The Resurgence of Antisemitism: A Personal Reflection
There’s a large synagogue in my area that always keeps its doors locked. People seeking entry need to be buzzed in. I suspect that this requirement is true of virtually all synagogues. We usually think of houses of worship as open, welcoming places. Yet the need for surveillance and safety at Jewish institutions is warranted given the social and political times in which we live.
We are experiencing in the United States a resurgence of antisemitism, reaching its highest level in the past 40 years. According to the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks hate crimes, in 2021 there was a total of 2,717 antisemitic incidents across the U.S. These include not only harassment, swastika daubing, and vandalism, but also assaults on persons. The terrorist massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018 left eleven people dead and was the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history. It is part of the mosaic of escalating hatred of Jews. Antisemitism has always been with us, but it is attaining active expression and becoming regularized.
I can’t think or write about this without being personal. I was born into a Jewish family after World War II and raised in Forest Hills, Queens, in a predominately Jewish neighborhood. My Jewish evolution was common among the offspring of the immigrant generation. My father was born into abject poverty in a shtetl in Ukraine in a pervasively Jewish environment. My mother was the youngest of seven children whose parents immigrated from Eastern Poland. My grandfather labored as a tailor in a sweatshop and Yiddish was the only language they ever spoke. My grandparents remained folk orthodox, while all their children quickly assimilated to American life as they sought to jettison the Old World folkways of their parents as completely as they could. But, of course, much of their parental origins remained.
My parents were affiliated with a conservative synagogue but seldom attended. I conclude that conservative Judaism was a type of way-station for the immigrant generation as it moved from the Old World and assimilated to the New. For logistical reasons, my parents sent me to an orthodox shul for my Hebrew education. Given the dynamics, which propelled my parents’ upward mobility into American life, their religious practice became vestigial. My home environment was assuredly a Jewish one; my mother lit shabbos candles and our cuisine was prevailingly Jewish, but the family by no means adhered strictly to kosher laws, nor were we Sabbath observant.
After my orthodox bar mitzvah, I pulled away from Judaic practice, though because of childhood training and the environment in which I was nurtured, I retained a strong identity as a Jewish person. My life philosophy became humanistic, but being Jewish is the only interiority I possess. It is a fact I accept and it serves as a source of personal renewal. The modern period, in a not completely untrammeled way, allows one to be Jewish in an ethnic, cultural, and political sense, as well as a matter of felt heritage, without adhering to Judaic practice. And so I live this disjuncture, as do perhaps a majority of American Jews who in any way lay claim to Jewish identity.
To be a self-aware Jew leads to a coterie of sensibilities that one picks up almost by osmosis. I was not the only Jewish child raised in 1950s America to feel not totally American. In those days, orthodox Jewish men often did not don their kippa when going into public. In perhaps a manner that was indefinable, I did not fully sense that Protestant-dominant America was my country. Regardless of how much I loved baseball and how many hours I spent in front of the TV set, I still felt somewhat of an outsider.
To be a self-conscious Jew is to be sensitive and responsive to a history of persecution. I was born only three years after the Holocaust. Members of my family were walked into Hitler’s gas chambers, and my very own father had been a witness to czarist pogroms as a child. I am not an alarmist and don’t see an antisemite behind every tree. While enjoying the safety of America, I have been the victim of an antisemitic assault only once (an irascible neighbor defiled my home while screaming an antisemitic epithet). Antisemitism is not something I am insensitive to, nor am I naive to its endurance and pervasiveness in American society. However, it may thin out in various epochs, the world’s oldest prejudice is always extant ready to make itself felt as social and political realities change.
The tension for Jews at the current moment is heightened by the facts of the past and the reality that we cannot predict the future. It is often noted that Jews have experienced in the United States, especially in the twentieth century, freedom, security, and prosperity that is unprecedented throughout their long history. Whenever the impediments of persecution have pulled back, and Jews could enter into mainstream society, they have been able to remarkably flourish, whether in medieval Spain or nineteenth and early twentieth-century Germany. Yet the example of Germany engenders inescapable insecurity.
