The rash of anti-Semitic incidents in recent weeks in New York, New Jersey and Florida raises old questions about how far we've progressed in eliminating anti-Semitism in America.
For most American Jews, experiences with anti-Semitism in their lives and the insecurity surrounding fears of anti-Semitism are largely things of the past. Sixty or seventy years ago, there were many points of contact in the life of an American Jew where he or she could be personally exposed to anti-Semitism.
It could happen in school or on the street where taunts of Christ-killer were still not unusual. It could happen when applying to medical school, to an Ivy League college where quotas were in place. It could happen in the public sphere where politicians, religious leaders or intellectuals were not all above Jew-baiting.
It could happen in applying for a job where some industries were not open to Jews or it could happen in some neighborhoods or clubs where “no Jews allowed” was the unstated policy.
Since such events no longer regularly occur, it is customary to focus on the American Jewish experience as exceptional in the long history of the Diaspora. The historians who have written in that way about American Jewish history are generally people living in the new era of Jewish life in America where the transformation took place and where Jews became far more self-confident as truly integrated and equal Americans.
Is there anything going on now or potentially in the years ahead that should make us pause in this ongoing celebration of the uniqueness of Jewish life in this country?
Overall the answer is “no”. The fundamentals that have led to America being this unique place for Jews remain intact. It continues not to be acceptable to say openly anti-Semitic things. Christian attitudes towards Jews are remarkably different than in the pre-Vatican II days.
Pluralism as a value has grown in America.
And constitutional protections for minorities, including freedom of religion and the separation of church and state, keystones to Jewish success in this country, remain strong.
Of course, the listener to a speech by the head of the ADL would not expect him to stop there. I will not disappoint.
There are real challenges; maybe even concerns that have surfaced of late that remind us that, however great the progress, complacency is not in order.
A lot of it has to do with the resiliency of old stereotypes about Jews and the new forms they take in our very modern world. A variety of factors come together that buttress my concern.
Public attitudes toward Jews, as reflected in ADL's national surveys, still show surprisingly strong numbers expressing the belief that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to their own country, America.
Thirty percent of Americans continue to believe this, not nearly as high as European publics where the numbers are over 50%, but still very high.
Somewhat lower numbers, but still significant numbers of people see too much Jewish power on Wall Street and business and hold Jews responsible for the death of Christ.
Conspiracy theories about Jews which are rampant in the Middle East, Europe and Latin America are not insignificant either in this country. While millions of people around the world believe to this day that Israel or Jews were responsible for 9/11, in America other classical anti-Jewish conspiracy theories have a life of their own.
The most significant one is the idea that Jews in America have overwhelming power in determining U.S. foreign policy, particularly regarding the Middle East. That white racist groups speak in terms of ZOG, the Zionist occupied government, is no surprise. But that respected academics such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt accuse the Israel lobby of controlling American Middle East policy and working against America interests is shocking and a wake-up call.
The fact that having made and repeated these comments they still are welcomed to speak at respectable platforms is even more shocking.
I wrote my second book refuting and exposing Mearshimer and Walt because people who know better weren’t standing up. And let’s never forget what former Secretary of State George Shultz wrote in his introduction to my book.
As someone intimately involved at the highest level in the making of U.S. Mideast policy, he was dismayed that anyone would suggest that American Jews controlled U.S. policymaking. He wrote of the complexity of interests and factors that come together./p>
In other words, Mearsheimer and Walt under the guise of responsible scholarship, were simply the latest of anti-Semitic conspiracy-mongers blaming the Jews for the ills of society.
And there is that old favorite of the anti-Semites, accusing Jews of only being interested in money and of obsessing about how to control and accumulate money. This was one aspect of The Protocols of Elders of Zion, that fraudulent document. And now we see it again, even in America.
Two years ago, in my third book about anti-Semitism, “Jews & Money: The Story of A Stereotype,” I wrote about how the stereotypes about “greedy” or “money-grubbing Jews” had resurfaced through history, from “30 pieces of silver” in biblical times to the Bernie Madoff affair. Since the book was published, the old canard has resurfaced enough times to add another chapter.
