Antisemitism in America

Antisemitism in America

by

Howard Adelman

Has there been a significant increase in acts of antisemitism in America? If so, were they Type A, B or C? As a separate question, what has been the corresponding reaction to those incidents by the politicians in Washington, especially by Donald Trump? Whatever the pattern, what is its significance?

To recall, Type A antisemitism is divisible into subtypes. It stands for various forms of anti-Jewish antisemitic speeches and actions that took place before the nineteenth century, including the antisemitism of the Enlightenment itself that declared Judaism anti-reason. Enlightenment antisemitism was not based on Jewish dual loyalty charges, as in the antisemitism of Haman (Type A1). It was not based on Christian theological antisemitism (Type A2) that defined Jews as Christ-killers, condemned to be eternal sojourners with no loyalty to place or polity, purveyors of usury as partners of the devil and guilty of blood libel. In this version, Jews allegedly murdered Christian children to use the blood of innocents in grotesque rituals. Jews were not allowed to own land or to engage directly in commerce. Jews were “unnatural.”

Enlightenment antisemitism was a visceral hatred of Jews purportedly founded on the antisemitism of rationality (Type A3) as taught by Voltaire or Diderot. In an age of Enlightenment, in an age of tolerance, in an age where Jews could gain citizenship and theoretically pursue any profession, Voltaire condemned both Christianity and its predecessor, Judaism, for spreading intolerance, for failing to follow the laws of reason, and for failing to derive the laws of man from the laws of nature.

Though Gotthold Lessing and Christian Wilhelm von Dohm advocated equal rights for Jews, Voltaire, in contrast to Montesquieu as well, in the name of reason, accused Judaism of being the root source of Christian anti-reason and of general intolerance. Jews were purveyors of superstition born of a slavish mentalité that could be traced back to being nurtured in the bosom of Egypt. Jews, in fact, were the most irrational of all backward peoples.

Like Martin Luther, Voltaire viewed Jews as “unnatural,” but not because they rejected Jesus and allegedly had him killed, but because the Jewish belief system in its very foundation was irrational. The ritual laws Jews followed had to be banned or, at the very least, exorcised from the public sphere. Jews were a vile people and Diderot said of them that they confused reason and revelation, gave preference to obscurity and based their beliefs on an irrational foundation that led to zealotry and fanaticism. The charges are very similar to those brought against Muslims in Europe in the present.

Type B antisemitism emerged in the nineteenth century and defined Jews as a race that itself was rooted in the virulent undercurrent of antisemitism pervasive in Christendom. Unlike the plague of theological antisemitism of the mediaeval world and the Inquisition, or the Enlightenment antisemitism described above, racial antisemitism insisted that the behaviour of Jews was written in their genes. Jews could not escape the charges through conversion to either the religion of Christianity or the religion of rationality, but was rooted in their biological make-up, itself traced to charges of unnaturalism among Jews made by both Martin Luther and Voltaire.

Following the end of WWII, a new form of antisemitism began to emerge. Instead of arguing that Jews were not worthy of full participation as members of a state for “rational” or theological reasons, it argued that Jews, among all peoples, were not entitled to exercise self-determination or to have a state of their own. When Zionists insisted on having one, the charges motivating Type B antisemitism were directed against the Jews. They were the racists. They were the ones that practiced apartheid. They were the ones guilty of discrimination. Currently, it is the fundamental driving force behind the BDS movement, though I hasten to add, most supporters of BDS seem to be fellow travellers rather than ardent believers in Type C antisemitism.

Hasia Diner, to whom I referred to in an earlier blog, is a Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and History and a specialist in American Jewish history. In the special Moment issue on antisemitism, she railed against labelling the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign as antisemitic since it is perfectly acceptable to criticize the Israeli government and its policies. As she correctly argued, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a political and ethical stance that criticizes policies of the Israeli government and concludes that they are reprehensible. Further, these BDS supporters insist, again correctly, that economic boycotts are a legitimate way of expressing dissent. There is no question that some have tried to paint all or any criticism of Israel with the broad strokes of antisemitism or insisted that dissent is disloyal when Israel and Jews in North America are secure and strong enough to listen to and hear many voices about the policies and the status of democracy in Israel.

Criticism of Israel does not constitute antisemitism. But running such a campaign under the label of the BDS movement means associating with antisemites who would deny Jews the right to self-determination in their homeland, would deny Jews the right to have their own state. This a movement with a huge disproportionate focus on Israel, on its faults and, ultimately, its right to exist.  What makes it difficult to have a critical conversation about Israel under the BDS banner is not simply that one is immediately, and in most cases, falsely accused of antisemitism, but that one has chosen to forge one’s critique under a label rooted in the denial of the right to self-determination of the Jewish people.

