This is what anti-Semitism can lead to
The horrific murders last Saturday in Pittsburgh, driven by anti-Semitism, prompt me to share some thoughts and perspectives.
This will be a lengthy piece, so let me begin with the three thoughts uppermost in my mind.
First, although the murderer appears to fit within the stereotype of classic fringe-right-wing, anti-Semitic extremism, contemporary anti-Semitism in both the United States and much of Western Europe also includes a rapidly growing core of left-wing (in the U.S., “progressive”) haters, wearing the fig leaf of anti-Zionism. I believe that although this strain of anti-Semitism has yet to take any Jewish lives (to the best of my knowledge), it is no less a threat to the Jewish people — no less an excrescence — than the more familiar brand of fringe-right-wing anti-Semitism that erupted in Pittsburgh last week. And Pittsburgh appears to be just the tip of the iceberg.
Second, while available statistics indicate that anti-Semitic incidents have risen in the U.S. in the past couple of years, a closer look at these statistics shows that this upward tick (God forbid it’s a trend) comes only after nearly two decades of strong, steady decline in such incidents. Incidentally, my review of the statistics also gave me insights not only on hate directed at Jews, but on hate for other groups, including blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and the LBGTQ community.
A final thought on the available statistics: Unfortunately, they may be so flawed as to tell us very little beyond broad trends. More on this below.
Third, in the wake of the murders, a great many people rushed to blame this outrage on Donald Trump’s alleged anti-Semitic signaling to those of his supporters who belong to alt-right and white-supremacist groups. I am somewhat skeptical of such claims. Lest anyone think I write this as a Trump supporter, think again. I most emphatically am not a Trump supporter.1
Having told you where this piece is going, let me now begin at the beginning — with my own experiences and personal knowledge of anti-Semitism. I was born in 1944 and grew up in a New Jersey community with a well-mixed population. I first became aware of anti-Semitism at about age 8 when I learned about the Holocaust. Not long afterward, part of my self-identification as a Jew started to include an interest in the then-young Jewish state, Israel. My interest in and concern for Israel continues to this day.
I should add here that I am not a religious person. In fact, I do not believe in the existence of God. My Jewish identity revolves largely around a broad cultural awareness of and affinity for a group (1) to which I am tied by blood, (2) in whose contributions to civilization over the millennia I feel pride, and (3) whose bloody persecution over the centuries and in almost all corners of the world I abhor.
I have never been bullied or taunted for being a Jew. But even as a child I learned that in my own community, Jews were, for some people, “the other.” My first lesson in discrimination came from my parents, who told me about how — when they moved to New Jersey from New York City in 1941 — they were surprised to learn that black people were not welcome to sit with everyone else in movie theaters, but were expected to go up to the balcony, which they told me, was locally known as “N****r Heaven.” This in a Northern state! I was shocked.
They also told me about their experience in Detroit during World War II. My dad was working, in a civilian capacity, for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and one of his major projects was to find an inexpensive way to keep the electromagnetic interference emitted by gasoline engines from creating so much static that soldiers communicating by radio or walkie-talkie on the battlefield would be unable to hear messages when a truck or motorcycle drove up. As part of his work, he was sent to the Willys plant in Detroit, where Jeeps were made. He and my mom, who accompanied him, discovered it was hard to find a place to live. Each time they tried to rent an apartment they would be asked what church they belonged to and turned away. Jews were not welcome.
I also remember being horrified to learn about the provocative marches of George Lincoln Rockwell and his American Nazi Party goons in Skokie, Illinois.
And I recall my first encounter with a new kid in the neighborhood who, upon learning I was Jewish, told me he couldn’t play with me because I hadn’t been baptized and would surely go to Hell if I remained unbaptized for the rest of my life.
Years later, when I was accepted as a freshman at Yale, an elderly Jewish neighbor had a surprising, to me, reaction. A retired labor lawyer, he’d earned his law degree at night school, and he was highly impressed that this Jewish kid across the street had been accepted at an Ivy League school. It brought home to me, better than anything I might have read regarding society’s acceptance of Jews, that my having been accepted at Yale would probably not have been so easy only a few decades earlier, or less. It fit in with what I knew about Jews being accepted at or excluded from certain clubs. In other words, I realized that I was the beneficiary of a positive evolution in society’s acceptance of Jews, and that attitudes had not always been so enlightened.
