Yedidia Stern

Is the American Jewish success story ending?

It’s not just a passing campus trend – data shows that the US may be turning into a dangerous place for Jews
Synagogue of Congregation Ohab Zedek built in the Moorish Revival in New York City. (demerzel21/iStock)
Synagogue of Congregation Ohab Zedek built in the Moorish Revival in New York City. (demerzel21/iStock)

The earthquake that shook the Western Negev on October 7th, Israel’s Black Shabbat, gave rise to a tsunami of antisemitism that is flooding parts of the United States.

A US congressional hearing was held on December 5th to examine how universities have responded to the antisemitism directed at Jewish students on American campuses. The presidents of three of the most prestigious institutions – Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania – testified under oath about the situation. They were asked point blank whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates the codes of conduct at their respective universities.

The three twisted in embarrassment as they spun their lawyerly answers: “it depends on the context,” or it is only a violation if it “rises to the level of incitement to violence.” Apparently, in their view, blatantly antisemitic calls for the murder of Jews are allowed as long as Jews aren’t actually murdered. The moral depths to which these university presidents have sunk are beyond description.

If, to paraphrase the Talmudic saying, the cedars of Boston have been set ablaze, is it surprising that the dry hyssops also burn? In other words, the antisemitic wildfire unleashed in the Ivy League might influence many other American campuses.

American Jewry is a dazzling success story. The descendants of European immigrants who arrived destitute in the “golden land” positioned themselves as one of the most prosperous ethnic groups in the world’s most powerful country. Although they constitute only two percent of the population, American Jews stand out for their high levels of education (around a third of American Nobel Prize laureates and a quarter of the students on Ivy League campuses are Jews), their wealth (Jews are the religious group with the highest average income), their influence (the percentage of Jews in Congress – 6% of the House and 9% in the Senate – is many times greater than their share of the population), their cultural contributions (in literature, cinema, and art), and their social contributions (massive philanthropy, civil-society organizations, as leading voices in the human rights discourse, among many others).

It is a fact that the children of three US presidents – Clinton, Trump, and Biden – chose to marry Jews.

This success is no accident and it stands on two solid legs. One is the Jewish community’s unique mix of talent, ambition, and community values. The other is American democracy: the principle of the separation between religion and state; defining American nationhood on a civil rather than ethnic basis; the American self-perception as a country of immigrants. All of these made it possible for US Jews to be accepted as equals.

But it turns out that this is far from being enough. The unbelievable is happening before our eyes when open, blatant antisemitism gains legitimacy in America’s sanctuaries of the intellect. According to a survey by the Anti-Defamation League, 73% of American Jewish college students have personally experienced or witnessed antisemitic behavior on their campuses in recent months. Only 39% feel “very” comfortable with fellow students knowing they are Jewish, and just 45% feel “very” safe on campus.

In light of the data, it can be said that it is now safer and more comfortable to be an Israeli Arab citizen at an Israeli university than an American Jewish citizen at an American university.

Does antisemitism exist in the United States only among students following a cultural fashion trend – a youthful and naïve response of the TikTok generation? The answer is no. In the last year, most religious hate crimes perpetrated in the US targeted Jews – 25 times their share of the population. America may be turning into a dangerous place for Jews.

The highest-ranking Jewish elected official of all time is the current Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer. Last week, Senator Schumer gave a heartbreaking speech in which he candidly described his feelings at this time. As a Jew, he feels isolated, vulnerable, disappointed, and worried. In his view, the present rise of antisemitism is a realization of the line recited at the Passover seder every year: “in every generation they rise up to destroy us.” Today’s highest-ranking senator, a Democrat, hinted at a possible comparison between the current state of the Jews in the United States and the situation of Jews in 1930s Germany.

At the entrance to the University of Vienna stands a monument bearing the names of all of the institution’s presidents since its founding in the 14th century. Toward the end of the list there are conspicuously empty spaces where the names of presidents who failed to act against antisemitism in the 1930s had been deleted. The three American university presidents that testified before Congress should reflect on this precedent.

It appears that the Jewish success story in the West is standing on thin ice. And the temperature is rising. There is one huge difference, however, between the antisemitism suffered by earlier generations and its current incarnation: the existence of a safe haven for Jews – the State of Israel. Senator Schumer has a national home overseas.

About the Author
Yedidia Stern is the president of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and a professor of law (emeritus) at Bar-Ilan University.
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