Episodes of Anti-Semitism in America

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It is the best of times: Israel is a technological and military superpower, where Jewish culture is thriving, and the spoken Hebrew language has been revived; in the United States and throughout the diaspora, Jews are leaders in many professional fields, such as science, engineering, banking, law, education, politics. Jews have all the opportunities. And, in Israel, people are happy, really happy. In some sense then, Jews have become what some might call a “privileged” people.

It is the worst of times: In an article we penned earlier in the year, “Do we want the New York Times educating our children,” we could not have anticipated how prescient that question would become after the New York Times published an anti-Semitic cartoon last week. And earlier in the year, we wrote about the Pittsburgh Massacre, hoping it would be the only moment we write about the violent implications of anti-Semitism in America. We were wrong. And, over the past 48 hours Israel’s southern front has been under attack by Hamas rockets. Our hearts and prayers go out to the killed and injured and their families.

In our Pittsburgh article, we noted how that massacre brought to attention the core dispute between Herzl and Jabotinsky. Herzl believed Zionism would solve the “Jewish Question,” and that having a sovereign state would eliminate anti-Semitism altogether, arguing that “Anti-Semites will become our surest friends.” Jabotinsky did not think anti-Semitism would ever vanish, and he believed the goal of Zionism would be to protect the Jewish people from anti-Semitism. Ultimately, these two perspectives became one of the primary foundational disputes between them. Would Zionism cure the world of anti-Semitism, or would Zionism shield the Jews from anti-Semitism? Again, as I wrote a few months ago, “it pains me to say that in this disagreement, history has proven Jabotinsky right.”

From the extreme left, it is becoming increasingly clear that anti-Semitism is cloaked in self-righteous garb often dressed as anti-Zionism or disproportionate criticism of Israeli policies, and from the extreme right, it dresses as ugly, anachronistic, old-fashioned Jew hatred.

In his speech on Yom Hashoah, Prime Minister Netanyahu put it most saliently.

The “paradox” of Israel’s revival is that it has been accompanied by an ongoing rise in anti-Semitism. The extreme right, the extreme left, and extremist Islam agree on only one thing: hatred of the Jews.

How do we solve this? Maybe it’s not our responsibility to answer that question. Perhaps, the world needs to figure that out. The Jewish people will live, the Jewish State is not going anywhere.

How do we talk about this? That’s our task.

What Happened

Two major events, of different character, rattled the American Jewish community:

  1. On Saturday, April 27, the last day of Passover, a 19-year-old burst into a Chabad synagogue in San Diego, where he killed Lori Gilbert Kaye and injured three more. The ADL reported that anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. doubled from 2017 to 2018, and are at a “near-historic high.”
  2. On Thursday, April 25, the New York Times published an anti-Semitic cartoon in their International edition. The paper apologized, but it’s impossible to retract its reaching millions of people across the world.

These events, while not necessarily related (though Caroline Glick argues that they are), have caused many to wonder: Are American Jews safe? Is this the best of times or the worst of times for Jews in America? Is anti-Zionism synonymous with anti-Semitism?

Diversity of Perspectives

From one sidejournalist Caroline Glick voiced her disapproval of the New York Times for publishing a “cartoon that could easily have been published in a Nazi publication.” She highlights the Times’ “responsibility for rising anti Semitism in the United States” as “the most powerful news organization in the United States, and arguably in the world.”

On the other side, while acknowledging the anti-Semitic nature of the New York Timescartoon, law professor David Schraub is shocked by the attention the cartoon has received compared to the shooting in San Diego by conservatives, noting that if you “stroll over to the more conservative portions of Twitter, and you’ll see the Times cartoon prompting a near-obsession, with the shooting virtually an afterthought – or worse, somehow a consequence of the cartoon.” Schraub’s belief is that anti-Semitic tropes have “permeated the American right – not (just) the alt-right, but the right-right – and which provide the ferment in which hatred can grow.”

With an altogether different approach, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens published a scathing response to his own paper’s cartoon. He raised the alarms not about the paper’s committing a willful act of anti-Semitism, but about its committing an “astonishing act of ignorance of anti-Semitism.” He blames this judgment error on the paper’s anti-Israel bent, which desensitizes readers to its bigotry.

Is Anti-Zionism Anti-Semitism?

This is a complicated question with passionate arguments being articulated on both sides.

