Antisemitism in the U.S. is on the rise again and everyone has a role to play in combating it

Antisemitism in the U.S. is on the rise again and everyone has a role to play in combating it

On the streets of American cities, Jews are being attacked simply for being Jewish. In my hometown of New York City—home to over 1 million Jews—a man named Joseph Borgen was set upon by a group who “punched, kicked and pepper-sprayed him while shouting antisemitic slurs.” One man was arrested and faces charges for having committed second-degree assault as a hate crime, along with first-degree gang assault. Surveillance video, along with video taken by a bystander, shows that man hitting Borgen—who seems to have been chosen because he was wearing a yarmulke on his head—repeatedly with a metal crutch.

In South Florida, a Jewish family out walking suddenly faced a van full of men who hurled trash at them, screaming: “Free Palestine, f— you Jew, die Jew. We’re going to rape your daughter. We’re going to rape your wife.”

There was another attack in Los Angeles, where witnesses described dozens of men who went from waving Palestinian flags to throwing bottles at diners outside a restaurant, spewing antisemitic insults, and physically attacking them. The men “started running towards the tables and asking indiscriminately, ‘Who’s Jewish?’” These weren’t Cossacks roaming through the village looking for Jews to beat during a Czarist-era pogrom. This is the United States of America in 2021. During Jewish American Heritage Month, no less.

These attacks, along with other acts of violence, instances of harassment, and vandalism of synagogues have occurred all over the country since the recent violence in the Middle East in which 256 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic hate crime reports in the U.S. almost doubled—rising from 127 to 222—in the two weeks after fighting began versus the prior two weeks. Most of the incidents appear to be connected to support for the plight of the Palestinians.

Although I’m focusing on hate crimes targeting Jewish Americans—a topic that deserves a post specifically devoted to it—it’s important to note both that American mosques and Muslim community centers have been vandalized during this period as well, and that multiple prominent Muslim American leaders have condemned antisemitic violence. Likewise, American Jewish leaders have denounced these recent Islamophobic crimes. Thankfully, I found no reports from Muslim groups or other media mentions of hate-based physical attacks on Muslim or Arab/Palestinian individuals relating to this issue.

The fear in the Jewish community is real, as people are wondering how safe it is to appear publicly in ways that identify their religious affiliation. One Jewish New Yorker, Danny Groner, told The New York Times: “We’ve all read about what Jewish life was like in Europe before the Holocaust. There’s always this question: Why didn’t they leave? The conversation in my circles is, are we at that point right now? What would have to happen tomorrow or next week or next month to say ‘enough is enough’?” Groner didn’t think we’d reached that point yet, and neither do I—in particular given that today’s U.S. government is actively combating antisemitic hate, whereas in Europe the governments often fueled it, and not just in Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, even hearing the question raised indicates how serious the situation has become. This is what people mean by inter-generational trauma.

So let’s talk honestly about the recent outbreak of antisemitic hate in America, and about who’s responsible for what. I doubt it shocks anyone that right-wingers blame their usual suspects. Gerard Baker, in his Wall Street Journal op-ed essay (behind a paywall), went after Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. However, the examples he cited didn’t come close to demonstrating anti-Jewish hate on their part—they represented harsh criticism of the Israeli government’s actions, yes, but nothing coming close to encouraging hate. In the past, Omar has occasionally used rhetoric that included antisemitic tropes (for which I called her out), but she has apologized, promised to educate herself, and has since avoided doing so, all to her credit.

Furthermore, each of them (along with numerous other progressives), specifically denounced the recent outbreak of antisemitism. Here’s Omar:

The rise in antisemitic attacks at home and abroad is appalling. We must be clear and unequivocal: antisemitism is unacceptable and has no place in any movement. Fighting bigotry of any kind means fighting bigotry of every kind.

— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) May 26, 2021

And AOC:

There is no room for anti-semitism in the movement for Palestinian liberation. Our critique is of Israel and their human rights abuses. This is not an excuse for anti-semitic hate crimes. https://t.co/ZkdcDECs9m

— Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@RepAOC) May 21, 2021

Ocasio-Cortez even went on to encourage her followers to take positive action to reduce antisemitic hate:

We will never, ever tolerate antisemitism here in NY or anywhere in the world. The recent surge in attacks is horrifying. We stand with our Jewish communities in condemning this violence. You can help. Take NYC’s free, 1hr bystander intervention course: https://t.co/NCHJxvVHbU

— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) May 21, 2021

To be fair, four House Democrats also criticized the type of condemnations of Israeli policy made by Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Omar, albeit without mentioning them by name. Again, I disagree that those represent antisemitism.

Baker’s article also criticized President Biden and Democrats broadly for supposedly having been “oddly silent” about antisemitic hate crimes. I guess Baker and the folks at the WSJ editorial page didn’t see this tweet, which Biden posted almost seven full hours before the op-ed went live (Vice President Harris issued a similar one the same morning):

The recent attacks on the Jewish community are despicable, and they must stop. I condemn this hateful behavior at home and abroad — it’s up to all of us to give hate no safe harbor.

— President Biden (@POTUS) May 24, 2021

In addition to going after living, breathing Democrats, Baker also threw in mentions of “critical race theory,” “woke ideology,” and, wait for it, “Marxis[m]”. I mean hey, right-wing demagogues gotta right-wing demagogue. But seriously, the Biden White House has taken a number of other steps beyond just words, including meeting with leaders of Jewish organizations, having the Department of Homeland Security issue a specific warning to law enforcement to be on the lookout for antisemitic incidents, putting together a coordinated effort across the federal government to fight this violent hate, and preparing to nominate a State Department Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Leading Jewish officials expressed strong satisfaction with Biden’s overall response.