Still later in life, when living in Hawaii, I recall hearing some abhorrent anti-Semitic lies being quietly peddled about Linda Lingle, a Jewish candidate for governor. Fortunately, the slime attack didn’t work. She was elected and re-elected.
So yes, I have had some personal, though modest, brushes with anti-Semitism.
Right- and Left-Wing Anti-Semites
From everything I’ve read about him, the Pittsburgh murderer appears to fit the classic mold of the modern American anti-Semite — the sort of fringe-right-wing extremist who would feel at home among neo-Nazis, skinheads, white nationalists and supremacists, members of the (thankfully) now-all-but-defunct KKK, followers of David Duke, and some of the more radicalized members of the alt-right. In sum, the entire repulsive cast of characters that converged in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 for the Unite the Right “rally.” It’s people like these that most Americans generally associate with anti-Semitism.
I’ve long felt that such people were a tiny minority that, like other vermin, were mostly to be found, figuratively speaking, under a rock. That hundreds of them were motivated to gather for a show of force in Charlottesville — out of a nation of 325 million — initially indicated to me that such people, however disgusting and threatening they are as individuals, constitute nothing more than a fringe group.
However, since I posted this blog a few hours ago, my sharp-eyed son Adam directed me to a new article that puts the number of white supremacist rioters in Charlottesville in perspective. They may have been mere hundreds, but according to this New York Times report, “roughly 22 million Americans call it ‘acceptable’ to hold neo-Nazi or white-supremacist views, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken in the wake of Charlottesville in August 2017. Roughly the same number of people, about 10 percent of Americans, said they supported the ‘alt-right’; about half of those polled said they were against it.” (Actually, 22 million represents roughly 7 percent of the population — not “about 10 percent” but still appallingly high.)
So, yes, right-wing anti-Semitism is absolutely a threat, and if 7 percent of Americans — one in every 14 of our neighbors — find neo-Nazi or white-supremacist views “acceptable,” it’s a huge threat.
Big as this threat is, it is not, regrettably, the only one facing the Jews. Anti-Semitism is also taking root on the progressive left, and I find that another real cause for worry.
Left-wing BDS call for boycott
An earlier boycott (the sign reads “Germans! Defend Yourselves! — Don’t buy from Jews!”)
This trend on the left claims to be not anti-Semitic, but anti-Zionist, and it is at its most pernicious in its strong support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The BDS target is, putatively, Israel, not “the Jews.” Its rationale is opposition to the Israeli government’s policies toward the Palestinians, in particular Jewish settlements and other aspects of “the occupation.”
I am no lock-step supporter of the Netanyahu government’s policies, and there is certainly ample room for people of good conscience to criticize or oppose them. But from almost everything I read, the BDS movement is, in effect, calling into question Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. If the BDS campaign were to achieve widespread success in denying Israel’s legitimacy, how long might this tiny nation, with enemies on all sides, survive?
If BDS were to succeed in making a large number of people sympathetic to its viewpoint (i.e., hostile to Israel), I would view that as an existential threat to Jews.
Why do I feel this way? Because ever since the Romans put down the revolt in Judea and exiled most of its Jewish inhabitants two thousand years ago, creating the biggest portion of the Diaspora, the Jews have been a stateless minority living at the sufferance of others. With few exceptions, most notably Holland and the United States, the “host” population has discriminated against and often persecuted the Jews living among them.
It is not for nothing that for centuries Jews have prayed for “next year in Jerusalem.” The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and its flourishing, despite being surrounded by hostile states and people ever since, is an answer to that prayer.
If Israel were to be delegitimized, due in large part to the efforts of the BDS movement, it would presage the disappearance of the Jewish state — the last, best hope of most of the world’s Jews for the right to live a “normal” life like most other peoples around the globe. (And yes, I know the Kurds, Tibetans and many other downtrodden peoples also lack a sovereign state. But let’s please keep our focus on the Jews. All the haters do, and we should do no less.)
But don’t we Diaspora Jews live a normal life at least in America? Yes, certainly. And, I hope, we always will. But I’ll never forget my father, discussing Nazism with me when I was much younger, saying that just because we are well-accepted now, it would not be safe to assume that “it could never happen here.” I used to dismiss that thought as the result of the less-welcoming environment in which he grew up and his witnessing, from afar, the rise of the Nazis in a nation that was until then considered a paragon of civilization.
Do I find BDS a threat only to Israel’s Jews, or perhaps also to Jews in the United States?
