On Oct. 27, 2018, a white-supremacist gunman sent a wake-up call to American Jews about the always deadly potential for violence from armed extremists. The slaughter of 11 worshippers at a Shabbat-morning service at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh was the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in American history. That same message was reinforced six months later when another such extremist attack by a lone gunman resulted in the murder of another Jew at Chabad of Poway in Southern California.
The Pittsburgh attack concentrated the collective minds of American Jewry on anti-Semitism in a way no other event has in living memory. But two years later, as a new poll on the subject that has just been published by the American Jewish Committee shows, it’s far from clear that the deluge of analysis and finger-pointing since then has added much clarity to the subject. Some of the results provide troubling evidence that many Americans don’t have a firm grasp of the subject. But the most depressing aspect of the survey is the way the discussion of hatred against Jews has become part of the partisan civil war raging in American society.
It may shock many Jews to learn that, if the AJC survey is correct, nearly half of all Americans aren’t exactly sure what we’re discussing when the topic of anti-Semitism is raised. When asked, “How familiar are you with the term anti-Semitism?” some 25% of the general public responded that they had heard the term, but were unsure what it means, while 21% had never heard of it.
This may seem discouraging, and yet, it’s hardly surprising. Jews are a highly visible religious minority, and their numbers in prominent positions in government, business and the arts are way out of proportion to their actual percentage of the population. But at only 2% of the American population, it’s hardly reasonable to judge the other 98% on their lack of awareness of a term that stems from the rise of European Jew-hatred in the late 19th century.
Yet three-quarters of Americans know some (38%) or a lot (37%) about the Holocaust. As many as 90% think teaching about the Holocaust is important. That’s a tribute to the fact that American Jews have prioritized spreading knowledge of the Holocaust both in their own community and among the general public.
Unfortunately, when asked specific questions about what constitutes anti-Semitism, many Americans are equally at sea as they are about the term itself.
Three-quarters of them know little or nothing about the BDS movement that has become the cutting edge of anti-Jewish activity on college campuses. Yet 75% of general public respondents believe saying “Israel has no right to exist” is anti-Semitic, which is not only encouraging but proof that support for Zionism and philo-Semitism is essentially baked into the political DNA of Americans.
Less heartening are the answers to questions about whether claims that Jews have dual loyalty or are buying support for Israel are anti-Semitic. Some 43% of the general public doesn’t think talking about Jews being more loyal to Israel than the United States is anti-Semitic, while 39% similarly don’t label accusations about American support for Israel being bought as Jew-hatred.
It’s crucial that we understand that, taken as a whole, Americans are not anti-Semitic and actively oppose actions and vitriol directed at Jews. This is even validated by statistics of hate crimes published earlier this year by the Anti-Defamation League that were discussed as hitting an all-time high in 2019. The total of 2,107 incidents of all types, including vandalism or loosely defined acts of harassment, in a country of 330 million didn’t justify the hype.
Still, both Jews and non-Jews perceive that anti-Semitism is growing. Is it because what happened in Pittsburgh or Poway was the beginning of a wave of violence against Jews? As shocking and as awful as both attacks were, the answer to that question is clearly not.
The most consistent violence against Jews came last year during a series of anti-Semitic attacks against ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Greater New York area. The assailants were almost all African-Americans. That made it impossible to classify these incidents as stemming from the same motivation as white-supremacist murders. But since the only Jews targeted were the largely insular Orthodox community, these incidents didn’t generate nearly the same level of outrage as the two synagogue attacks.
Why then do most Jews and a plurality of the general public believe that anti-Semitism is on the rise? The internet has provided a way for hate groups to connect and gives them a megaphone with which to make their toxic messages better known than before. If more Americans believe they have encountered more anti-Semitism, a lot of what they are referring to happened on social media.
Probably the most troubling aspect of this entire discussion is the way all too many of us are ready to ascribe anti-Semitism to our political foes.
One of the best insights in the AJC survey was the fact that the general public was willing to ascribe anti-Semitism to the two political parties in equal numbers. The poll revealed that 42% of Americans believed “some” or “a lot” of Republicans “hold anti-Semitic views,” with the exact same percentage believing the same about Democrats.
Fully 69% of American Jews think Republicans are anti-Semitic, while only 37% think that about Democrats. The explanation for that discrepancy is obvious. About the same numbers of Jews generally vote for Democrats as they also think Republicans are anti-Semites.
Assuming that hate only comes from one group or ideological belief is false. The rise of anti-Semitism on the left, with its intersectional beliefs identifying Jews as “white oppressors” and support for BDS, hasn’t generated the same random violence; however, it does seek to delegitimize both Jews and Israel in ways that the isolated groups of white supremacists can’t. Nor should we underestimate the enormous influence of hatemongers like the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan in the African-American community.
The willingness of the mainstream media to treat politicians like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who promote anti-Semitism as legitimate figures to be admired rather than extremists to be despised, is a problem few even in the Jewish community are willing to address. The same is true of the anti-Semitism and support for Farrakhan among some in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Yet because most Jews identify with the Democrats and despise President Donald Trump, they have largely steered the debate about anti-Semitism into a sterile effort to blame it on the political right. The Anti-Defamation League, with its left-wing tilt and descent into partisanship under CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, deserves much of the blame for this.
This kind of misguided analysis has also infected the thinking of even otherwise sober observers like New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who, while rightly pointing to anti-Semitism on both the left and the right, still claimed that conservatives who oppose illegal immigration or think unlimited free trade hurts American workers is somehow also connected to anti-Semitism—a position that is both untrue and deeply unfair.
Two years after Pittsburgh, Americans are still struggling to understand how to cope with the reality of the threat of violence to Jews without either inflating it out of proportion or to assign blame more on the basis of our political preferences than a coherent analysis of where the danger lies. It ought to be possible to be wary of hate on the right and the left without treating all of our political opponents as being responsible for enabling Jew-hatred. Until we learn how to do that, the result of our ruminations on both the lessons of Pittsburgh and the sources of anti-Semitism will cause more confusion than understanding.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.