At the same time, we have seen unequivocally antisemitic statements coming from members of Congress—just not the ones cited above. Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene—who has previously engaged in wild antisemitic conspiracy theories about “Jewish space lasers” causing wildfires in California—directly equated to the Holocaust a mandate that House members wear a mask:

MTG says Speaker Pelosi wanting Members of Congress to get vaccinated and if not to wear masks is “exactly the type of abuse” as murdering Jews in gas chambers during the Holocaust and David Brody nods along. No follow up. pic.twitter.com/inXfD8UBiG

— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) May 22, 2021

Please note that her interviewer, David Brody, nods vigorously in agreement before the broadcast quickly takes him out of the shot and focuses just on Greene. Brody, the chief political analyst for the Christian Broadcasting Network and a regular commentator on politics for NBC (including bimonthly on Meet the Press) and CNN as well as (of course) Fox News, should face serious denunciation as well. Are you sure you want this guy providing political analysis on your show, Chuck Todd?

One would think it would be unnecessary to explain this, but no, sending six million Jews to their deaths in a frighteningly close-to-successful attempt to annihilate every Jew on Earth is not the same thing as asking people to put a mask on their face in order to keep their colleagues safe from a deadly disease during a motherfucking pandemic. Only 19 states require public schools to teach about the Holocaust. Is it a surprise that Greene’s Georgia isn’t one of them? Neither is neighboring Tennessee, where the owner of a Nashville hat store—perhaps inspired by Greene—started selling yellow badges in the shape of a Jewish star with the words “NOT VACCINATED.”

NASHVILLE — Hatworks is literally selling Jewish stars that say “Not Vaccinated” — out here making MTG look tame hatwrks@gmail.com (615) 678-5690 pic.twitter.com/11fN9eS5gX

— The Tennessee Holler (@TheTNHoller) May 28, 2021

For anyone who needs a bit more context regarding what’s wrong with that (and there is so much):

I can’t believe I have to do this again, but bear w me: This is the yellow star my great-grandmother was forced to war in Budapest into she was taken from her home & murdered at Auschwitz w most of our family. It is not a fungible political symbol. It is not a symbol at all. /1 pic.twitter.com/y5G1EvvN2k

— Daniel Torday (@DanielTorday) May 29, 2021

Although some anti-Trump Republicans in the House promptly castigated Rep. Greene (thank you, Reps. Cheney, Kinzinger, and Meijer), it took their leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, four days to speak up. But even in doing so, after a lousy 40 words on the matter, he managed to throw in a “hey, look over there, Democrats are doing it too” non sequitur. Way to grapple seriously with antisemitism in your own caucus, Kev.

Broadly speaking, antisemitism in the U.S. coming from the right has been more prevalent and more dangerous than that coming from the left. However, we need to recognize that both do exist. Furthermore, as Oren Segal of the Anti-Defamation League recently explained, antisemitism to some degree transcends traditional left-right dichotomies:

Anti-Semitism is not a right-wing issue. It’s not a left-wing issue. It’s a problem in and of itself. It’s unique, in that no matter where someone is on the ideological spectrum, they’re able to manipulate anti-Semitic tropes to make a point if they want to. Sometimes it’s not necessarily coming from an extreme left or an extreme right, but it’s just an anti-Semite.

Any public official, whether left or right, who is normalising tropes commonly used by anti-Semites, that’s a problem. Normalising anti-Semitism, I think, has more to do with the rise in anti-Semitism than people might think.

This post is about hate crimes being carried out in our country, not how wrong is either the policy and practice of the Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu, or the actions of Hamas, which rules Gaza. Suffice it to say that both deserve harsh criticism and both have the blood of innocents on their hands. As I’ve written before, criticism of Israeli policy, either during the recent conflict or more broadly, does not in and of itself equal antisemitism. Antisemitism means promoting hatred of or violence against Jews because they are Jewish, not supporting the rights of Palestinians. Likewise, one can support the right of Israel to exist and of Jews to have a national homeland without being anti-Palestinian. Furthermore, both peoples are equally deserving of peace, freedom, security, and dignity.

But even writing some of those words leaves me feeling conflicted. Why, when writing about Jews facing violence and hate in America, must I personally acknowledge wrongdoing by Israel? I wonder whether, in doing so, I am buying into the very logic of those who attack Jews here because of anger at the Israeli government (not that an unprovoked assault on any civilian because of what any government has done is ever justified). By comparison, that’s like someone attacking an Asian American in this country because they feel the government of China is culpable in its reaction to COVID-19 (and unfortunately that seems to be the case, as Asian American hate crimes are on the rise in this country too).

Can’t Jews simply count on the sympathy and support of everyone in the fight against anti-Jewish hate? Can’t we just be pissed off that we or our loved ones might be targeted and attacked for wearing a yarmulke, or going into a temple?

That’s what I’m offering here. Simply an unapologetic expression of outrage. I ask that all progressives stand together against anti-Jewish hate crimes, just the same way we do when members of any other group are targeted simply for who they are. In large part, that’s exactly what’s been happening. For that I’m grateful.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of  The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)

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