No Way! New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg and political commentator Peter Beinart are among those who believe that it’s possible to be anti-Israel without being anti-Semitic. Goldberg writes, “Certainly, some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but it’s entirely possible to oppose Jewish ethno-nationalism without being a bigot. Indeed, it’s increasingly absurd to treat the Israeli state as a stand-in for Jews writ large…” And Beinart has written extensively about this topic, saying “In the real world, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism don’t always go together. It’s easy to find anti-Semitism among people who, far from opposing Zionism, enthusiastically embrace it.” Beinart cites Jerry Falwellas example of this, who was at once a close ally of Menachem Begin’s and also quipped that Jews “can make more money accidentally than you can on purpose.”

Of Course! At this year’s AIPAC conference, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked to go on the record as saying “Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism… This bigotry is taking on an insidious new form in the guise of anti-Zionism… Criticizing Israel’s policies is an acceptable thing to do in a democracy. But criticizing the very right to exist of Israel is not acceptable. Anti-Zionism denies the very legitimacy of the Israeli state and of the Jewish people.” Bret Stephens expounded on this point in a lengthy piece in February and Israel’s Shuki Friedman of the Israel Democracy Institute is of the same mind. (See Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the topic, below.)

Discussion Questions

  1. Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt recently published a book titled Antisemitism: Here and Now. In an interview with the Times of Israel, she stated: “Anyone bothered by this hatred — and for that matter any hatred — must become the ‘unwelcome guests’ at the dinner party. Speaking up, challenging, pointing out the irrationality of what we are hearing. We must be persistent.” How can you implement these words in your life? Does this seem reasonable? Necessary? Easier said than done?
  2. Given the state of affairs for Jews in America today – prosperity and freedom on the one hand, and rising anti-Semitism on the other – is this a good or bad time to be a Jew in America? What do you think the future has in store? (See here for a mix of perspectives from prominent young American Jewish figures.)
  3. Should anti-Semitism be seen as an individual example of prejudice against a people within a broader group of other prejudices (racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia) or should anti-Semitism be singled out from all the other phobias and hatred people have as distinct and unique?
  4. Controversial and provocative but influential Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibovitz has said that “anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem, but a non-Jewish problem.” What do you think he meant by this? Is he right? Evaluate your own perspective on Leibovitz’s claim.

Practical Classroom Tips

  1. Play this video by Chief Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the relationship between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, Judaism and Israel. Engage in a group discussion on the topic using the material above and any additional questions.
  2. The Jerusalem Post invited readers to submit letters to the editor regarding the New York Times cartoon. Have students write letters of their own. Do they know how to communicate effectively? See this website for quick tips on how to write an effective letter to the editor. What would they say? What points would they want to get across?
  3. Can your students identify anti-Semitism? Use Natan Sharansky’s “3D test” to help your students recognize modern anti-Semitism. Note that Sharansky, like Sacks and many others, identifies anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism. Additionally, the United States Holocaust Museum provides resources on teaching about anti-Semitism.

Practical Advice:

Here are three brief suggestions for discussing the San Diego shooting with students:

  1. Listen: Sometimes, it is more tempting to offer answers in the “why or how” this could happen, but the virtue of remaining silent and leaving the floor open for questions can serve as a powerful tool for coping.
  2. Sensitivity: Though teenagers and young adults are not always quick to articulate their anxieties and fears, they tend to have a deep desire for security. Their exposure to social media is ubiquitous. To the best of your abilities, stay aware of what is being watched, and how you discuss the shooting. Be sensitive with your words and the images you choose to show.
  3. Prosocial behavior: In the field of psychology, “prosocial behavior” is defined as behavior that benefits society, and it has a tremendously positive impact. Without being opportunistic, use this as an opening for students to focus on Jewish values that are meaningful to them. Send condolences to the families, help raise money for funeral and shiva expenses, focus on bikur cholim (visiting the sick) in your own community or any other Jewish value your students feel was infringed upon due to this shooting. When someone experiences pain and suffering, we often feel helpless, but giving students the opportunities to do something can help relieve them of this gnawing feeling.

Further Reading

  1. Learn about Lori Gilbert Kaye.
  2. Read the Jewish Week’s piece on synagogue safety.
  3. Watch Deborah Lipstadt’s TED talk on Holocaust denial.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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