There is another dimension to this anti-Zionist battle. Jewish students on campuses across the U.S. have been demonized and viciously, though almost always only verbally, attacked because they are supporters of Israel. Type C anti-Zionist antisemitism is particularly potent on some campuses while absent from most. Students who defend Israel, who have strong religious and cultural connections with Israel, are accused of being racists and are identified as supporting an illegitimate racist, and sometimes even Nazi apartheid regime. These deeply politicized attacks go well beyond simply debates and criticisms of Israeli government policies. It is not as if these parties attacking Israel also attack the human rights records of Iran, of Hezbollah or even of the Palestinian Authority. The attacks are both single-minded and go well beyond critique.

The absence of historic racist or Christian theological antisemitism does not mean an absence of antisemitism per se. Nor does the enormous success and achievements of Jews in North America. According to the Pew Foundation study on 9-13 January 2017, non-Jewish Americans feel “more warmly” toward Jews than toward any other religious group in our society, outside of their own. However, within the last few months, there has been a noticeable increase in antisemitic incidents with tombstones toppled in Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester. There have been well over 100 bombing threats against Jewish community centers. They have become almost a daily occurrence.

Is there any sense that these virulent strains of antisemitism are prevalent in the U.S.? Certainly, since the American election in November of 2016 and even before, there has been a significant increase in hate crimes in the U.S. targeting Jews and Jewish institutions. They have run the gamut from toppling tombstones in Jewish cemeteries to bomb threats mentioned above, largely against Jewish community centres rather than synagogues, forcing their evacuation. Part of the difficulty of analysis is a situation where many strains of antisemitism may be active at the same time.

In the U.S., there is currently a remarkable decrease of Christian theological antisemitism and even its almost total disappearance from public view. However, theological antisemitism has shifted to Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. It is difficult to separate this current strain of theological antisemitism from anti-Zionist antisemitism since Louis Farrakhan has said, “I want to disabuse the Jews today of the false claim that you are the chosen of God — that Israel or Palestine belongs to you.” A critique of chosenness is equated with the Zionist claim of the right to establish a Jewish state in the Middle East. In the National Conference of The Nation of Islam held last month in Detroit, Farrakhan’s critique adopted some of the most prominent elements of racial antisemitism, such as the charge of seeking world domination. “You that think you have power to frighten and dominate the peoples of the world. I’m here to announce the end of your time.” After all, as Farrakhan has claimed many times, Jewish “bloodsuckers” already dominate both the U.S. government and its banking system.

The United States also has a small movement of racist antisemites, such as those in the resurrected KKK and White Power movements once led by David Duke. Much more significant are the Enlightenment antisemites often linked with the BDS movement and anti-Zionism. When do, usually Jewish Enlightenment academics, cross the line between a critique of the irrationality of the Jewish religion and/or a critique of Zionism to become guilty of antisemitism? Alan Dershowitz in a 2011 article in the New Republic (“Why are John Mearsheimer and Richard Falk Endorsing a Blatantly Anti-Semitic Book?” – 4 November), claimed that they clearly crossed the line when they endorsed a blatantly antisemitic book by that proud self-hating Jew (his own words), Gilad Atzmon, called The Wandering Who?

Like Voltaire and Diderot, Atzmon is a strong critic of “Jewish-ness.” Atzmon, like the Nazi racial antisemites, tries to convey the message that Jews are out to control the world. Not some Jews. Not a Jewish elite, but the Jewish people. “American Jews do try to control the world by proxy.” The American media controlled by Jews failed to warn the rest of America in 2007 and 2008 about the impending economic disaster which Jews played such a leading role in bringing about. In thoughts going back to Haman, Jews were the enemy within.

Jews are accused to leading the trade in body parts, echoing the charges of barbarism leveled at Jews in the Middle Ages. But Atzmon’s critique, however much it overlaps with anti-Zionist expressions of antisemitism, however much it picks up themes from racist antisemitism, focuses on Jews as “an obscure, dangerous and unethical fellowship.” For Atzmon, “The history of [Jewish] persecution is a myth, and, if there was any persecution, the Jews brought in on themselves.” Jews are the goy-haters and purveyors of a racist ideology. The Jewish God is an evil deity.  Atzmon even reaches back to the antisemitism of Haman and insists, “The moral of the Book of Esther is that Jews ‘had better infiltrate the corridors of power.’”

The significant increase in antisemitic incidents has come about at the same time Donald Trump assumed the presidency of the United States. What type of antisemitism did these acts of vandalism represent? Is there a correlation with the ascension of Donald Trump? Is there a connection?

Tomorrow: Donald Trump and Antisemitism in America

 

With the help of Alex Zisman