Both. It’s a threat to Jews in the U.S. as well as Israel. Here’s why I think so.
BDS is a threat because its influence is rapidly expanding due to its growing popularity on the left, particularly among those whom “intersectionality” mobilizes in support of progressive causes. Alongside the growing influence of BDS, I’m seeing two more worrying trends:
- A parallel loss of popular support for Israel, not only among Democrats but also, more recently, even among Evangelicals, a group that has been strongly supportive of Israel — and by several mainline Protestant churches too.
- Overt ties to the notorious Louis Farrakhan by such progressive opponents of Israel as Women’s March leaders Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory. (Farrakhan’s hobnobbing with DNC Vice Chair Keith Ellison and other prominent Democrats is also very troubling.)
Recent polls and surveys have shown an alarming erosion of support for Israel on the left. This should concern anyone who values what has been in recent years the solidly bipartisan nature of such support. This erosion bodes ill for Israel, which, in a world that is mostly indifferent or hostile to it, greatly relies on the support of a powerful, sympathetic ally.
Eroding support on the left came to my attention a decade ago. At the Democratic National Conventions in 2008 and 2012, platform planks expressing support for Israel, routinely adopted in earlier years, became controversial. At the 2012 convention, according to news reports I recall, an evident majority of delegates present seemed unsupportive of the proposed plank language, and the convention chair had to call for a voice vote. He then banged his gavel, declared the plank adopted and moved quickly to the next item, blatantly ignoring what was reported as apparent majority opposition from the floor.
And now the erosion of support on the left is no longer the only worrisome trend. It has been joined by the friendliness of leading progressives toward Farrakhan, a long-standing Jew hater who has much in common with right-wing anti-Semites. The Jews’ enemies are no longer just on the right-wing fringe, they’re now also in a segment of the left whose influence is not merely growing but accelerating.
So let me bring these lines of thinking together and explain why I find them scary.
First, Israel may seem like a strong nation. But geographically, it is terribly vulnerable. And it is facing what will probably one day be a devastating rain of rockets, thousands per day, launched by Hezbollah, Iran’s tool, from Lebanon. Israel came close to being overwhelmed in the opening days of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and pulled off a victory thanks in large part to then-President Nixon’s decision to undertake a massive airlift of ammunition and other supplies that made it possible for Israel to prevail. Israel cannot afford to lose such an ally or to have its support waver. And if, heaven forbid, a military disaster befalls Israel, and its Jewish survivors must flee, who will take them? The fate of the refugees aboard the SS St. Louis in 1939 offers an answer, but not a happy one.
I fear we won’t have too long to wait before left-wing anti-Semitism, married to the far left’s generalized, out-of-control rage (think about the 2017 shooting of Republican Congressman Steve Scalise or some of the behavior seen at the Kavanaugh hearings), also turns violent. Some on the extreme left are going to wind up killing not only Republicans but Jews, the universal scapegoat.
Here’s the progression of thinking that I fear could lead to this: Trump and the Republicans are too friendly to Israel and that terrible Netanyahu; Israel is a “racist, apartheid” state that’s committing “genocide” against those peaceful Palestinian protestors (yes, the same ones who are launching rockets and incendiary balloons at Israel!); the Jews love Israel so Jews must die.
If you think I’m catastrophizing, I hope you’re right, but I fear you’re not.
That is why I find far-left-wing anti-Semitism as frightening as its fringe-right-wing counterpart even though, so far, far-right-wing anti-Semites seem more violence-prone.
Since the Pittsburgh murders I have seen a great many references, in news reports and commentary, to an alarming growth in anti-Semitic incidents in the past couple of years. Most widely cited is a report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) that anti-Semitic incidents in the United States grew an alarming 57 percent in 2017, on top of 35 percent growth in 2016.
I wanted to know more, so I took a look at the statistics. Like everyone else, I was alarmed at the report. I was also curious about reports I’d seen in the past that anti-Semitic incidents were the largest group of hate-for-a-religion incidents, greatly outnumbering incidents targeting Muslims.
- Despite a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, if you look at the years from 2000 to 2016, the overall trend of such incidents is way down. (Unfortunately, when I created this post, the FBI statistics for 2017 had not yet been published. Today, Nov. 13, nine days later, they were released. They showed a big jump, 37 percent up from 2016. I am therefore revising the remaining bullets in this section, as appropriate, to reflect the more up-to-date picture that is now available.3)
- Here’s a closer look. Overall, between 2000 and 2017, the annual total of anti-Semitic incidents declined by 15% (from 1,109 to 938). The jump in incidents in 2017 made a big difference in comparisons to the year 2000. In the absence, till today, of the 2017 figures, there had been a decline of 38 percent in anti-Semitic incidents between 2000 and 2016 (from 1,109 to 684). In 2017, much of that improvement was erased.
