The resurgence of anti-Semitism in New York has attracted belated attention by politicians and the media. A few assaults were not enough; it took a multiple stabbing in a rabbi’s home to get any real traction. Even the Prime Minister of Israel has weighed in. So now there is some attention to the “what,” but still not much on the “why.” After all, New York in general – and New York City in particular – are not historical hotspots for anti-Semitism the way that France, Eastern Europe, or most Muslim countries are.
Some factors can be ruled out. Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio may be feckless and ineffectual on this problem, but even I don’t think they are themselves anti-Semitic. Their response may be too little and too late, but that is a far cry from encouraging this activity.
Similarly, it seems unlikely that New York City has been secretly taken over by right wing extremists regardless of Mr. de Blasio’s theories. My view from South Carolina may be a little jaundiced, but the city seems solidly progressive/Democratic. Even the Republican parts of the state are more Nelson Rockefeller than David Dukes.
Nor do I think that social media is to blame. That seems to be the favorite whipping boy of many commentators (including some in this publication). While it might make communications easier, it is not the source of the ideas being discussed. After all, anti-Semitic propaganda got around quite well for centuries before the internet. So that is a convenient story, but not a persuasive one.
Instead, I think it is the confluence of two causes, neither one of which is particularly easy to fight. First, Jews are still often seen as “ the other.” Indeed, as discussed in a recent federal case in New York, the good citizens of the Village of Pomona, not generally known as a hotbed of anything, decided to pass zoning laws specifically to prevent the construction of a rabbinical college. Among the villagers’ comments were the fear that the attendees would “take over the village” and that the Hasidic community was a group “that breaks every law there is.” Seemingly, these speakers and others who supported them had no thought that these comments were discriminatory although the Second Circuit had no trouble concluding that they were.
Treating Jews this way appeals to a core need to make sense of the world by assigning blame. The 9/11 catastrophe as a consequence of geopolitics or complicated state-sponsored terrorism is difficult to understand or grapple with. But if the story is that it was caused by the Jews, however insane that theory is, it becomes a simple story. Similarly, even for economists and other experts, the 2008 financial crisis is maddeningly difficult to explain. But if it is attributed to an international Jewish conspiracy, it is no longer everyone’s fault or Bob the neighborhood banker, but of this group of people who don’t “really” belong.
Equally troublesome, anti-Semitism has been mainstreamed not so much by the right-wing, but by the left. The constant cozying-up to people such as Louis Farrakhan and Linda Sarsour, (now an official spokesperson for Bernie Sanders), the acceptance of anti-Semitic tropes, and the general failure of the mainstream media to address this issue until Jews are actually stabbed in a rabbi’s home, germinate the ever-present seeds. Not long ago, the New York Times was forced to apologize for publishing not once, but twice editorial cartoons that were clearly anti-Semitic because the editors were apparently unable to detect the problem until it was brought to their attention.
For the left, this is made easier because Jews are perceived as the overdogs. If Jews as a community are not oppressed, then they do not need to be defended. When it comes to playing the victim card, Jews have been assigned the two of clubs. As a result, anti-Semitism becomes entirely excusable as long as the person advocating it is otherwise part of the progressive community.
Fighting these self-reinforcing trends requires more than tweets from the mayor (apparently assaulted Jews don’t merit a speech or even a press conference). It demands more than a brief increase in police patrols in “Jewish neighborhoods.” They are both long-term problems that call for long-term solutions. The specific horrific actions in the last few days and weeks may be those of individuals, but they embody deeper trends that will take years and diligence to ameliorate.