By Jeremy Sharon
The recent outbreak of antisemitic incidents in the US has been a fearful reminder that this ancient hatred can rear its monstrous head at any time and in any place, however enlightened the era, and however advanced the society. Just this week a hassidic man was violently assaulted in broad daylight in Brooklyn, New York, struck with a wooden plank and punched. Earlier this month, fireworks were thrown at hassidic youths in upstate New York, a swastika and a Nazi SS insignia were scrawled on a statue in Jamestown, New York, gravestones in Dundalk, Maryland, were spray-painted with swastikas, and a Chabad rabbi in Boston was stabbed eight times and nearly killed in an attack believed to have an antisemitic motive.
This appalling sequence of events in the course of just half a month is illustrative of the alarming rise of pernicious and violent antisemitism in the US over the last three months, following the recent war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. But the physical violence is only part of the equation, with antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric being spewed in numerous real-world and online forums, which has led to concerns for the morale and resilience of the Jewish community, especially among the youth.
The organized Jewish community and its institutions have been shaken by this eruption of anti-Jewish hatred, and the various organizations that constitute the core network of US Jewry are now taking several avenues to tackle one of the most challenging times for the community in recent history.
ERIC FINGERHUT, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, says that a new level of antisemitic intensity has been reached, although he questions whether antisemitic sentiment itself has increased or merely just become more open.
Regardless, he says that the reality on the ground for Jews in the US and Canada is that antisemitism is being felt more intensely.
The current wave of antisemitic violence has been born of a “perfect storm,” says Fingerhut, coming against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic, which stoked online antisemitism; the racial justice movement in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, which also gave rise, on its extreme edges, to a radical anti-Israel movement; and finally Israel’s war in May with Hamas in Gaza.
And all of this played out against the background of severe political polarization in the US, a divisive election, and the January 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill by Trump supporters.“
The recent war with Gaza lit the whole combustible mixture, and gave these [antisemitic] forces a focal point to unleash hatred, and they did,” says Fingerhut.
Having said that, Fingerhut, who is currently in Israel with a JFNA delegation, says that people’s daily lives have not changed dramatically, and that US Jews are largely going about their daily lives in a similar manner as before.
But he says that his organization is focusing strongly on security needs after the series of antisemitic assaults on Jews over the last three months.Fingerhut says that this focus increased dramatically with the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh in 2018, and subsequent attacks in Poway, Jersey City and Monsey, but that the recent spate of events has underlined the need to ramp up security measures for Jewish communities.”
Being in Israel is a reminder that Israel long ago built a level of security against attacks that we don’t have in the US,” says Fingerhut.“In North America, we never needed to build that level of security, but that’s what we’re doing now; that’s where we are in the Jewish community.“
The security situation is a real departure. I have no qualms saying that this is the case. It’s a No. 1 priority for all of us.”BUT BEYOND boosting physical security for Jewish communities, there is also a need to tackle the phenomenon of antisemitism on a practical level.
William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, says that the recent surge in antisemitic incidents has served as a wake-up call to the American Jewish community.“
It has resulted in communal unity towards the recognition that we need to use all of the resources we have to combat antisemitism and educate the American people about the dangers of Jew hatred,” he says.
Daroff says such efforts have involved enlisting government officials, politicians, and civic leaders, but also sports stars and social media influencers.“It is important to have these kind of people speak out about antisemitism, because they influence public opinion and help meld it,” he says.“
Hate is not something people are born with; it’s something they learn,” he continues, arguing that getting onside those with the ability to impact large numbers of people was critical in the fight against the resurgence of antisemitism.
Daroff says that the Jewish community is overwhelmingly united in its fight against antisemitism, noting its widespread adoption of the working definition of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The IHRA definition has been adopted by 29 countries, the European Union and numerous local governments and institutions around the world, as a way to clearly define antisemitism in order to accurately monitor its prevalence.It has, however, faced pushback by left-wing, progressive groups and anti-Zionist activists, because of examples that determine that antisemitism includes calling Israel “a racist endeavor” and, in their view, apply double standards to Israel’s actions, among other examples.
Critics, including among some Jewish groups, have said this stifles free speech and have fought back against the adoption of the definition.
Advocates for the IHRA definition have, however, pointed out that it explicitly states that manifestations of antisemitism “might include” targeting of the State of Israel, and that criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country “cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
Daroff points out that it has been implemented by 51 of the Conference of President’s 53 organizations, and says opposition to the definition is not part of the mainstream Jewish community, and is also “misguided,” particularly in light of the rash of antisemitic assaults that arose during Israel’s war with Gaza in May.“
Two of the IHRA examples point to the fact that anti-Zionism has become a proxy for antisemitism, and that while it is impolitic to call someone a dirty Jew, it is unfortunately not impolitic to call someone a dirty Zionist,” he says.
The definition says that just because someone changes the terminology to try to squeeze through a censor’s reading does not mean that something is not antisemitic.“
The experience of the last couple of months since the IDF operation speaks very much to the legitimacy of these examples, since synagogues around the world had their windows smashed because of Israeli governmental action.“
Jews are being attacked because of the perceived actions of the Israeli government, and you’re seeing across the world a true demonstration that oftentimes antisemitism shows itself out by anti-Israel agitation and speech.”
BUT ASIDE from combating antisemitism on a defensive level through increased security and tools such as IHRA, efforts are also under way to establish a bulwark against what is seen as an increasing problem – the effect antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric and activities is having on Jewish youth.
Fingerhut says that young Jews are being negatively affected by the wave of antisemitism and anti-Zionism they have witnessed of late, in particular over social media, where they spend so much of their time and receive so much of their information.
This concern is illustrated by a poll released this week by the Jewish Electorate Institute which found, in a study of 800 self-identified Jewish Americans, that 25% believed Israel to be an apartheid state, including 38% of under-40s, and 22% believed Israel to be committing genocide against the Palestinians, including 33% of under-40s.
Fingerhut is somewhat dubious about the study, saying he is unsure whether people, especially youth, are aware of exactly what the racist South African apartheid government actually was.But he says it demonstrates the kind of problem the Jewish community is facing.
“When people hear, over and over again, that Israel is an apartheid state, people are going to believe it,” he says.“It’s a warning sign that this claim is unfortunately making progress, and we should not assume that people won’t take it seriously.”
And he says it highlights the need for action, to reinforce Jewish identity and affinity with Israel within the Jewish community in the face of the antisemitic and anti-Zionist onslaught.“Now we not only have to build Jewish identity, but we also have to make it resilient enough to withstand this external attack and ensure that Jewish youth feel part of the Jewish people,” says Fingerhut.“
We want them to know that we have their back, that they are part of something bigger, that they don’t have to question the connections to the Jewish people they’ve built from summer camps, campus Hillel houses, and through their families, and that we will sustain them through the challenges they are facing.”