When Anti-Semitism Arises: A Study in Jewish Communal Behavior

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

As incidents of anti-Semitic behavior occur on a daily basis, it may be important to examine the new strains of violence that we are experiencing and to revisit Jewish communal responses in fighting such hate.

In this disruptive political environment, there appears to be a new license given to those who are committed to attacking Jews, Judaism and the State of Israel.

When anti-Semitism is playing out in its full fury, one finds specific Jewish communal behavior patterns emerge against this backdrop of hate and violence. How are Jewish institutions and individual leaders responding to the rise of anti-Semitism?

  • The Acceleration of Pronouncements Condemning Hate
  • Reframing the New Anti-Semitism
  • Criticism of the Responders and their Actions
  • The Emergence of Militant Jewish Responses
  • Other Jewish Organizations Seek to Pick Up the Communal Mantle
  • New Definitional Battles Emerge Over How We Define “Anti-Semitism”
  • Whom Do We Accuse of anti-Semitism and Why?
  • New Institutional Expressions Emerge to Fight anti-Semitism

Pronouncements Condemning Hate:

In “treating” anti-Semitism and hate violence, a common characteristic involves public expressions of condemnation drawn from government/political sources, media and Jewish communal institutions. In the past such statements, encouraged by the Jewish community, served as an important counterweight in repressing hate speech and overt anti-Semitic actions. The traditional response model involved “isolating” hate mongers in an effort to define them as outside of the mainstream. In this current political culture, the effectiveness of such condemnations is likely to be minimal.

We are living today with new strains of anti-Semitic practice. We appear to have two distinct forms of hate practice. In the first scenario, the hate crimes directed against Jews and Jewish institutions are being carried out by individual actors who discount the public square or mainstream opinion makers. The second form of contemporary anti-Semitism appears to be tied to individuals who believe that current political messaging reinforces and sanctions such actions.

Reframing the New Anti-Semitism:

Beyond the Jewish institutional behaviors, there are certain unique characteristics to this current wave of hate:

  • This current phase has been primarily a social media driven expression of anti-Semitism.
  • We are experiencing expressions and actions of hate, generated simultaneously from the political left and right.
  • Most incidents of contemporary anti-Semitism have been individually initiated. In the past movement-based anti-Semitism defined the political basis of anti-Jewish action, driven by governments and ideologically connected organizations.
  • Current actions are geographically dispersed, so we can observe global expressions as well as locally inspired practice. The globalization of anti-Semitism represents a new and different feature in managing this fight.
  • We are generally seeing old images of anti-Semitic rhetoric being introduced through new delivery systems. Conspiracy theories are being reframed in this current environment reflective of the contemporary political culture.

Measuring Criticism:

In a time-frame where partisan politics defines the Jewish communal turf, each action and response is measured in connection with being in political alignment with a particular viewpoint. Two case scenarios are presented here:

The measure of performance is no longer tied to the fight against hate but rather the definition of who is carrying forward this battle! When fighting anti-Semitism today, these partisan wars are present. Let us take for example, criticism directed against the political positions of the ADL. In their attacks, critics of the League seek to discount its messages as tainted or problematic, in part seeking to discredit this agency’s proactive efforts to battle anti-Semitism.

Today, a second battleground has emerged, having to do with whether the hate being launched by the far right is more or less dangerous than the attacks from the left, designed to undermine Israel by imposing the BDS campaign and its war against the legitimacy of the Jewish State?

Collective Action:

In August of 2019, 58 organizations came together to consider collective action and to share information. This type of communal gathering reflects a pattern of joint engagement most common in periods of heightened political tension or concern. Over the decades, the convening of Jewish institutional leadership has been employed as an operational practice in response to such concerns as Israel’s security, Jews in crisis (i.e. Holocaust/Soviet Jewry), or “Displaced Persons” (Second World War).

Indeed, the community relations agencies have for decades turned to government and more directly the courts to aid in aspects of this fight.[1]

In some measure, carrying on the fight against anti-Semitism has certain institutional pay offs, which likely prevents or limits serious and sustained joint action. This behavior is common among Jewish institutions well beyond the question of anti-Semitism. In a marketplace where there are minimal benefits in promoting collaborative practices, the results speak to a highly individualized performance record of Jewish organizations.

