Growth of antisemitism in America: It’s complicated

This notion that in America, Jews will be and are, finally, free of the virulent hatred that has stalked them for 2,500 years – I never understood that.

The Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Jews being hacked with a machete, in the midst of a Hanukkah celebration, in a rabbi’s home.
In America.
I share the horror and disgust, even some fear, but not the surprise expressed by so many.
This notion that America is, somehow, so radically different from any and every civilization that preceded it; that in America, Jews will be and are, finally, free of the virulent hatred that has stalked them for 2,500 years – I never understood that. Based on what one could see and measure in the society, it seemed to be more an ephemeral aspiration than a reality.
To be clear, I am an optimistic nihilist; always brace for the worst but strive for the best. Glass half-full, except when it’s half-empty. Classically Jewish.
I am also Canadian, descended from Russians fleeing vicious pogroms and discrimination, and from Romanians who survived the Holocaust and sought peace and opportunity.
For the most part, Canada was a huge improvement over the Old Country, but, as in America today, as in Europe always, we were never able to blend in there completely. There were and are always reminders, at times hostile ones, that we were and are “other” – Jewish.
When I was a kid, the prejudice was, for the most part, somewhat faceless and institutional. Jews were barred from membership in many clubs, so they just set up their own. Certain professions – like banking and established law firms – were white, male and Christian. So Jews established their own law firms. And accounting firms. And so on. Until the mid-1960s in Toronto, there were restrictive covenants in force in a few upscale neighborhoods, meaning it was legal for vendors to refuse to sell property in those areas to Jews. So, Jews created their own neighborhoods, too.
Over time, demographic change overtook even the bulwarked communities and professions. But it is naïve in the extreme to suppose that all prejudice evaporated.
We live now in a time that is partial to extremes that tend not to accommodate realities, which are considerably more nuanced.
Canada and America are populated largely by immigrants, who bring with them the cultures, religions and prejudices into which they were born. Some shed their old-world skins and reinvent themselves. Most retain at least an essence of what they came from. That includes the importation of prejudices and hatreds.
Of course, these toxic elements mutate in the New World, North America. These days, one must either submit to the dictates and hysterical tendencies of the “progressives” – who brook no dissent from their orthodoxy – or self-identify with the villainous caricatures that have become associated with the Right. We seem to have lost the ability to navigate the Center, which can be messy, but is most forgiving and accommodating. It is also where most people end up, by default: in the middle; imperfect, idiosyncratic, human.
PREVIOUS GENERATIONS fortunate enough to escape poverty, penury and terror migrated to Canada, and the US, overwhelmed with gratitude. They understood they were the “other” and doubled down to get on their feet and build a solid foundation for their children.
Today the equation seems to have been upended. We are commanded to celebrate diversity, inclusivity – which is all well and good – but we are also instructed to accommodate every entitled demand made by various cultures and interests. Should we have the temerity to question such dictates, we are immediately branded fascist and intolerant.
Among the leaders of this ferocious politically correct brigade are many Jews. In recent decades, Jews have come to see themselves as assimilated, accepted, integrated.
Generally, North American institutions and society no longer treat Jews as a minority group, certainly not a “visible minority.” And for good reason, because most Jews are not visibly identifiable as Jews. Most Jews dress and live like the majority. In fact, I’m certain that most American Jews are unaware that the term “minority” was ever used to apply to us; or that quotas kept us in our place.
No. Today’s Jews have been programmed to see themselves as “privileged.”
True, we have become more affluent, as a community, and more complacent, actually believing that this new world, this “goldene medina,” really is different from all that came before.
Is America really so different? Is the American political and national culture so extraordinarily unique and immune to Jew-hatred as many suggest?
Yes, George Washington visited a synagogue in Rhode Island in 1790, and assured the congregation that they were welcome as equals in this New World. And, yes, he made these observations at the same time that he supported the ongoing and increased entrenchment of one of the most barbaric practices ever: the enslavement of Africans.
For decades, this issue has intrigued me, what I see as the willful blindness of American Jews to the fact that the much-lauded founding “idea” of their society is fallible, and vulnerable to all manner of hateful trends, including Jew hating.
