It has become common conversation, appropriately so, to refer to the surge of antisemitism in America as the “canary in the coal mine,” a sign of larger problems to come. It’s a dated reference for sure – miners no longer carry live birds in underground tunnels to detect the presence of dangerous gases – but it is an accurate description of the way antisemitism has played out in societies historically and to the present day.
That’s because a surge of antisemitism, such as that we are seeing today in the US, frequently has not stopped there, but has gone on to affect other groups, as well as affecting values in general.
Secondly, and more importantly, the canary reference is intended to suggest a danger to broader society and to democracy itself that we dare not ignore. As Deborah Lipstadt, the US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, has noted, while hatred, discrimination and persecution “may begin with the Jews, it does not end with the Jews.”
Any society can be sure that if antisemitism is allowed to go unchecked, what is happening to its Jewish population surely will spread and infect other elements of society.
In sum, people should be concerned about the rise of antisemitism simply from a moral perspective, but if that doesn’t move them, practical reasons of self-interest should kick in.
This way of thinking is commensurate with the surge of antisemitism we are now experiencing in America.
At the same time, we must not forget the opposite perspective, how broader trends in society have a direct effect on that society’s level of antisemitism. When democratic values and institutions are under siege or non-existent it is almost inevitable that a fertile soil for antisemitism is going to be generated.
Antisemitism has a history and life of its own as exemplified by millennia of powerful stereotypes and tropes about Jews. One could have the most liberal society imaginable, and antisemitism can exist. But how it manifests itself at any given time is usually intimately connected to broader trends in society.
In the Soviet Union, communist ideology originally did not target Jews. But as it became a totalitarian ideology it was not surprising that Jews were singled out for persecution and discrimination.
In Nazi Germany, antisemitism was at the center of its program from the beginning, but it couldn’t have translated into the horror of the Final Solution without the elimination of the rule of law and democratic institutions in society.
In our own time, we need to be concerned about indications of a weakening democracy and center as polarization and extremism become deeply embedded. These trends provide fertile soil for antisemites – as conspiracy theories take hold, and free speech is either questioned or used for inflammatory purposes. And Jews and other marginalized or minority groups don’t do well where their safety depends upon the noblesse oblige of an authoritarian regime, as opposed to a robust democracy that guarantees full, fair and accessible elections, rule of law, and legally protected civil rights and liberties.
Jews invariably are targeted from all sides in an environment where compromise and consensus are looked down upon and where looking to blame someone for every failure in society becomes the predominant emotion. One of the unique things about antisemitism, however, is that it not only “punches down” on Jews as “other” and “lesser than,” but also deems them as malevolently powerful and controlling.
That’s why what is needed is a two-pronged approached to today’s resurgence of Jew hatred: first, we must confront antisemitism directly and must warn society that everyone will be at risk if it is allowed to grow. And, therefore, we must stand together – early and often – before it gets out of hand. To do so, Congress must pass a resolution to recognize May as Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM), and to proactively tell the 350-year story of Jews in the United States by celebrating the accomplishments of the American Jewish community. This important statement from our elected leaders will help to communicate this sentiment from the highest levels of government.
And second, we must tackle the threat indirectly by seeing that it is the broader trends in society that create the environment in which antisemitism grows. Therefore, we need to address the anti-democratic tendencies that are all around us which endanger us all but will invariably come back to bite the Jews of America. ADL research shows us that Holocaust education is a critical tool to accomplish this effort. The Holocaust Education and Antisemitism Lessons (HEAL) Act is critical to help us understand the state of Holocaust education around the country, so that we can ensure every student in America has access to the robust education that will build understanding and allyship in the face of this growing trend.
Yes, antisemitism is like the canary in the coal mine, a warning to all. (The irony of this analogy is that Twitter, in a sense the 21st century social media equivalent of the canary, has repeatedly failed to enforce its policies around antisemitic tweets in the past six months).
But the warning needs to apply as well to our polarized politics that help create that environment in which antisemitism grows unimpeded.