Where Hate and Bigotry Thrive, Anti-Semitism Will Continue to Rise

By Rabbi Rick Jacobs

A new CNN-Pew poll reveals a chilling truth that alas, we already know: anti-Semitism is alive and well, both in Europe and in the U.S. According to the findings, “more than a quarter of Europeans polled believe Jews have too much influence in business and finance. Nearly one in four said Jews have too much influence in conflict and wars across the world.”

Similarly, nearly half the 557 respondents in a survey of Dutch Jews said they were afraid of identifying publicly as Jews by wearing kippot.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Erdogan, who is tightening suppression of democracy in his country, lambasted philanthropist George Soros at the end of November as “[t]he famous Hungarian Jew Soros … He has so much money and he spends it this way.”

Here at home, the deadly attack on the Tree of Life synagogue refocused the attention of the Jewish community on the alarming rise of anti-Semitism on our own shores. And, even as I write this piece, a new incident occurred on the campus of Columbia University, where a professor’s office was vandalized with swastikas.

A key, disconcerting factor is that the rhetoric and hate come from so many variants, which not only makes responding more complex, but also requires more nuanced strategies and tactics.

Some of the rhetoric and hate fit painfully familiar forms of anti-Semitism. The conspiracy theories around Jewish control of institutions within our country and similar canards of global control from David Duke, the alt-right, and Minister Farrakhan are drawn straight from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as are the spate of desecrations of American Jewish cemeteries and synagogues.

Other examples of hate constitute new iterations, including the hordes of white supremacists who marched past our Reform synagogue a year ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, yelling “Jews will not replace us;” the deadly attacks on synagogues and Jewish schools and other institutions in Europe, primarily perpetrated by Muslim immigrants; and the explosive growth of anti-Semitic memes and verbal attacks that have permeated social media.

Yet, connecting all this hate and rhetoric is a general climate of intolerance and division, fostered, sadly and alarmingly, at the very top of the U.S. government, as well as politicization of anti-Semitism by populist, xenophobic parties and candidates on the right, both here in the U.S. and in Europe. At the same time, there are growing expressions of anti-Semitism from segments of left-wing and sometimes even mainstream progressives that alarmingly have taken hold on far too many U.S. college campuses; in Europe, these sentiments are arising particularly where progressive ideals morph into anti-Semitism through the efforts of those who promote anti-Zionism and a virulent hatred of Israel.

I recently sat with students at San Francisco State University, probably the epicenter of campus anti-Israel hatred. Their stories were chilling. Professors, students, and, until recently, administrators have harassed and threatened all members of the Jewish community unwilling to denounce Zionism as a concept. Those unwilling to do so were not welcome in Middle East studies classes and were not allowed to add their voices to social or racial justice coalitions.

Criticism of Israel, or of Israel’s government, is by no means always anti-Semitic (look at any session of the Knesset). When, however, that criticism spills over into assertions that denies the Jewish people the right to fulfill their age-old national aspirations or asserts that the Jewish State of Israel does not have a legitimate right to exist, it crosses the line into anti-Semitism. A line is crossed, too, when Israel is held to standards to which other nations are not or is singled out for censure when nations whose policies are far, far more morally problematic, are not.

(However, it is also wrong – and counterproductive – for Israeli officials and Jewish leaders to hide behind the shield of anti-Semitism when they hear criticism they don’t like or when activists, or governments, take actions with which they don’t agree. Indeed, the misuse of accusations of anti-Semitism weakens both the meaning of the term and the impact of the accusations).

This dramatic increase in anti-Semitic incidents strongly correlates with the deadly uptick in all forms of racism and bigotry. African-Americans remain the most frequent victims of hate crimes in the U.S.; Jews are the most common religious group so targeted. But rises in recent years of hate crimes targeting Muslims, Sikhs, LGBTQ, and other minority communities have become commonplace.

Look at houses of worship, for example: The tragedy at Tree of Life synagogue had been preceded by appalling and deadly attacks in recent years on a Sikh temple and a number of black (and white) churches. Indeed, two days before the slaughter of 11 Jews on Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh, an armed man tried to enter the First Baptist Church of Jeffersontown, a predominantly black congregation in a Louisville, KY, suburb. When he couldn’t get in, he murdered two African-Americans moments later at a nearby supermarket.