Militancy and Vigilantism:

A factor that can be particularly troubling involves a perception among certain constituencies that the community has failed to effectively defend or protect Jews and Jewish institutions. In such settings, one finds the emergence of more extreme or militant responses in the management of anti-Semitic outcomes. Vigilantism is often a by-product of fear and anger that may emerge in the aftermath of hate activities. There are certain manifestations of this behavior evident in the community at this time.

Defining antiSemitism:

In the aftermath of the President’s executive order to place expressions of anti-Semitism under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, one finds a wide set of reactions and interpretations of this action. But it is not only how Judaism and Jews are defined, the current focus is also centered on “who is labeled an anti-Semite and why”? The corresponding reactions involve issues of free speech or questions pertaining to what are the limits here in criticizing Israeli policies or actions. Does such a redefinition change the character and substance of Judaism as a religion?

Internal Divisions and the New Definition, “Jews as antiSemitic”:

Increasingly, in this current political context Jews themselves can be identified as “anti-Semitic.” The tenor of the debate has allowed writers, communal leaders, and the general Jewish public to label those who are in disagreement, for example, with Israeli policy as being “anti-Israel,” or worse, “anti-Jewish” in failing to be supportive of the case for Israel. The battle lines have changed in order to accommodate the sharp internal divisions around Israel. Two Jewish political camps have emerged, where one side has assumed the mantle as the defenders of the Jewish State, while the other has anointed itself as the Jewish critical conscience believing it necessary and proper to critique Israeli policy choices.

New Institutional Expressions:

One example of this type of behavior involves the distribution of funds. Instead of providing financial support to the existing instruments set up by the Jewish community to battle anti-Semitism, we are finding some high-end donors launching their own “personal” responses to this effort. Some of these include:

  1. Take as an example, Ronald Lauder’s $25 million commitment to ASAP (Anti-Semitism Accountability Project.[2]
  2. Another important resource involves Adam and Gila Milstein who are seeking to employ their political and financial clout against the BDS Movement as an expression of anti-Semitism[3]
  3. As in the past, a host of new institutional voices have emerged to content with the anti-Semitism fight. This practice should not be seen as necessarily unusual. Here are two recent examples:

Combat Anti-Semitism https://combatantisemitism.org/

Campaign Against Anti-Semitism https://antisemitism.uk/

The Changing Roles of Jews:

This current round of anti-Jewish expression is taking place in the context of how Jews are perceived, as their roles and image have changed. No longer perceived as an endangered minority, Jews are defined in this current setting as powerful and influential. The question of whether Jews are “whites” has become the new litmus test.

At this moment, we find some prominent Jews serving as high profile defenders of this President, just as others are identified as playing primary roles in leading the impeachment battle against Donald Trump.

Today, Jews are prominently positioned in this society to operate as the definers of culture, creators and interpreters of ideas and key purveyors of information. In response, we see significant push back from competing ideological camps and partisan players.

Anti-Semites often care little about the particular political views or actions of Jews, as their argument rests on the “presence” and “influence” of Jews on the society. Their goal is centered on removing Jews as actors within this society.


We are reminded of the warning put forth by Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents, when he noted:

“None of us can stand and be bystanders. What happens to one part of the Jewish people happens to all of the Jewish people.”[4]

In an age of divisiveness and discord, will we as a community have the capacity and will to find the common ground? Jewish history serves as a tragic barometer of failed collective action.

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.

[1] “https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/06/lost-history-jews-and-civil-rights/590929/ https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/06/lost-history-jews-and-civil-rights/590929/

[2] https://asaproject.com/?utm_medium=text&utm_source=google&utm_campaign=20191209_ASAP-37555_google&utm_content=ASAP-37555

[3] https://www.milsteinff.org/bds-is-the-new-face-of-the-old-antisemitsm-what-will-we-do-to-stop-it/

[4] https://www.jns.org/58-jewish-groups-gather-in-new-york-to-mobilize-against-anti-semitism/