as operating in a territorial space reserved for others. On the political left we are now seen as “powerful” and “influential” and as a result, “frauds” in our strivings to be present and active in challenging the status quo.[7]

Historically, our enemies defined Jews as the subversive outsider; today we are described as the “oppressive insider.” By adopting this application, it now becomes easier to assign blame to the Jews, as we are identified as part of the political elite.[8]  The goal of contemporary antisemitism, to be sure, is to cancel Judaism, the Jewish State and the Jewish people. At this time, antisemitic expressions are no longer limited to one segment of American society but rather we are experiencing threats from a cross section of ideological, social and cultural factions.

It is important as well to realize that a new paradigm has emerged in connection with how Jews are perceived in this society, as American Jews are playing a fundamentally different, more visible role within the body politic of this nation.

Negotiating Dissent and Boundary Lines:

Another divisive element involves the challenges of both how we define and in turn manage antisemitism.  Do we focus our collective energies on securing an apology or garnering some form of pro-Jewish response from those who act out against us? There are some deep divisions here over the best strategies.

What do we really want? Possibly, most Jews want a public apology, but what may be far more effective and having potentially a long-term impact would be an educational encounter exposing such persons to a richer, personal engagement with Jews, Jewish history, culture and tradition.

Some form of re-education, exposing the individual to an in-depth Jewish learning experience, might include a museum, class or series of meetings with possibly a survivor or even other individuals who had previously acted out negatively toward Jews and now were committed to improving communications and understanding between Jews and those who have acted out against the Jewish community.

We must acknowledge that coming to this different reality takes time. Helping folks who hold antisemitic beliefs grapple with their myths, misunderstandings, and fears is a time intensive but an essential process.

This raises of course the larger question, can we actually roll-back antisemitism? Most analysts suggest, and history confirms, that while we possibly can contain certain elements and some expression of antisemitism, the broader problem will remain.

How can we identify anti-Israel attitudes? The debate, for example, within our community over the defining lines over legitimate debate and criticism of Israel in contrast to denying the legitimacy of the Jewish State makes this issue increasingly more difficult to manage. We have yet to establish a shared set of guidelines involving such issues.

Managing this Situation:

We are living through a decidedly different moment in time as part of our American journey. While we can and should understand prior manifestations in dealing with hate, today we must readily acknowledge that there exists a new level of complexity and an ever-present set of political divisions within our community and beyond, further impacting our capacity to act with one voice.







[7] Ibid.


About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
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