Opinion |

We Thought anti-Semitism Was No Threat to U.S. Jews. We Were Wrong

Authorities and Jewish groups have been negligent in reacting to attacks on the Orthodox community in NYC because of a mistaken, reality-defying belief that anti-Semitism was a thing of the past

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Neighbors gather carrying signs to show their support of the community near a rabbi's residence in Monsey, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, following a stabbing Saturday night during a Hanukkah celebration.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

Pittsburgh. Poway. Jersey City. Monsey.

Anti-Semitism is back. 

Jews everywhere in America are concerned, and Jews in the New York City area are in some cases fearful or even terrified.  As of October, 52 percent of the hate crimes in New York targeted Jews.  Reports of anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city rose 63 percent this year compared to 2018. In some sections of Brooklyn, Jewish parents worry every time a Jewish child wearing a kippah or other distinctive dress leaves the house.

Are local authorities doing all that they can to prevent attacks against Jews?  Absolutely not. 

In a news conference following the Jersey City killings, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio declared that “there is a crisis of anti-Semitism gripping this nation.  And now this threat has reached the doorstep of New York.” 

Now? As innumerable commentators pointed out, the growth of anti-Semitic incidents in New York is not new.  It has been evident for several years, at least.  But where has the mayor been?  And why haven’t city officials done more to stop it?

In New York City, and in America as a whole, it is far from clear what exactly is going on.  Jews have been in this movie before, and their antennae are up.  America was supposed to be different, but now the possibility is beginning to emerge that it is not. 

Not surprisingly, this means that Jews are demanding answers.  They want to know what has happened, and why.  They want to understand this sudden and seemingly dramatic departure from established American norms and traditions of tolerance toward them.  They want explanations that are rational and logical and that can be quickly acted upon by government agencies. 

But the truth is that much of what is happening makes little sense and has no easy explanation.

Inexcusable negligence

Take the case of New York City, for example.  No one in his right mind can accuse De Blasio of being anti-Semitic or indifferent to the concerns of ultra-Orthodox Jews.  He has cultivated their rabbis and leadership, made compromises — unfortunate ones, in fact — on educational standards to preserve the independence of their school systems, and worked hard in every way to win their votes.  Why then the hesitant response to physical attacks and hate crimes in Jewish neighborhoods?

A week of anti-Semitic attacks in New York

My first guess would be the simplest:  inertia and bureaucratic lethargy.  New York’s bureaucracy moves slowly, and De Blasio is known as a less than energetic mayor.  Another guess is the absence of a culprit for the police to target.  The crimes have not generally been attributed to extremist groups; they have mostly been committed by individuals of varying ethnicities acting on their own, motivated in some cases by personal hostility to Jews and in some cases by mental illness.  And such crimes are notoriously difficult to prevent.

And then there is the guess rooted in psychology:  Perhaps De Blasio did not act because he was wearing ideological blinders, convinced that serious anti-Semitism is a thing of the past and the New York attacks were no more than a minor backwards blip in an otherwise positive historical trajectory. 

I find such a possibility perfectly plausible because, until very recently, I thought this way myself, and so too did much of the Jewish community. 

In 2014, I wrote an article for Time Magazine titled “Anti-Semitism:  Not a threat to American Jews.”  It drew on an Anti-Defamation League report showing one of the lowest instances of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States since it started keeping records in 1979.  Is it really surprising that many Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, assumed that among civilized people in western democracies anti-Semitism had all but disappeared, surviving here only on the extremist fringes of American life?

This fact may help us understand why organized U.S. Jewry responded as it did to what has been happening to their brethren in New York.  Many analysts have argued that establishment Jewish organizations shamefully ignored the plight of New York Orthodox Jews who have been living in fear and fending off anti-Semitic attacks. They were right. 

Like New York officials, Jewish groups have been inexcusably negligent in speaking up and taking action on behalf of their Orthodox brethren.  But the reason, I suspect—and this is no excuse for their inaction—is not hostility or indifference to the Orthodox residents of Brooklyn, but a reality-defying mindset that dismissed from their consciousness an ugly bigotry that they simply refused to see.

When we go beyond New York City, and turn to the discussion of anti-Semitism throughout America, here again there are no simple answers or easy explanations.  Anti-Semitism is not a single phenomenon with a single source, but multiple things happening at once.  There is the anti-Semitism of white nationalism, a bigotry of the right. There is the anti-Semitism of intersectionality, a bigotry of the left.  There is the anti-Semitism of jihadism. There is the anti-Semitism rooted in anti-Zionism, mostly a cause of the left but occasionally finding adherents on the right.  And then there is Trump-inspired populism, not specifically anti-Semitic but enabling anti-Semitism through its Islamophobia, homophobia, misogyny, and white supremacy. 

And finally, there is what I would call “everyday anti-Semitism,” which is mostly what we are talking about when we read ADL statistics.  The great majority of anti-Semitic hate crimes are not shootings, knifings, or physical assaults, but criminal mischief, such as distributing anti-Semitic pamphlets or drawing swastikas on the walls of synagogues or Jewish institutions.

A woman holds candles while standing in solidarity with the victims after an assailant stabbed five people attending a party at an Hasidic rabbi's home in Monsey, N.Y., on December 28, 2019, while they were celebrating Hanukkah

So from this jumble of information and facts, what can we conclude? 

1. When it comes to anti-Semitism, beware of simple definitions and simple explanations.  People hate Jews in a multiplicity of ways and for a variety of reasons, and that is as true in the United States as it is elsewhere. 

2. Despite the frightening statistics and heart-wrenching killings, most Jews still feel quite safe in the United States.  The overwhelming majority of anti-Semitic incidents involve non-violent mischief or harassment, not physical attacks.

3. What has happened in New York is a deeply troubling escalation in the nature of American anti-Semitism.  There seems to be no clear reason for this wave of attacks and no pattern that explains it.  Still, as the defacing of gravestones and synagogues has given way to a series of violent incidents, American Jews are wondering whether or not such attacks will spread.

 4. As the threat has grown, American Jews have not been at their best.  The affected Jews in New York, in some cases the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community, have been largely ignored. And even worse, partisans of the right have focused on anti-Semitism of the left while minimizing or ignoring altogether the bigotry of their own side.  And vice versa. As a Jew of the left, do I believe that white supremacists are the biggest threat to the Jewish community?  I do.  But shame on me if I cannot see that there are anti-Semites on the left who are acting outside the human family, and that the part of me that is Jewish is under violent attack from the left as well as the right.

5. Bottom line:  Anti-Semitism never disappears from the human heart. And we must fight the deadly toxin wherever we find it, acting as a single Jewish community, uniting behind a common campaign and a common strategy, so help us God. 

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie

Comments