Well, yeah, my American friends – among them some recognized influencers and thought leaders – would say, “But it’s different here.” Just last year, the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue was invoked to demonstrate the point: “Law enforcement protects us here. That didn’t happen in Europe.”
And “that” – which was actually said to me by a quite prominent public intellectual – is exactly the point.
Nothing ever happens in exactly the same way twice.
American Jews tend to believe that their experience is singular in the millennia. Exceptional. The larger lessons of Persia, Spain and, yes, Germany, have become somewhat fuzzy. How many times have I heard that America personifies a revolutionary concept – a society based on an idea that is distinguished from all other foundational national ideas or ideologies insofar as the American version is blind to religion or race. It is founded on equality (just ignore the slavery bit), freedom and universal dignity (unlike a few prior civilizations, not to mention the Magna Carta.)
And, yes, this is a point of view articulated by many very intelligent and informed people.
With which I happen to disagree.
COLLECTIVELY, IN the immediate post-Holocaust era, we enjoyed a brief respite from the murderous waves that targeted Jews, hither and thither. There was the odd pogrom, like in Kielce, Poland, in 1946, but the West, by and large, seemed to accept that things had gotten a little out of hand in Europe, and let us be, more or less.
Many of us, myself included, came of age in a most extraordinary time, when Jews were emboldened by the existence of the Jewish state, which allowed us to strive and achieve, without apology.
Especially in America.
Yet, these days, visibly Jewish Americans are targeted by mass murderers and assorted haters, who also, it seems, feel emboldened. Most American Jews are secular, assimilated and support Left-leaning political leaders. No one actually says it, but I’ll bet many Americans – and more than a few Jewish ones – are thinking: “It’s because they were in a synagogue.” Or, “It’s because of how they dress.”
And then there have been some gems, like this one from Alison Bell @abellvt on Twitter: “Not excusing any of this [hacking at Jews gathered to celebrate Hanukkah], but Monsey is complicated. I grew up there.” This, days after Jews were attacked by a machete-wielding man who burst into a Hanukkah celebration in a rabbi’s home.
Pardon me, but where does the “but” come in? Complicated?
Now, I don’t want to pick on @abellvt, because what she was stupid enough to say has clearly been on the minds of many who at least kept their mouths shut. For now.
Whenever the media or public leaders (I’m speaking generally, of course, not to the anomalous few with principle and courage) happen upon a white supremacist Jew-hater, they are ballistic with rage. Almost all of the recent attacks in the New York City area have been at the hands of African Americans. Yet, there has been very muted angst, almost imperceptible.
It’s f---ing complicated?!?!?!?
Allow me to take a stab (no horribly insensitive pun intended) at simplifying matters: History is replete with examples of Jew-hatred. It begins with the demonization of Jews with words. We are portrayed as personifying every extreme evil possible. Then, come the laws, even in ancient times. Laws, somehow, seem to make it all more palatable. Dignified. They lend an imprimatur to the attacks that are necessary to reassure the majority.
It’s all ok. Really. Just carry on with your lives and let “us” – the authorities – take care of the Jewish problem.
 We Jews are a subversive lot, upending one great civilization after another, spreading disease, celebrating sexual perversion, undermining all that is good and decent, controlling global finance and media. All 14-million of us. Whether we dress like “one of them” or not. Whether we vote Democrat or not.
You know, if they’d just stop hating on us we would probably disappear by assimilation in a few generations. But as soon as things seem to lull, the Jew-hating virus takes hold, yet again. A slightly mutated strain, but ever virulent.
It brings to mind a vignette that I read about years ago, describing a group of Viennese Jews who found themselves transported to the Warsaw Ghetto. They saw themselves as a different species from the disease-ravaged, starving and many pious Jews dumped in the same hellhole. Many of the Viennese arrived in Warsaw still wrapped in fur, bejewelled, disbelieving.
Their fates? The same.
The writer was the Canadian ambassador to Israel from 2014 to 2016. A former lawyer, she consults for international clients on a range of issues and resides in Tel Aviv.