Why anti-Semitism is surging across the political spectrum

Harry Bruinius

Rabbi Romiel Daniel felt something particularly poignant this Hanukkah season as he and his congregation sang the words of “Ma’oz Tsur,” a 13th-century Hebrew poem that is sung each night during the ceremonial lighting of the menorah’s candles.

“It is a song about the victory of the weak over the strong, a victory of good over evil, a victory of the holy over the unholy, as such,” says Rabbi Daniel, head of the Rego Park Jewish Center, a synagogue in Queens. “It’s about the fact that all this was possible, not because of man’s strength at all, but because God was on our side.”

But Ma’oz Tsur, which recounts the history of God’s saving acts and is often translated as “Rock of Ages,” also carries a lamentation: “Our salvation takes too long, and there is no end to the bad days,” worshippers sing in the final stanza.

There have been at least 10 anti-Semitic attacks in the New York region during this year’s holiday celebrations, officials say, but many of the city’s Jewish residents remain most stunned by the attack of a machete-wielding man who burst into a rabbi’s home in Monsey Saturday evening, injuring five of a group who had gathered to celebrate the seventh night of Hanukkah.

The attack came 2 1/2 weeks after a pair of assailants in Jersey City, New Jersey, a man and a woman, targeted a kosher supermarket in a Jewish neighborhood, shooting and killing four, including a police officer. Since then, Jewish residents, most of them from Orthodox and Hasidic communities, have been accosted on the streets.

This April, a gunman shot and killed a worshipper in an attack on a synagogue in Poway, California, wounding three others. In October 2018, a gunman stormed into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, killing 11 and wounding six.

“We cannot overstate the fear people are feeling right now,” tweeted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who called the recent acts of anti-Semitic violence a crisis and a nationwide epidemic. “I’ve spoken to longtime friends who, for the first time in their lives, are fearful to show outward signs of their Jewish faith.”

Such feelings, says Rabbi Daniel, have come as a shock for many of the members of his synagogue, who include a number of Holocaust survivors, such as the Jewish Center’s chairwoman, Ruth Lowenstein, who witnessed the burning of her family’s synagogue in Berlin.

“The climate has changed”

More than half the residents in this part of Queens are part of the kaleidoscope of Jewish traditions represented in New York, which include many different Hasidic and Orthodox traditions, as well as Conservative, Reform, and secular. Tens of thousands of Russian-speaking Bukharan Jews from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have also made their homes here.

“People were always quite comfortable here – even I have always been very comfortable here, to tell you frankly,” says Rabbi Daniel. He notes, as others have, that Jewish people in the United States, and in New York City in particular, have always felt an unprecedented level of inclusion and equality when compared with other countries, and other times of history. 

“But suddenly in the last two or three years, the climate has changed,” he says. “It is something where you tend to always look over your back all the time. It’s a constant feeling, that it is not as safe as it should be, even here.” 

His synagogue decided to install a series of bulletproof glass doors a few years ago, just inside the ornate outer doors. Visitors are now required to buzz into the office and school, along with other security protocols.

Indeed, as the Monitor reported in 2018, there has been a reawakening of overt and violent anti-Semitism throughout the United States and Europe. In New York City, anti-Semitic hate crimes are up 63% this year, officials say, with 152 reports of crimes in 2019, compared with 93 in 2018.

“We are in some ways where we have always been, which is that humans are prewired to see an us and a them,” says Ken Stern, an expert on anti-Semitism at Bard College in New York. “And there are lots of messages in society from politics, from media and other places, that reinforce that sort of view of the world – that we’re not all one big happy human family, but we are looking and highlighting and searching for differences.” 

“Anti-Semitism is one of those manifestations of that world view,” continues Professor Stern, “because historically Jews are seen as an other, a danger, and conspiring to harm non-Jews. We do know that when there is a glorification of the us versus them mentality, anti-Semitism is always going to rise.”

But one of the most disturbing aspects of this particular epidemic of violent anti-Semitism, many experts say, is the fact that it is transcending ideological and cultural boundaries. Even though many of the attacks can be linked to neo-Nazis and classic white supremacists, it has been coming from many other parts of society as well.

“On the radical right, they often glorify violence,” says Gunther Jikeli, who studies the history of anti-Semitism at Indiana University Bloomington. “When you saw how the radical right were discussing the Pittsburgh shootings, nobody questioned the violence. They either glorified the murderer or said, ‘Oh, he’s stupid, just killing elderly Jews.’”

“On the left, it’s more to do with their worldview of anti-imperialism and anticolonialism, where the Jews are somehow in line with imperialists and the colonialism of the state of Israel,” says Professor Jikeli. “You have American college campuses where pro- or even neutral Israeli sentiments are attacked in the name of ideology that has its roots in Mao, Che Guevara, and Third World-ism.”

When hate doesn’t fit in a box

At the same time, the violence cannot be bifurcated into easy right- and left-wing political categories, observers say. 

“While we have seen an increase in extremist movements, we’re also seeing new groupings of possible extremists that either aren’t clearly identifiable, or who are a mixture,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “We saw that with the El Paso terrorist, who borrowed from ecofascism and [fears of] automation.”

“Today’s world is not this boxed lunch, but everything is spilled over with each other,” says Mr. Levin. “There is anti-Semitism on the left, misogyny being shared by fundamentalists and nationalists of all stripes, ecofascism, and appropriations of cultural symbols.”

The attacks this holiday season have drawn attention to the anti-Semitism within many black communities, which also manifests in varying ways, experts say.

One of the Jersey City assailants was a member of the Black Hebrew Israelites, more than 100 branches of which have been designated as hate groups according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. After the shooting rampage, one of the city’s Board of Education trustees, Joan Terrell-Paige, disparaged the outpouring of grief and support for the Hasidic community. 

“Where was all this faith and hope when Black homeowners were threatened, intimidated, and harassed by I WANT TO BUY YOUR HOUSE brutes of the Jewish community?” Ms. Terrell-Paige wrote in a lengthy Facebook post. Though her words praising the attackers sparked outrage and calls for her resignation, she told reporters she did not regret what she said. 

“Anti-Semitic ideas ... they can be on the radical right, but they are also available in other forms on the left and in other forms in African-American communities,” says Professor Jikeli, author of “Muslim Antisemitism in Europe.” “These boundaries to voicing anti-Semitism are not as high as they were 10 or 20 years ago.” 

“The media has difficulty in addressing that and naming this group of perpetrators,” he continues. “That means that the boundaries are less high for those on the margins than for others,” a phenomenon he often sees in similarly marginalized communities in Europe.

The lowering of such boundaries can also be seen throughout the kind of discourse that has risen within the anonymity of the digital age, its increasingly siloed communities, and the rise of nationalism throughout the globe, many observers say. 

“The people who are most susceptible to fear – and that includes people with mental conditions and the angriest among us – the more that fear is validated by a bully pulpit and overall coarse political milieu, that makes this a wildfire that crosses both sides of the ideological ridge,” says Mr. Levin.

Responding to Jewish leaders, officials in New York have bolstered the police presence in many majority Jewish neighborhoods, and civic groups such as the Guardian Angels have announced they would also be patrolling areas where many of the attacks have occurred.

Yes, the fear is potent, and his people have felt such fear for millennia, says Rabbi Daniel. But that’s the precise meaning of this year’s just-completed holiday celebrations, and the song they sing each of the eight nights they light the menorah.  

“Hanukkah is really a time when we say, yes, these things have happened throughout our history, but though we were not too strong at those times, we were able to overcome much stronger enemies,” he says.

“This is what really gives hope to many people, who are in the same place even today, saying that, OK, we’re not alone,” continues Rabbi Daniel. “God is never going to let you be alone, so there’s no reason why we will not be able to overcome any of the problems that we have today. And that gives us hope, that gives hope that lingers on through the ages.”

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