We must recognize that no community or minority segment of the population in America will be safe if any other group can be targeted by hate groups. In shaping a long-term response to rising hate crimes and anti-Semitism, we see hopeful dynamics – particularly in America, but also across the globe – that flow from deep networks of interconnectedness with our neighbors of many faiths and backgrounds. For instance, in response to the recent murderous attack in Pittsburgh, thousands of communities all across North America organized multi-faith vigils. In the U.S., such acts of solidarity are more than random acts of kindness. They reflect deep connectivity among our faith communities that has been built over many decades, giving expression to something that never previously existed in Jewish history.

Previously, when Jews were victims of murderous anti-Semitic attacks, it was rare for anyone to stand with us or around us. Today, we and they show up for each other as a normal part of our civic lives and religious responsibility. These actions not only give support to victims, but also allow for broad coalitional cooperation among government, civil society, and America’s religious communities, all of which are taking steps to help prevent or mitigate such hate crimes in the future. By working together so closely to confront these explosions of hate crimes and hate rhetoric, we are modeling our vision for America.

It should be a source of pride and hope for us that nowhere in the world are interfaith ties stronger than in the U.S. Indeed, never in human history has there been more interfaith interaction nor more interfaith cooperation worldwide than there is at this moment. It is an ironic ray of hope on which to build a better future.

Finally, whether anti-Semitism emanates from the left, the right or the center – from opponents or from allies – we must call it out for what it is and seek to delegitimize and eliminate it wherever and whenever it occurs.

To do that most effectively requires thoughtfulness and intentionality in living with this paradox: Although we must never let anti-Semitic rhetoric or hate crimes go unchallenged, numerous considerations must guide a wise and effective response.

Complications arise when those who engage in anti-Semitic rhetoric or promote anti-Semitic policies or support active anti-Semites also engage in other activities that support the broad swath of values we cherish in our Jewish communities. In the U.S., this is not a major issue with the far-right or white supremacist communities but can sometimes be problematic on the left. Few in the Jewish community are involved with such right-wing forces on any part of their agenda, and those who are certainly are not within the mainstream Jewish community or its institutions. In Europe, this scenario is mostly true, but the rise of populist, xenophobic political parties raises particularly complicated issues when the parties advocate pro-Israeli government policies. Just this week, Rabbi Goldschmidt, president of the Council of European Rabbis, warned Israel about making common cause or legitimizing political forces that may be blatantly supportive of Israel, but whose broader agenda is anathema to the Jewish community and whose policies endanger the Jewish communities of Europe.

Indeed, the Israeli government is giving hechsher to autocratic rulers in Poland and Hungary, where the current governments have been promoting anti-Semitism for their own political purposes. How could there be a Hungarian state visit to Israel directly after Orban’s clear anti-Semitic re-election campaign that targeted George Soros in a classic anti-Semitic manner? From that behavior to President Trump’s long targeting of Soros as a public enemy, it became much easier for the autocratic leader of Turkey to wage his anti-Semitic and anti-democratic campaign.

We have to ask – as Rabbi Goldschmidt recently did – when does official support by Israel for a national elected leader in Europe or even in our own country, someone who fosters an anti-democratic or anti-civil civic atmosphere, endanger Jewish communities and values.

And how do we, as a community, tackle such a scenario? Do we sometimes undercut our partners’ effectiveness by insisting they must condemn someone in the time, place, and manner we think best, rather than in the manner they think most effective to win the hearts and minds of the people in their community? How can we shape our calling-out of anti-Semitism to balance vital considerations and ensuring rejection of anti-Semitism within the coalition itself? There is a growing consensus not to name the shooters in mass killings, and therefore refrain from glorifying them among supporters. Is this practice a way, perhaps, to delegitimize anti-Semitism?

A constant attack on prominent anti-Semitic demagogues risks giving them more attention. How we condemn anti-Semitism can enhance or undercut our efforts to strengthen coalitions whose work is vital to achieving causes and policies central to Jewish interests and values, including strengthening our own fraying American democracy. Weakening or splitting otherwise effective coalitions by withdrawing or engaging in sustained criticism of individual figures in the coalition – even when the coalition itself does not engage in problematic rhetoric or actions – can often be counterproductive.

Good moral Jews and their supporters can differ on these difficult choices. But such considerations must never justify our remaining silent altogether in the effort to delegitimize, condemn, and constrain anti-Semitism wherever it raises its head.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).

Cross-posted on URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog