America’s status as home to the largest, freest, most prosperous Jewish diaspora has not closed. But it may be closing.
Another Holocaust is not about to begin, not so long as the United States and Israel—the only two countries able and willing to do so—contain the current Iranian regime. That regime’s position, certainly regarding the nearly seven million Jews who live in Israel, is “the Holocaust never happened, and we intend to finish it.”
The position of its key surrogate, Hezbollah in Lebanon, as expressed by its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is “if all Jews gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.”
The United States and Israel are home to roughly 12 million of the world’s 14 million Jews. Nevertheless, social-cultural conditions underlying the status of American Jewry have been unraveling, the percentage of people in countries of the democratic West who, while neither neo-Nazis or jihadis, are tired, even dismissive of Jews and their concerns, continues to grow.
A 2017 survey by the Anti-Defamation League showed 14 percent of Americans held anti-Jewish beliefs. A 2019 ADL poll in 14 European countries found 25 percent harbored “strongly antisemitic” attitudes.
Upheavals and revolutions are attempted by determined minorities; the question is whether they can draw fence-sitters to their sides.
The U.S. State Department has something it did not possess before 2004. That is a special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. The current envoy, Elan Carr, felt it necessary to say last summer that every American synagogue and Jewish community center should have armed guards.
If a fairly senior U.S. government official had made such a statement 10 years ago, he or she would have been deemed unstable.
Last December’s murderous attack on a kosher market in Jersey City, N.J.—the primary target may have been an adjacent Jewish school—the butcher knife attack on a rabbi’s Chanukah celebration in Monsey, New York, and November’s nearly-fatal stabbing of a congregant walking to a synagogue in the same area stunned, but perhaps should not have surprised.
“Antisemitism” is a euphemism for hatred of Judaism, Jews, and—since 1948—increasingly hatred of the Jewish state. Nineteenth century German bigots introduced it to make their ancient prejudice sound scientific. It worked.
Old wine, new bottles
Hatred of Jews, veiled as national or racial “antisemitism,” would become common even as medieval church-based demonization of Jews declined. Karl Marx channeled Martin Luther, the former basically substituting his parasitical capitalist Jew for the latter’s demonic, anti-Christian one. Adolf Hitler would discover the simultaneously inferior yet dangerously cunning Jew leading oxymoronic capitalist-Bolsheviks in a war to the death against his imagined Aryan race.
The visible “excesses” of Nazi Jew-hatred that victorious Allied troops found as they liberated concentration camps in 1945 made open antisemitism disreputable in the West. For a generation or two. But no matter how many times Jews and non-Jews insisted “Never again!” no matter how many memorials and museums they erected, such actions did not establish a permanent new norm.
Robert Wistrich, one of the leading historians of antisemitism, observed in 2015 that “[W]e must recognize much more clearly than before than since 1975 (with the passage of the scandalous U.N. resolution condemning Zionism as racism) hatred of Israel has increasingly mutated into the chief vector for the ‘new’ antisemitism.”
Central to anti-Zionist antisemitism is the false “Palestinian narrative” of Zionist displacement and Israeli oppression. False in that, as Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt both noted, migration—much of it illegal—by Arabs to Jewish-developed areas of Mandatory Palestine, outpaced British-limited legal Jewish immigration. Also false in that Palestinian Arabs under Israeli control, according to a 2005 report by the U.N., of all sources, enjoyed higher living standards than Arabs in many Middle Eastern countries.
Regardless, “the Palestinian narrative” has—through incessant reiteration and eventual widespread acceptance—proved a gateway drug. By fomenting anti-Zionism, it helped renormalize antisemitism.
Shortly before murdering 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in October, 2018 the accused posted that Jews were the spawn of Satan, the Trump administration part of the “Z.O.G.”—Zionist Occupied Government—and that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which brought many Jews to the United States around the turn of the 20th century, now supported immigration to undermine “his people,” white nationalists.
Six months later, a similar white supremacist killed one and wounded others at a synagogue in Poway, California. The death toll might have been higher, but several members not only were armed but also trained, and the congregation itself had received security training—what to do, who to heed, where to go—in case of attack.