It was given new life recently in a sermon by the traveling evangelist’s preacher Keith Hudson, who told hundreds of worshippers at an Ohio mega-church that the way to make Jews jealous is to, “have some money, honey.”
This would have probably gone unnoticed if Hudson wasn’t also more widely known as the father of pop superstar Katy Perry. His hateful and stereotypical words immediately found their way to the Internet.
The Jews and money canard was also given expression in a crude and offensive billboard advertising discount vodka that appeared along the West Side Highway in New York City in December. The billboard featured two dogs, one wearing a yarmulke, the other a Santa hat, with the tagline “Christmas Quality, Hanukkah Pricing.”
And there it was for all to see-the notion that Jews are cheap or always looking for a bargain. We spoke out, and the creators of the billboard, who insisted there had been no anti-Semitic intent, agreed to remove the message.
At the same time that the old attitudes have not completely disappeared, the Internet provides a perfect vehicle not only to disseminate hatred but to provoke those who have such attitudes to consider doing something about it.
ADL has documented how some Islamic Americans have been goaded to violence by extremist Web sites. There is no reason to believe that some of the recent examples of anti-Semitic activity are not similarly influenced by what people read on the Web.
The very element that has inspired awe in commentators, the ability to use the Internet and social media to mobilize societies, remains a unique tool for the haters of the world as well.
Especially at a time when polarization and incivility are increasingly part of our culture, when reports circulate of extreme anti-government activists penetrating institutions around the country, we have reason to keep an eye on how haters update their use of the Internet. Specific acts of violence against Jews and Jewish institutions and larger mobilization of hate groups against Jews cannot be ruled out.
Two other factors come into play that make me worry about the future.
First, is the way anti-Israel stuff so easily becomes anti-Semitism but is legitimized as anti-Israel.
Of course, I’m not talking about legitimate criticism of Israel. Rather I’m talking about how anti-Zionism slips into anti-Judaism; how attacking the Zionists becomes attacking the Jews; how criticism of Israel leads to accusing the Israelis as being like the Nazis; how disagreement with American Middle East policy devolves into charges that Jews control American policymaking.
The latest variety of this is the use of the term “Israel firsters.” This is a reference to pro-Israel activists who are accused of putting Israel’s interests against the interests of their own country. With all the rationalization being put out there to minimize the significance of this accusation, the latest is a quote by Abe Sachar, Brandeis University’s first president back in 1960 using the phrase but in a completely different context.
This charge is simply the old dual loyalty anti-Semitism charge dressed up in new language.
Now if someone believes that the U.S. must be more serious about the Iranian nuclear threat, they may be accused of being an “Israel firster,” caring more about Israel’s security than America’s.
Now, if someone thinks that the Arab Spring may not be all good and may pose a threat to Israel, they may be accused of being an “Israel firster.” In other words, a classic anti-Semitic trope, that Jews are more loyal to another country than to their own, is not found to be an acceptable form of expression in the mainstream when discussing U.S.-Israel relations.
As the conflict shows little sign of abating, the reflexive habit of some to conflate Israel and Jews and to resort to classical anti-Semitic stereotypes when dealing with Israel might expand and seem increasingly not out of the ordinary.
Overarching these challenges is my worry about the loss of shame about anti-Semitism as we move further and further away from the holocaust.
After the murder of six million, there was a constraint on anti-Semitism when people saw pictures of Auschwitz and realized what hatred can lead to. As the decades past, as survivors die, that sense of shame is eroding. I ask myself how that weakened constraint will play out in combination with the other concerns I have delineated.
So I worry and as Director of the ADL, I believe the role we will play in the years ahead will be more, rather than less, important.
But I want to end on the positive note with which I began. America remains a unique place for the Jewish people. We continue to benefit from the values, laws and traditions of American democracy and it enables us to work on every level to ensure in that in the future America will remain the city in the hill for the Jews of this great country.