By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
The story of anti-Semitism is an old one, yet we American Jews have been spared much of what has defined the European marketplace of hostile ideas and destructive behaviors. A new storyline of hate appears to be present, as every poll taken of American Jewish opinion is reporting record levels of concern over heightened levels of anti-Semitism.
This current manifestation of anti-Semitism is joined both from the right and the left, marking the first time in our American experience where we are experiencing this phenomenon. But there is also an unsettled feeling in connection with the rise of Black anti-Semitism.
This moment was not created by any one factor that has suddenly changed the American scenario. The past decades marked a decline in anti-Semitic rhetoric and behavior that masked the deeper truths and the realities present within American culture and history.
What we need to remind ourselves is the markedly different experience of Europe in its political and religious treatment of Jews. Unlike the Old World, the political enterprise in America was neither controlled by the military or the church. Free of being influenced and driven by these external instruments, American democracy thrived on a Constitutional structure embedded with legal protections and practices while being supported by a system of checks and balances.
We cannot dismiss however the inherent anti-Semitic practices of the 19th and 20th century that marked this nation. Deeply rooted in the psyche of this nation’s culture, these racist and anti-Semitic behaviors would define the American landscape. As part of this experience, we ought not to forget the theological messages of the Church, the powerful influences of American capitalism, or the impact of the university educational establishment in framing quotas, covenants, and practices, each designed to limit the presence and influence of Jews within this nation’s economic and educational structures and social networks.
Contemporary anti-Semitism is a response not to Jews or to Israel, but to the conditions and beliefs of those who perpetrate it. Fear is the defining quality that is driving these behaviors.
Not all anti-Semitism is the same. What we need to do is to focus on and manage its destructive outcomes.
As I have noted elsewhere, the current framework of anti-Jewish behavior centers on the collective Jew, how we are seen and defined as a people and culture. My writings on this topic seek to identify the new streams and changing characteristics of the “new anti-Semitism.”
There are ten elements that comprise the contemporary marketplace of anti-Semitism.
- Culture as a Force: The historic messaging of anti-Jewish themes provides a reservoir of images concerning Jews. These notions don’t simply disappear, but in fact live on in the cultural mantras that have defined Jews and Judaism over the centuries. The rootedness of anti-Semitic ideas subtly remain affixed to the social norms and beliefs of religious teachings, educational practices and political behavior. They are a part of history and remain imbedded in the consciousness of humanity. We would remind ourselves that ideas, both good and bad, remain fixed in time.
- Visibility: Jews are no longer operating in the shadows of history but are identified today as dominant shapers of culture, politics, social behaviors and educational ideas. Certainly, in the Western world Jews, play high profile roles in crafting and advancing information, offering perspectives and shaping public opinion. Here, Jews are being attacked both for the substance of their messaging and for the influential roles that they are called upon to perform.
- Generational Patterns: Lost in History: The Shoah is past tense! We are now some three generations beyond the Nazi era, 1933-1945. Historic memory is being distorted. Indeed, the Holocaust is now being employed as a weapon against Jews and the State of Israel. First, the events associated with the destruction of European Jewry are themselves being minimized and reframed. Secondly, the behaviors and symbols of the Nazis are being appropriated by White Supremacists and others in support of their contemporary agenda.
- Social Media: This platform has emerged as the essential engine in driving contemporary anti-Jewish sentiment. No framework has been more efficient, direct or influential in sharing ideas, truthful as well as false. Imagine one individual or group placing misinformation on this instant communications mechanism! The spread of such materials, along with a call to action, has the capacity to help mobilize, antagonize and endanger individuals, organizations, and groups. The war against the Jews begins on the Internet.
- Israel as the Collective Jew: “The State of Israel has replaced “the individual Jew” as the embodiment of contemporary anti-Semitism.” Israel is judged not only by its actions but is being condemned for its very presence as a vital member of the international community.
- Anger, Anxiety and Conspiracy: The ‘global Jew’ is being identified as destroying established cultural and religious norms, while promoting Jewish influence and control. Pandemics and economic crisis generate an upsurge in conspiratorial beliefs and actions. If the idea that “the Jews poisoned the wells” was seen as a historical image extracted from the Middle Ages, then today the conspiratorial notions of Jewish control of the virus, its origins and its solution must be seen as a type of belief system created in response to this period of fear, anxiety and loss.
- In these Times, Political Climate: The communal environment has been described as toxic. With such deep social divisions, economic challenges, and political dysfunctionality, the marketplace has become a sea of hate-filled messages and behaviors. In such settings, racism and anti-Semitism flourish.
- “Whiteness” as the New Measure: As I have written elsewhere, “The new anti-Semitism reintroduces the issue of ‘race’ and “nationality” into the mix, as Jews are being challenged about their “whiteness” and their legitimacy as Americans. Drawing upon Hitler’s use of race, the assault today on America’s Jews seeks to employ a similar type of profiling.
- End of Democracies, The Changing Global Environment: “Democracies are having a nervous breakdown.” With the decline of democratic institutions and transitions of some representative democracies into new forms of autocratic, nationalist regimes, we are witnessing the closing of the democratic experiment across the globe. In the vacuum of a healthy democracy, old political notions are permitted to be reborn. Witness the rise of anti-Semitism and historical revisionism in Poland, Hungary, and beyond.
- A Trigger Moment: When a society experiences a collective breakdown of core institutions, basic economic mechanisms, and political civility and leadership, the boundaries and guarantees of our nation’s social contract are compromised and weakened.Trust and confidence are essential civic features for democracies to thrive and operate and in turn for minorities to feel secure and safe. Correspondingly, in such settings, the street replaces the political stage as the arbiter of what is correct, fair and equitable. In the face of these realities, Zionism is defined as problematic, and Jews are castigated as the cause and source of the contemporary crisis.
The health crisis and the corresponding economic fallout create the venue for these troubling ideas and practices to manifest themselves.
This then is also the moment for a return on the part of our community to civic engagement, building partnerships, reframing coalitions, and collectively engaging allies. Unlike earlier periods in our story, when Jews were bereft of political influence, in this setting, we have the capacity to mobilize and the opportunity to help frame the public discourse.
A five-part agenda is at hand:
- Self-Education: The first task is to understand the threat. This requires an educational initiative designed to define the characteristics and attributes, historic record, and current trends in connection with anti-Semitic behavior and racist actions.
- Reporting Mechanisms: What constitutes anti-Semitic words and actions? It is necessary to develop the mechanisms to best monitor and account for such anti-social behaviors.
- Civics 101: Educational access is a central strategy in pushing back against anti-Semitic views and practices. Information defeats and marginalizes hatred. The ability to convey the notion that hate as a strategy ultimately fails, must be seen as a core outcome.
- Alliance-Building: In order to challenge anti-Semitism, it is essential to build coalitions to frame that response. Hate in all of its manifestations creates common ground among those that are its targets or that are impacted by such actions.
- Political Initiatives: The public square must be the engine that promotes messages, legislation and civic action that constantly pushes back against anti-Semitic and racial actions. While preserving the right to free speech and assembly, to those that practice hate, there must be a price for such behaviors.
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com