When antisemitism started to surge in America seven or eight years ago, the same polarization that had contributed to the environment for that resurgence surfaced in explanations for it. Those on the left characterized the new Jew-hatred as solely a phenomenon of white supremacy and right-wing extremism. And those on the right saw left-wing antisemitism on campuses and elsewhere, manifested as anti-Zionism, as the real driver.
Those of us who were troubled that the destructive polarization had now even infected the reading of Jew-hatred said that the test of a leader’s sincerity when he or she claims to stand up to antisemitism is whether they are willing to condemn it wherever it comes from, right or left, majority communities or minority communities. This is not to say that each manifestation is the same, distinctions are important, but not to be selective on the basis of a priori political assumptions.
After Charlottesville and the massacre of Jews in the Pittsburgh synagogue, right-wing extremist antisemitism was considered an immediate danger because of the lethal combination of classic antisemitic ideology out of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion – remember the Pittsburgh murderer wrote in his manifesto that he had to kill Jews because they are all-powerful in allowing illegal immigrants to come to this country – and the willingness to use violence to rid the country of the poisonous Jew.
On the other hand, the left-wing variety was seen as not representing an immediate physical threat, but more problematic in other ways because it was gaining respectability in influential circles in the media, universities and corporate America. Under the label of legitimate criticism of Israeli policies, this form of antisemitism devolved into a rejection of Israel’s very legitimacy and opened a pathway to excluding Zionists from legitimate civil rights activities. So, if one considers that an overwhelming majority of American Jews consider Zionism an integral part of their Jewish identity, this exclusion had the potential to exclude a very large number of people.
And then came October 7 and its aftermath. Suddenly the notion that left-wing antisemitism was more a long-term problem evaporated overnight. The reactions by many activists on the left were replete with violent rhetoric and behavior. Signs like “By Any Means Necessary” and “From the River to the Sea” were extreme in justifying the barbarism of October 7 and in calling for Israel’s elimination. At the same time, they opened a path to intimidation, violence and exclusion directed at Jewish students on campuses across the country. Now there was a new dimension to the left-wing antisemitism discussion. Jews now felt directly threatened now from the left as well.
What has not been discussed sufficiently, however, and is highly relevant to the mounting concerns of the Jewish community, is the issue of geography.
The white supremacists of the world, spouting Jew hatred of a classic ilk, such as “The Jews will not replace us” at Charlottesville, are generally not residing in areas of large Jewish populations. That doesn’t mean they can’t move around to other places and locate Jewish sites to cause harm. That’s what happened in Pittsburgh. That requires some degree of organization and planning which lacks the quality of randomness.
On the other hand, the current surge of Jew hatred is surfacing in the heart of Jewish life in America, either on campuses that have significant Jewish student populations like Columbia, Penn, or Tulane, or in neighborhoods like Brooklyn or Manhattan that are home to large numbers of Jews. Those engaging in intimidation and even violence may themselves live in those neighborhoods and surely attend the same schools.
To date, we have not seen the level of violence exhibited by right-wing extremists at Pittsburgh and elsewhere and we can only hope it never comes to that. However, because so many of the demonstrations and extreme rhetoric are taking place where large numbers of Jews live, the level of fear and insecurity in the Jewish community has risen to new levels.
The result is a heightened sense of insecurity, the potential for random acts of violence, and, for significant numbers of American Jews, a level of anxiety we haven’t seen for decades. The potential for confrontational activity toward Jews, either through rhetoric, violence, or exclusion is significantly heightened by virtue of proximity.
And that increases the need for government leaders and law enforcement as well as cultural leaders to be particularly proactive in making sure that the Jewish residents of these communities and the Jewish students at these universities are safe and not feeling isolated. The failure to do so will increase the disturbing sense of alienation among Jews that has already crept into conversations.
The ideology of hatred under the pretense of criticism of Israel is bad enough. The geographical factor brings it home to Jews in an unprecedented fashion, seen in the huge rise in antisemitic incidents since October 7. It must be dealt with appropriately before it gets completely out of hand.