For the most part, German Jews loved their homeland and German culture. They prospered in their professions. Many patriotically defended Germany, serving in the military in World War I. German Jews became highly assimilated and many even took on the identifying moniker not as“Jews,” but as “Germans of the Mosaic persuasion.” Pushed by antisemitism and pulled by the blandishments of German society, the rate of conversion of Jews to Christianity in the first half of the nineteenth century was notably high. Jews felt at home in Germany, and as such, the Holocaust was a two-fold tragedy of unprecedented proportions: Six million European Jews were systematically annihilated, including 180,000 German Jews who had not previously been expelled or fled. But the Holocaust was as such an unspeakable betrayal of Germany’s Jewish citizens who were beguiled into believing they were secure and accepted as loyal Germans.
It is this historical reality that heightens the tensions of the moment. Antisemitism has loomed in the background of Christian society since at least the Middle Ages. We cannot know whether its current manifestation on American soil will fade in time and the status quo prevail, or reality will quickly flip and antisemitism will metastasize, as the Nazi experience exemplified as possible. I have Jewish friends who take special care to ensure that their passports are up to date.
I see several contextual causes for the rise of antisemitism at the current moment. The first is directly related to the ominous increase in hate groups generally, of which it is a commensurate expression. Clearly, the demagoguery of Donald Trump is a precipitating cause, but its underlying dynamics reach more deeply. While this requires extensive analysis, in briefest terms the unprecedented wealth gap and the stagnation of the economy for those who have occupied traditional working-class jobs is a major factor. The American dream has stalled and with it upward mobility. This condition gives rise to hopelessness and resentment that seek targets among those who are different. Hence, we are seeing paroxysms of xenophobia, anti-gay hatred, contempt for immigrants, and resurgent misogyny. It would be surprising if antisemitism were not to find expression in this panoply of hate.
A second cause is demographic. America is changing. For many older, white Americans, it doesn’t feel like their country. All persons want to feel at home in their environments and people are generally more comfortable with others like themselves. People who are different — culturally, linguistically, with regard to folkways and habits – cause many to feel ill at ease. Such discomfort moves people to draw increasingly thick lines between themselves and “the other.” It is a short step toward externalizing this discomfort by projecting blame onto others as the purported source of insiders’ misfortunes. Jews, for almost two millennia, have played the primary role of “the other.” In times of distress and social upheaval, they have been the source of such scapegoating with extraordinarily disastrous consequences. Antisemitism escalates and erupts at times of social disruption, and this is one of those times.
Throughout much of the history of the Christian Middle Ages, the prevailing rationale for persecution and wanton killing of Jews was theological. The Christian “theology of contempt,” made Jews responsible for the killing of Christ. Jews in Christian Europe remained a defenseless minority who lived at the sufferance of their Christian hosts. As such, they were a persecuted people who stubbornly clung to their faith in the face of the unalterable and superior “truths” of Christianity. It was, perhaps, cognitive dissonance writ large that rendered Jews intolerable to their Christian hosts. St. Augustine declared that the Jews should not be utterly destroyed. A remnant needed to survive to bear witness to the superiority of Christianity. But that survival must be as a demeaned people. And so it was. A “final solution” had to wait until the twentieth century and the emergence of Nazi ideology.
I am old enough to have had Catholic friends as a child who went to church to hear sermons rendered by priests who exhorted their parishioners to “pray for the Jews, for they killed our Lord.” The theology of contempt and its disastrous history was at long last put to an end by the second Vatican council, called by Pope John XXIII, who was a true liberal. Under his successor, Paul VI, the Vatican issued in 1965 the Nostra Aetate, a path breaking document which declared,
“True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures… Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone”
I conclude that the effects of this document have been very substantial in transforming the relationship of Catholicism and Catholics in the pews to Jews and Judaism and reducing the underpinning of theologically-based antisemitism. While there remain reactionary Catholics who reject the changes brought by the Second Vatican Council and cling to antisemitic diatribes, they are relatively few in number.
Moreover, traditional religion is greatly losing its hold in America. An unprecedented number of Americans are unaffiliated with churches. The young, in particular, are increasingly put off by the hatred of gays and others espoused by the purveyors of authoritarian, old-time, religion. Theologically-based doctrine has greatly lost its traction. In short, fewer people care. I conclude that the rise in antisemitism we witness, in contrast to ages past, does not, to a notable extent, have a religious basis. The large evangelical subculture is a complex exception which I will come to below.
A second source of anti-Jewish assault arguably emerges from Muslim-Jewish tensions, rooted in the conflict in the Middle East. This is certainly a phenomenon in France, which has both the largest Muslim and Jewish populations in Western Europe. But it is rare in the United States. As someone who had worked on the ground with religious communities, my assessment is that Muslims and Jews, as two minorities who are both objects of discrimination by the larger community, tend to be mutually supportive. For the moment, their common interests are stronger than the dynamics that would cause them to turn on each other.
Of far greater concern is antisemitism which overlaps with the growing criticism of Israel, as the occupation continues and Israel moves increasingly further to the right. This concern emerges from segments of the left, is salient on college campuses, and is growing increasingly volatile.
To make a long and very complex story all too brief, Israel, from its founding in 1948 until the six-day war in 1967, was seen in the American mind as the beleaguered David surrounded and perpetually threatened by the Arab Goliath. The Israel that most Americans knew was greatly inspired by Leon Uris’s Exodus and Otto Preminger’s subsequent film starring Paul Newman. There was much to admire in the new nation. It was a land created by the survivors of the devastation wrought by the Holocaust. Left behind was the image of the Jew as a victim to be replaced by the new Jew: tillers of the soil, bronzed by the desert sun, and committed to the virile defense of Israel on its own terms. Zionism, which inspired Israel’s birth, was an answer to the timeless persecution of Jews and their self-determinism, a refuge rendered secure by its powerful military.
There was much to admire. Zionism had revived Hebrew, the language of the Bible, and turned it into a modern spoken language. The young nation used its expertise to assist other developing nations, mostly in Africa. It’s kibbutz movement inspired young Americans to spend time there to experience the exhilaration of a new, robust, and in many ways, experimental land. A supervening reality that should not be overlooked is that the Holocaust survivors who aided in building the state were capable of sublimating an instinct for vengeance in the service of a constructive cause writ large.
Deliberately overlooked was Israel’s original sin: The violence done to Palestinians who had lived on the land for centuries. The Israeli War of Independence resulted in killings, the destruction of hundreds of Arab villages, and the mass expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians, many becoming permanent refugees. In my youth, the myth was that the surrounding Arab nations, who immediately invaded Israel as soon as independence was declared, called for the native population to temporarily vacate the land, to soon return after they had destroyed the Zionist entity in its cradle. While there may be minor truth to this myth, consistently promoted by the American Jewish establishment, in recent decades it had been found to be a self-serving fabrication. Many Palestinians fled as people do in all wars. But many were killed in deliberate massacres perpetrated by the Israelis.
The unmaking of founding myths has changed and divided sectors of American public opinion. But perhaps the most powerful dynamic emerged from the 1967 war. The Six Day War saw Israel’s conquest of the Sinai, the Golan Heights, and most significantly Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. For many religious Jews, Israel’s victory was a divine miracle. Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem for the first time in two-thousand years sparked a sense of triumphalism among orthodox Jews and fulfilled dreams of a “Greater Israel,” reflecting the position of one wing of the Zionist movement. Despite warnings coming from David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, that holding on to the territories will come to no good, and they should be returned. Settlement of the West Bank, supported by both the Labor and Likud parties, soon began and has inexorably continued.
