Why we should fear American antisemitism

What terrifies me more than the attacks themselves, are the implications of the reactions people had to them.

By ALEXANDER LEVENE
December 12, 2018 21:06
4 minute read.
Midterm Polls

A Jewish Orthodox woman and her daughter wait to vote during mid-term elections at a polling station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. November 6, 2018. (photo credit: FEDERICA VALABREGA)

 
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When I was younger, I used to complain on the Jewish high holidays. “I don’t want to go to synagogue this year! Can’t I stay home?”, I’d holler. My father, would get frustrated with my complaining and yell right back at me: “You’re going and that’s the last I’ll hear about it!”. In the end, I’d always begrudgingly take my father’s hand, walk out the door, and attend services.

Years later, my family and I still reminisce as we dress for services about those Yom Kippurs and Rosh Hashanahs from long ago. “Alex, do Dad’s angry holiday speech from when you were younger”. And I do my spiel, throwing in a few cusses for drama’s sake. It always gets a few laughs from my parents.

What my family and I never discuss, though, is something much more noticeable than a child’s complaining about attending services: the assault-rifle toting NYPD officers guarding my synagogue and the airport-like security we had to pass through when we went to services. And in the wake of the antisemitic attack in Pittsburgh, the spike of antisemitism in New York, and the antisemitic vandalism on my own college campus, I feel the need to consider how we respond to these acts.

The first thing I notice when I mention to a fellow student the vandalism of a Columbia professor’s office with swastikas and the word “YID”, is his or her surprise. “I know!”, they say, “I can’t believe that happened here!” Why so incredulous? What, I wonder, makes someone think that antisemitism ended with the fall of the Nazi regime in 1944? And if antisemitism is alive and well in Germany of all places, why can’t it happen here, where there’s never been so great a reckoning with antisemitism?

 At first, what this shock says to me is that people have forgotten that antisemitism is nearly as old as history itself. Before Hitler were the pogroms, before those the inquisition, before that the Romans. After Hitler was the purge of Soviet Jews, the threat to Ethiopian Jews, and, most recently, the Pittsburgh shooting and vandalism both on Columbia’s campus and at a Brooklyn synagogue. These last two events may seem incomparable to the others; the Holocaust, the pogroms, and the inquisition affected millions. But, these last two events are in fact part of a continuously broadening and continuously terrifying phenomenon of antisemitic attacks.

What terrifies me more than the attacks themselves, though, are the implications of the reactions people had to them: that we as a society seem to view antisemitic crimes as random and spontaneous. Take, for example, one Jewish organization’s condemnation of the recent Pittsburgh shooting as a “senseless act of violence.” That word “senseless” seems to dismiss Bowers’s attack as one committed out of complete madness.


These crimes, however, are by no means random, spontaneous, or committed out of madness. That word scribbled on the Columbia professor’s wall is the same word antisemitic Europeans used to refer to Jews throughout the pogroms and Holocaust. Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh shooter, was an active member of online neo-Nazi forums. In other words, both the Columbia vandal and the Pittsburgh shooter’s antisemitic acts have direct links to historical antisemitism. Nazi is even in the name of his political affiliation! Elsewhere in the world, other recent forms of antisemitism have even invoked the trope of the blood libel – Jewish use of gentile blood for ritualistic purposes – which dates back to 13th century England.

 Perhaps the reason why these recent antisemitic crimes fail to ring the alarm bells they ought to, is that they lack any clear organizational basis. In the words of Father Patrick Desbois, a Holocaust researcher and professor at Georgetown’s Center for Jewish Civilization, there are “no camps, no barbed wire, no trains, nothing.” But the lack of an organized antisemitic movement in the United States should not put us at ease.

 When asked about the work of his organization Yahad – In Unum, which focuses on current Western European antisemitism, Desbois replied, “as an advocacy organization, we explain this is a criminal ideology.” If nothing else triggers the alarm bells – say, the fact that there needs to be an organization who investigates modern Western European antisemitism – that last word should. Antisemitic ideology is what ties all of these disparate crimes together. And ideology doesn’t die, even if you catch every mass shooter and shutter every organization. While organizations need accountants, offices, and, in some cases, training camps, ideology persists through books, history, and even one’s parents. It only takes one person to keep an ideology alive. And as Bowers’s cases shows us, one person with a keyboard and an ideology is all it takes for antisemitism to remain alive and well.

 When we call a mass shooting at a synagogue a “senseless act of violence” and express shock at acts of antisemitic vandalism, we depict modern antisemitism as random, rooted in nothing but individual hate. In doing so, we ignore the most troubling facet of modern antisemitism. It is driven by an ideology stretching back thousands of years, and that ideology connects all acts, regardless of the fact that they lack a common organizational basis. Maybe recognizing the ideological basis of antisemitism won’t prevent the next attack, but if we understand its ideological roots, we can prevent it from infecting our nation, as it has so many others throughout history.

Alexander Levene has lived in New York City his entire life and is currently a student at Columbia University.

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