Why Now? Why Here? Understanding the Rise of Anti-Semitism in America

Mt. Carmel Cemetery, Philadelphia (Feb. 26, 2017). Screenshot WNEP/abc.

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

The most recent wave of anti-Semitic actions, involving at the time of this writing, two Jewish cemeteries (St. Louis and Philadelphia) and 89 bomb threats, have been directed against 72 Jewish institutions in 30 states since January 1st. These numbers have given rise to new and alarming concerns about hate crimes in this nation directed against Jewish Americans.[1] “In New York City, 28 anti-Semitic hate crimes were reported by the NYPD Hate Crime Task Force between January 1 and February 12, 2017 – more than double the number reported over the same period last year.”[2]

An ADL report released this past October, monitored some 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets primarily directed against Jewish journalists, including Jonah Goldberg, Bethany Mandel, and Ben Shapiro.[3] When one combines these events with the on-going activities, especially on American campuses, directed against Israel through the BDS movement and the current worldwide dimensions of anti-Jewish actions, one can better understand the warning posted by Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents:

Anti-Semitism is taking on potentially “pandemic” dimensions globally, even in the US, and if left unchecked could grow into an immensely serious threat, one of American Jewry’s most senior leaders said this week, calling on world leaders to convene a global summit to forcefully denounce the phenomenon.”[4]

When combined with attacks on immigrants and other forms of racial and religious assaults, one sees a troubling pattern of an accelerated growth in threats of violence and acts of hate within this country and across the globe.

For younger American Jews, this outbreak of anti-Jewish behavior represents a fundamental change in their understanding of the reality of hate in America, as they have been immune from such overt actions directed against the Jewish people in their lifetime.


This article represents one of several pieces that have been prepared by this writer over the past several years that were designed to explore different aspects of anti-Semitism. In my earlier writings, there was a specific focus on the historical patterns of anti-Semitism, evaluating the responsiveness of the Jewish community to its challenges.[5] Two years ago, we introduced on this site an analysis of the global characteristics of contemporary anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism.[6] Last year, as part of the 2016 presidential campaign, special attention was given to the politics of hate as it played out during the election cycle.[7] In August (2016) we explored certain assumptions in connection with anti-Semitic behavior, using that opportunity to consider whether our conclusions were in fact correct.[8] Indeed, throughout these presentations, there has been an ongoing effort to assess the impact of anti-Semitism on the Jewish condition and what such destructive behavior would mean to our society.[9]

What is Driving the Upswing in Anti-Semitism?

Recent articles in the Anglo Jewish press and elsewhere have been designed to explain the “why now” factor. What is driving hatred in America, and more directly, contemporary anti-Semitism?

The Political Climate:” There exists a growing consensus that the political landscape in America is so poisoned by the deep fissures found within the political culture that such a condition has given license to forms of negative social expression, including hatred toward specific religious constituencies, ethnic groups and immigrant communities.

Elsewhere, I have written about the toxic political climate as a contributing factor to religious and racial hatred.[10] “As factionalism and the politics of blame have increased in this country, many Americans are fearful of the future, triggering their fury and anger against the current state of this society.”[11]

The Cycle of Hate:” We are reminded by historian Jonathan Sarna that in fact this nation has experienced various periods of social unrest, where anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudicial behaviors were present. Sarna noted in particular that with the election of Warren G. Harding in 1920 the country would experience a period of heightened anti-immigrant responses, and more directly a spike in anti-Semitism:

The Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 limited, for the first time, the total number of immigrants who could be admitted into the United States and also introduced a country by country quota that made it particularly difficult for Jews from Russia and Poland to obtain immigration certificates. Meanwhile, more immigrants than ever before were deported for their political views, and entry requirements at Ellis Island were tightened. ‘Chauvinistic nationalism is rampant,’ Louis Marshall, the foremost American Jewish leader of his day and a strong proponent of liberal immigration privately complained. ‘The hatred of everything foreign has become an obsession.’[12]

Certain social and political conditions promote the repetition of prior forms of racial and religious expressions of hate.

Changing Perspectives about Jews”: In some of my other work, I have paid particular attention to the changing image of American Jews. Where once Jews were seen as “marginal” players to the American economic and political story, today we are being described by some as the “New WASPS” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), i.e. as important and visible power brokers within this society.[13] In 2014, writing on this site, I would offer the following observation:

Historically, Jews were defined by their enemies as the subversive outsider, today they are described as the “oppressive insider.” By adopting this application, it now becomes easier to assign blame to the Jews, if they can be described as part of the political elite.[14]

Closing Observations:

  1. The political divide will propel groups and individuals to act out their hatred toward specific religious and ethnic communities.
  2. As America re-experiences particular historical cycles, anti-Semitism will likely continue to be a challenging issue.
  3. It is important to realize that a new paradigm has emerged in connection with how Jews are perceived in this society, where American Jews are playing a fundamentally different role within the body politic of this nation than ever before.

The subject of anti-Semitism will continue to deserve serious consideration, and American Jewry will indeed need to address its consequences and destructive impact.

Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future.