The war and the subsequent occupation created a fissure in the American Jewish community. The hard-core pro-Zionist wing of the organized Jewish community, represented by such organizations as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), have refrained from publicly criticizing the Israeli government no matter how indefensible its behavior, even when criticism is raised from within Israel itself. This obdurate stance has been employed as a lobbying position that has sustained what to many appears as disproportionate influence with Congress and the executive branch. At the same time, the 1960s saw the emergence of the New Left, which as an extension of anti-Vietnam protests turned its ideological fervor on American militarism and imperialism more generally. Israel was construed as an extension of America’s imperialist reach. The Palestinians, with echoes resonating from the Civil Rights Movement, were cast as oppressed members of the Third World.
Both sides engaged in simplistic reductionisms which have grown more strident and have hardened through the ensuing decades. A consequence currently manifest is that younger generations care increasingly less about Israel. As the occupation continues, and Israel moves increasingly to the right, indeed far-right, younger Jews see little in Israel to identify with or admire. The loyalty to the Jewish state of the parents and grandparents increasingly is not theirs. When they do care, many find themselves aligning with Israel’s critics. For the leaders of right-wing pro-Israel, nationalist organizations, Israel can do no wrong. They are too quick and glib to brand criticism of Israel as antisemitic. For many on the Left, Israel is little more than a colonial, oppressive, power. As such, Israel and Zionism have become primary targets for Left-wing excoriation.
The thorny question is raised: At what point is criticism of Zionism and of Israel a mask for antisemitism? Israel is a nation-state and like all nations, its policies are open to criticism. My own position is that I fervently support the existence of Israel. Jews as a people are entitled to self-determination, as are others. At the same time, I hold that the occupation of the West Bank and iron-clad control of Gaza is cruel, humiliating, and a violation of international law. And as one who cares about Israel and its future, I hold that the suppression of six million Palestinians against their will is erosive of Israel’s moral character and violates its democratic claims. While Israel’s government and its right-wing defenders recoil at Israel being labeled an apartheid state, it is a claim difficult to refute when millions of Palestinians have lived under military control for 55 years,are subject to separate laws, must travel on different roads, and suffer brutal attacks by settlers who commit their crimes with impunity.
Israel is by far the greater power, but I need to mention that the Palestinians are by no means blameless. Their leadership is oppressive and corrupt, and the trope that when it comes to peace-making the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” is not without merit. Additionally, terrorism has been a real factor informing Israel’s stance toward the Palestinians, terrorism which brings disproportionate retaliation by Israel, sustaining cyclical violence without end.
Yet, however unjustified the occupation, and however far Israel has moved from the progressive visions of its founding (its Declaration of Independence is an enlightened, idealistic statement)I conclude that when we survey the world’s evils, when we countenance global human rights violations, in this context Israel is by no means the worst offender. Yet it receives disproportionate attention. As an example, the UN Human Rights Council, since 2013, has condemned Israel by resolutions 45 times, and since its creation in 2006 the Council has passed more resolutions targeting Israel than all other countries combined.
I am critical of Israel, but when looked at in a global context, Israel is not the world’s worst human rights offender. Fairness would be better served if those who are quick to harp on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians were to express equally vociferous concern for the brutal treatment of dissidents in Sisi’s Egypt, where torture is rampant and thousands languish in prisons in pre-trial detentions. Or if criticism were railed against Saudi Arabia where there is no freedom of religion and women are treated like children, or Pakistan and its honor killings. Or, for that matter, Congo, where more than six million have died as a result of warfare and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped and gang raped.
It is often mentioned that the criticism focused on Israel is warranted in that it is the largest recipient of American aid, $3.8 billion, most of it for military assistance. However, Egypt, where political repression is rampant and cruel, receives $1.3 billion per year. Yet the Left does not seem particularly interested in making Egypt a focus of condemnation.