Contrary to the belief of many liberal American Jews, the threat did not originate with the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president. A few weeks after al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001 destruction of New York’s World Trade Center and attack on the Pentagon, journalist Jonathan Rosen, writing in The New York Times Magazine, confessed:
“I had somehow believed that the Jewish Question, which so obsessed both Jews and antisemites in the 19th and 20th centuries, had been solved—most horribly by Hitler’s ‘final solution,’ most hopefully by Zionism. But more and more I feel Jews being turned into a question mark once again. How is it, the world still asks—about Israel, about Jews, about me—that you are still here?”
The next year, 2002, a mob at San Francisco State University surrounded pro-Israel students and shouted, “Hitler didn’t finish the job!” “Go back to Russia!” and “Get out or we’ll kill you!” Prof. Laurie Zoloth, director of Jewish studies at the school, recalled:
“I turned to the police and to every administrator I could find and asked them to remove the counter-demonstrators. … The police told me that they had been told not to arrest anyone, and that if they did, ‘it would start a riot.’ I told them that it already was a riot. Eventually, police marched the pro-Israel students to the Hillel House and posted a guard.”
In 2017, conditions at San Francisco State only having deteriorated during the intervening 15 years, Jewish students filed a federal civil rights suit against the university for enabling creation of a hostile learning environment. That is, an environment of aggressive anti-Zionist antisemitism.
Chronic and acute
The year before, in 2016, Prof. Alvin Rosenfeld, a specialist in the study of antisemitism at the University of Indiana, acknowledged that he’d been wrong for many years to believe that after the Holocaust hatred of Jews would not reappear as a major trend throughout the West.
Examples, on-campus and off, since 9/11 are virtually endless. Just a few, from 2019 and early 2020:
Last August, Jewish and pro-Israel representatives criticized a proposed “model ethnic studies” curriculum for California high schools not only for “its shocking omission of any mention of Jewish Americans or antisemitism or its blatant anti-Israel bias … but also for its clear attempt to politically indoctrinate students to adopt the view that Israel and its Jewish supporters are part of ‘interlocking systems of oppression and privilege’ that must be fought with ‘direct action’ and ‘resistance.’”
Halted by the legislature, the question remained: How did California teachers, administrators and educational consultants draft such a plan in the first place?
In September, Columbia University’s Global Leaders Forum hosted Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Mohamad is a self-proclaimed antisemite and Israel-hater. He’s also a Holocaust denier and believes the United States, not Muslims, staged the 9/11 attacks. Columbia hosted Mohamad, but we can be sure it will not feature any anti-black, anti-Hispanic, anti-women, or anti-LGBTQ global leaders. A certain people, a particular stripe, is being removed from the rainbow coalition.
In December, a Jersey City school board member called local Jews “brutes” attempting to intimidate blacks into selling their homes and expressed sympathy for the kosher market killers. “Are we brave enough to stop the assault on black communities of America?” she asked. The mayor and governor called for her resignation.
But a New Jersey congressional candidate urged “empathy” for the board member. The county Democratic Black Caucus said she’d rightly drawn attention to important issues. At a subsequent board meeting, one of several supporters called her the “Rosa Parks of this era. … The antisemitic label is a bunch of crap, throw it away, and she’s not resigning.”
As for empathy, The Washington Post, in its print editions, did not cover the January 5 New York City march against Jew-hatred in which an estimated 25,000 people participated. Marchers included many from the Washington area. Marginalization proceeds by omission as well as commission.
A 2019 American Jewish Committee survey showed nearly one-third of U.S. Jews avoid wearing clothing or displaying items that would publicly identify them as Jews.
How did Jew-hatred re-emerge, vampire-like, in Western Europe and North America, moving from the fringes of the left and right toward the center?
The ‘woke’ vampire
Generational turnover helped. This was the passing of World War II veterans who fought the Nazis. For them, domestic antisemites sounded like Nazis.
An ideological shift also contributed. The erosion of traditional understanding of right and wrong by post-modern relativism permitted a non-judgmentalism that blurred identification of and judgment against enemies of the West. It supported the noxious claim that one person’s terrorist could become another person’s freedom fighter. Especially if those being terrorized were Israelis, were Jews.