- Between 2000 and 2014 (the last year of the decline), these incidents had fallen by nearly half — 45 percent (from 1,109 to 609).
- Unfortunately, the FBI statistics show a distressing 54 percent spike in anti-Semitic incidents between 2014 and 2017 (from 609 to 938).
- If it’s any consolation to view anti-Semitism in a broader context, overall incidents of hate — directed at blacks, the LBGTQ community, Hispanics, Muslims, Native Americans, Asians and others — also ballooned, from 5,479 in 2014 to 7,175 in 2017. That’s a leap of 31 percent, but it doesn’t approach the 54 percent mushrooming in anti-Semitic incidents over the same period.
- The FBI figures vary considerably from those of the ADL. My best guess is that this mostly results from different methods of data collection.
- To better compare “apples to apples,” the ADL statistics show a 13 percent rise in incidents between 2005 and 2017 (from 1,757 to 1,986). (Why 2005? Because that was the year of the earliest ADL statistics I could find.) For the same period, the FBI figures show a 24 percent decline (from 1,227 to 938).
- I wonder to what extent the disparity between the FBI and ADL statistics may partially result from flaws in the ADL’s reporting, which, as I understand it, did not attempt to exclude incidents resulting from the “thousands of threats” against Jewish institutions in the U.S. that were made by a deranged 19-year-old Israeli-American dual citizen in 2016 and 2017.
- Moreover, 204 of the incidents included in the ADL figures for 2017 and 108 in 2016 took place on college campuses. It takes no genius to conclude that many, probably most, of these 312 incidents were related to the left-oriented, anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, pro-Palestine activism and intimidation of Jewish students that is now widespread on college campuses, and not to the sort of classic fringe-right anti-Semitism exemplified by the Pittsburgh murderer.
- Another possible explanation for the FBI-ADL discrepancy is suggested by the New York Times article cited above. It reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in an Oct. 29 news conference that “88 percent of agencies that provide hate-crimes data to the F.B.I. reported zero hate crimes in 2016.” Potentially incomplete reporting produces misleading statistics, or as they say in the computer world, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Like the ADL statistics, the FBI numbers might also be flawed. That is why I wonder to what extent either set of statistics can be relied on to tell us anything significant. I doubt the specific numbers reported are very accurate, and I wonder if even the trends they show reflect reality. It is reassuring, however, to know that the ADL and FBI figures both show a long-term decrease in the number of incidents. I hope this is real.
- Interestingly, in its report on the FBI’s release of the 2017 hate crime statistics, the Wall Street Journal noted that “[t]he number of [local and state] law-enforcement agencies that submitted incident reports [to the FBI] in 2017 climbed by 6% to 16,149. … At least 91 cities with populations exceeding 100,000 either didn’t report any data to the FBI or actually reported zero hate crimes.” This reinforces my contention in the preceding bullet that all the FBI statistics I’m citing here appear to paint a highly incomplete picture of the situation.
- The main takeaway, for me, is that the presumably significant number of unreported crimes means that a great many anti-Semitic and other hate crimes remain unreported and unknowable. In other words, things may actually be worse than they appear. On the other hand, the fact that so many incidents have apparently also gone unreported in the past, and that state and local authorities in 2017 at least began to do a better job of tracking these crimes, could mean that the apparently large jump in 2017 might be at least partly the result of better reporting rather than solely an increase in such crimes.
- For additional perspective, let’s turn back to the bigger picture. The FBI’s hate crimes figures include incidents against not only Jews but many others. In 2017, anti-Semitic incidents comprised 13 percent of the total. Anti-black incidents were over two times worse — 28 percent! Anti-LBGTQ incidents were next at 17 percent. Then came Hispanics, Muslims, Native Americans and Asians at, respectively, 6, 4, 3 and 2 percent.
- The FBI also groups these incidents by general type — race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. Looking only at incidents directed against a religion, in 2017, anti-Semitic incidents topped the list at 60 percent. Anti-Muslim incidents were about one-fourth as frequent, 17 percent. Islamophobia, clearly, is far less prevalent than that old standby, anti-Semitism.