It is often also said that Israel is a democracy and so can be held to different standards. I don’t buy it. As a human rights activist and academic, I aver that human rights standards set a baseline for conduct that pertains to all nations. Democratic or not, there can be no excuse or leeway for governmental torture, murder, or the denial of a fair trial.
Historically the world has had an unhealthy fascination with Jews, and I submit that this fascination finds expression in the disproportionate criticism of the Jewish state. While criticism of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians is warranted by the facts, the daunting question remains: To what extent is it motivated by antisemitism? It is difficult to pull apart, to know with confidence. But I submit that this contemptible motive is present. There is a gray zone between legitimate criticism and criticism that is motivated by, and is a covert expression of, anti-Jewish hatred.
To the extent that Israel draws disproportionate attention, it plays into the agenda of the haters, the supremacists, and conspiratorialists. For many, it is not covert at all. For crude haters, “Zionist” means Jew, and Jewish aspirations for world dominance have been a mainstay of antisemitic tropes. With the expansion of hate groups, we again hear false allegations of Jewish power. “Jews will not replace us” was a rallying cry of white supremacists at the infamous Charlottesville rally of August 2017. It is a hateful fantasy that has a deep historic resonance, invoking Jews as “the other” who conspire among themselves in the service of control and domination. The “Protocols of Zion,” a czarist fabrication, the ranting of Father Coughlan, and the writings of Henry Ford all made use of this notion of Jews as wily and sinister plotters seeking to pull the strings of society. It has been a source of antisemitic hatred. We had not heard it for decades. But ominously we hear it again.
One final contextual concern. While I asserted that theological justification for antisemitism has faded, there is a major exception. Evangelical Christians now express their love of Jews. Since Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority emerged in the late 1970s, we have witnessed a revival of Christian Zionism. It is a doctrine among the fundamentals of Christianity that took hold among conservative Protestants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
For decades, Jews were wary of evangelicals who were aggressive in their zeal to convert Jews to Christianity. But with the re-emergence of Christian Zionism, evangelicals proclaim an honored place for Jews. It results from their belief that Jews need to be regrouped in the Holy Land in order to jump-start the second coming of Christ. Once there, the Jews will either convert or die. “Some friends,” I conclude.
The Israeli government, and American right-wing supporters of Israel, have accepted the “allegiance” of evangelicals who have generously raised funds for Israel, have unquestionably supported the government, and have assisted Jews in emigrating there. As prime minister Menachem Begin warmly welcomed Jerry Falwell to Israel and the floodgates have been open ever since.
“Beware the Greeks bearing gifts.” It’s a devil’s deal. Ostensible philosemitism can be paper-thin and quickly fade revealing its true nature beneath. The second coming or not, the allegiance between the evangelical subculture and segments of America’s Jewish establishment, in time, will not play well for Jews. Trump’s greatest support came from evangelicals. Evangelicalism has lost its soul and has become primarily an ultra-conservative political movement dedicated to the most reactionary causes: contempt for gays, misogyny and the religion’s (their religion) takeover of the public square. As such it has become a foundation and breeding ground for the emergence of extremist groups espousing hate. History and current global realities tell us that the most authoritarian consequences emerge from religious nationalism, when the dark forces of religion are married to the dark forces of the state. We saw it in Franco’s Spain, and Argentina’s junta, and we see it now in Putin’s Russia aligned with the Orthodox Church. Such a movement, resulting in a union of religion and the state, can never be good for the Jews.
The last election pulled us back from the brink of authoritarianism. But the dangers are still very much with us. There is much to do to ensure our democracy and to restore decency to American life, while quelling the paroxysms of hate, including the revived demons of antisemitism.
For the foreseeable future, I will ensure that my passport is current.
Dr Joseph Chuman teaches Human Rights at Columbia University and Hunter College, CUNY. He recently retired as leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, NJ.