A recent survey tells us that more than 90% of American Jews are “concerned” about antisemitism, and almost half of them have experienced it either directly, or “through family or friends.” I wondered if things were better or worse for Jews than when I grew up, and I can’t say. I was born during WWII and my youth and young adulthood in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s in the USA don’t provide an answer. My American-born parents were completely secular, and although their circle of friends was almost entirely made up of Jews (even when we lived in a non-Jewish neighborhood of the New York suburbs), they were not especially concerned with “Jewish” issues. The conversation at the dinner table was more likely to revolve around social activities than politics, and even when it did turn to politics, Jewishness rarely came into it.
So I wasn’t looking for antisemitism and I didn’t find it. Looking back, I can speculate that some of the kids that picked on me, or the girls that wouldn’t go out with me, or people that seemed to dislike me for no clear reason, or, later, failed to hire me, did so out of anti-Jewish feeling, but at the time it was just the way things worked. You win some and you lose some. I remember that I got along with the Italian kids in the neighborhood better than the Irish ones, but I was not aware then that the priest at the Irish parish gave anti-Jewish sermons at Eastertime.
Antisemitism then was everywhere and nowhere. I know that some Jewish kids were called “dirty Jew,” but this didn’t happen to me. I knew about the Holocaust – my grandparents, immigrants from Russia, talked about it even if my parents didn’t – but that might have happened on Mars in prehistoric times. In 1950, five years after the liberation of the concentration camps, my major concern was the unfairness of the fact that I did not own a baseball card of Phil Rizzuto.
I don’t think the media then invested a lot of words in discussing racism or antisemitism, compared to today’s obsessive interest in these things (at least, the Jewish media is interested in antisemitism). So I think the idea that there is a “surge of antisemitism” in America today is unproven. But we can say that there have been several important recent developments in the evolution of American antisemitism.
One is a result of the KGB’s anti-Israel offensive that began in the 1960s, which brought together traditional European and Muslim antisemitism, and introduced the false but effective idea that Zionism is racism. In one blow, Jews, who had been in the forefront of movements for civil rights and anti-colonialism, became the enemies of all “progressive” movements. Even more momentum came from the Durban conference in 2001 in which Israel was directly identified as the epitome of colonialism and apartheid. So the American Left switched from opposing antisemitism as a kind of racism, to embracing anti-Zionism (which is essentially another form of antisemitism).
Another is the identification of Jews with anti-black racism. This seems to have come about for various reasons, among them being the ideology of the black Muslim movement, personified by Louis Farrakhan. The popular racist “antiracism” movement found the Jews an easily identifiable element in the white power structure that they see as opposing their goals. Ideologues like Leonard Jeffries, argued ahistorically that the slave trade was financed by “rich Jews,” and that the Jews who controlled Hollywood conspired to denigrate blacks. His ideas got a lot of traction with those who were looking for someone to blame.
In any event, these newer expressions of antisemitism have raised the profile of Jew-hatred. The amplification factor provided by social media has also worked to spread and intensify the phenomenon.
The recent hostage incident in a Texas synagogue displays a mixture of modern antisemitic memetic DNA. Malik Faisal Akram, a Muslim of Pakistani origin, seems to have believed in the “Jewish power” myth popularized by the nineteenth-century European Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which found fertile soil among Muslims (e.g., the Hamas Covenant copied parts of the Protocols word for word). He apparently thought that all-powerful Jews could arrange for the release of convicted terrorist Aafia Siddiqui from federal prison in nearby Fort Worth, and called a New York rabbi whom he believed had particular influence.
The extreme right-wing form of antisemitism shares some of the same myths as the extreme left-wing type. Robert Bowers, who murdered 11 Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, claimed that he did it because that synagogue supported HIAS – an organization that facilitates immigration to the US, including immigrants from Muslim countries, who Bowers said “kill our people.” Ironically, HIAS stands for “Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society,” a group originally formed to resettle Holocaust survivors after the war, which has since recast itself to aid all refugees – which today generally means Muslims from Afghanistan, Syria, and so on. Bowers imagined a widespread plot by powerful Jews to replace the white race in America with Muslims and other third-world peoples.
Whether or not it is true that more Americans hold antisemitic views than in the past, my guess is that American Jews are right to be concerned, because the fragmentation and disintegration of American society that is occurring now has released numerous demons, including antisemitic ones – and they are increasingly violent demons.
On the other hand, another Holocaust, this time in America, is very unlikely. That would require a singleness of purpose that is the opposite of the flying apart that seems to be in America’s future.