Bottom line: Is America home to haters? Yes. Does hate, whether directed at Jews, blacks, Muslims or the gay community — define our country? Given the relatively small number of all these reported incidents — a total of 7,175 in 2017 in a nation of over 325 million — I don’t think you can make a good case for that, much as some would like us to believe it. Still, there remains much room for improvement. And the trend, at least for the present, is rising, which is very sobering.
One final thought. From my travels around the world and all the reading I’ve done, I believe it’s fair to say that hate of “the other” may well be baked into the human condition. Just look at these conflicts — Catholics vs. Protestants in Ireland; Hindus vs. Muslims in what used to be British India; persecution of East Indians in Africa and ethnic Chinese in Malaysia and Indonesia; Hutus vs. Tutsis in East Africa; Sunni vs. Shia in the Muslim world. The appalling list goes on and on.
Is Trump Responsible?
Finally, the big political question. Is Trump responsible for what happened in Pittsburgh? I don’t have a definitive answer. I’m no friend of the narcissist Wrecking-Ball-in-Chief, but I think claims of his responsibility for encouraging anti-Semitism may be exaggerated, although the recent rise in both anti-Semitic incidents and overall incidents of hate is very troubling. Even more disquieting is the fact that the largest portion of this rise took place in 2016 and, especially, 2017. Whether Trump is directly responsible for it or not, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the haters appear to feel a lot less inhibited on his watch.
The claims of Trump’s responsibility, widespread in both traditional and social media, are based on such things as Trump’s having brought Steve Bannon, the godfather of the alt-right, into the White House. And by his pathetic statement that there “were very fine people — on both sides” of the 2017 Charlottesville rioting. And by many other things he has said that commentators have interpreted as “dog whistle” signals to fringe-right supporters that anti-Semitism is OK. These signals include his use of terms like “globalists,” “international bankers” and “George Soros” as, allegedly, subtle references to “the Jews.” (I too was outraged by the Bannon appointment and by Trump’s “both sides” statement, among much else.)
While a great many well-educated people are sophisticated enough to view “globalists,” “international bankers” and “George Soros” as code for “the Jews,” I believe most of the ill-educated morons who predominate among the violent white supremacists are probably too ignorant to make such an association. Nor am I convinced that Trump’s “America first” message is also a subliminal appeal to anti-Semites. I suspect that his monumental ignorance is large enough to keep him blissfully unaware that Charles Lindbergh and his isolationist followers used the phrase in connection with their claim that the Jews wanted to drag America into war against Nazi Germany.
Whatever else he may be, Trump is father to a woman who converted to Judaism, has a son-in-law and close advisor who is an observant Jew, and has three Jewish grandchildren. Moreover, he has been very supportive of Israel. I think it’s more likely that many of the objectionable things he’s said and done that lead many to believe he’s an anti-Semite can be attributed to his out-of-control mouth, twitchy Twitter-fingers and an egocentricity so powerful that, to the extent he might even be aware that his words could have harmful consequences, he still can’t resist Tweeting whatever is on his pea-brain … and the Devil take the hindmost.
The bottom line though is that anti-Semitic incidents and overall incidents have climbed sharply on his watch.
American Jews are sometimes accused of having dual loyalty, and maybe even feeling greater loyalty to Israel than to the United States.
Anyone questioning Jews’ positive feelings for Israel — and far from all American Jews have them; the percentage shrinks every year — should stop and ask two questions.
First, do you think Italian-Americans, Japanese-Americans and Irish-Americans have dual loyalties? On St. Patrick’s Day, people often say, “today we’re all Irish.” And what about black Americans and Hispanics who take pride in their heritage as well?
Second, are Jews, who have long been among the world’s most oppressed people and who have contributed so much to human civilization … are we to be accused of dual loyalty because we too take pride in our heritage and in the nation that was created as a home for our fellow Jews, unwanted and despised in so many other countries?
I sure hope not.
1. I hope it is plain by now that I’m no fan of Trump. To erase any lingering doubts, check out this blog post, which I wrote near the very beginning of the 2016 primary election season.
2. The ADL’s statistics are not given in a single link. Here are all the individual links I found:
3. When I posted this on Nov. 4, the FBI had not yet published its hate crime statistics for 2017. It did so on Nov. 13. I have therefore made a number of revisions in the text, mostly in the Perspectives section.