While Jew-hatred from the anti-democratic right in America is sometimes homicidal, it does not shape the culture. That happens through the influence of the illiberal left. The avatar of the movement was Columbia University Professor of Literature Edward Said.
A member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s national council, Said wrote the tremendously influential 1979 work, Orientalism. This paved the way for the “terrorist-freedom fighter” equation and helped found an entire discipline, post-colonial studies. Through it, Israel was delegitimized and the West tarred as racist and imperialist. Those who benefitted greatly in a liberal democratic, capitalist West—among them the Jews as a group—increasingly are tarred by “woke” progressives in the United States.
Propagated for nearly two generations now in academia and secondarily through communications media and recurrently even the entertainment industry, this ideology brings us the Jersey City school board member, her defenders and more articulate bigots like Linda Sarsour.
Sarsour has been one of the leaders of the Women’s March movement. A Palestinian American, she believes “nothing is creepier than Zionism”—the Jewish people’s national liberation movement—that Israel is a country based on Judaism’s “white supremacist” outlook, and that a feminist cannot be a Zionist.
Something of a hijab-wearing fashion plate and a progressive in good standing, Sarsour was one of Glamour magazine’s 2017 women of the year. She also has served as an official campaign surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
In addition to generational and ideological shifts has come a demographic-religious one. In 1960, America’s population was 180 million, a large majority of whom were Protestants and Catholics who went to church at least occasionally. Six million—three percent—were Jews. Jews who did not need armed guards at synagogues and JCCs.
In 2020, there are close to 330 million people in America. And while Christians remain by far the largest religious group, their percentage of the whole declines. Meanwhile, according to presidential exit polling, the fastest growing denominational group, now nearly 20 percent, is the “Nones,” those who identify with no established church.
An estimated 5.5 million—about 1.6 percent—are Jews. They represent a declining percentage of the population in which blacks comprise more than 12 percent, Hispanics 17 percent.
Selling the ideas of “Judeo-Christian” ethics as the backbone of American civic culture, of a special relationship between a United States and Israel of shared, democratic values, and of Jews as members of an historically oppressed minority group rather than as a conspicuous part of the purported oppressive, capitalist, white patriarchy could become increasingly difficult. Especially when an ADL survey indicates 29 percent of African Americans hold antisemitic attitudes and another poll shows a majority of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz means.
A news photograph from singer Aretha Franklin’s 2018 funeral showed four men sitting on the altar, facing the 4,000 mourner-celebrants. They were the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, and former President Bill Clinton.
Sharpton helped incite the deadly anti-Jewish 1991 Crown Heights riots and 1995 Freddy’s Fashion Mart killings, never apologized but went on to host an MSNBC program and advise President Barack Obama on civil rights. Farrakhan is perhaps the country’s highest profile Jew-hater and one who, like the Pittsburgh shooter, remains obsessed with “satanic Jews.” Tolerance of these men, confirmed by Clinton’s presence, also speaks to marginalization of Jews and their concerns.
Historian Wistrich observed that “there is an illusory belief that more Holocaust education and memorialization can serve as an effective antidote to contemporary antisemitism. This notion … is quite unfounded. On the contrary, today ‘Holocaust inversion’ (the perverse transformation of Jews into Nazis and Muslims into victimized ‘Jews’) all-too-often becomes a weapon with which to pillory Israel and denigrate the Jewish people.”
Instead, said Wistrich, Jews “can and must first clarify for ourselves our vocation, raison d’etre, moral priorities and the deeper meaning of our near-miraculous return to the historic homeland. This is the other side of the coin in our essential and relentless fight against antisemitism. … [L]et us be worthy of the scriptural promise that ‘the Torah will come forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’”
A U.S. Jewish community that embraces its historic mission, that refuses to tolerate its adversaries or those who do, that makes growth in knowledge and numbers priorities and asserts both its American citizenship and Jewish peoplehood, will be a more desirable coalition partner and less likely to be marginalized.
Eric Rozenman is communications consultant for the Jewish Policy Center. This article draws on his book, Jews Make the Best Demons: “Palestine” and the Jewish Question (2018, New English Review Press). Any opinions expressed above are his own.