Antisemitism: The threat and the divide

In a sort of ‘you have your antisemites, I have mine,’ right-leaning Jews say liberals are using the oldest hatred as a political weapon against Donald Trump.

Oren Segal (right), director of the Anti- Defamation League’s Center on Extremism (photo credit: DREW ANGERER / AFP)
Oren Segal (right), director of the Anti- Defamation League’s Center on Extremism
(photo credit: DREW ANGERER / AFP)
ANTISEMITISM APPEARS to have joined politics, religion, gender and Israel to become an issue that is dividing the US Jewish community.
Reports permeate the media of bomb threats to Jewish centers, cemetery desecrations, swastika daubings and hateful flyers – not to mention instances of actual violence against Jews. But, instead of bringing the community closer together, Jews on the Left say President Donald Trump has created an atmosphere that fosters expressions of antisemitism, while conservative Jews complain that those on the Left are exploiting a distressing situation to thrash the administration even as they turn a blind eye toward anti-Israelism and hostility against Jews among Democratic Party activists.
These tensions within the community reflect a turmoil that prevails throughout the US. Clearly, the president is a disruptive force and this has triggered a hyper-partisan atmosphere. People are being called upon to declare their allegiances and the middle is a lonely place to be, Yehudit Barsky, a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, tells The Jerusalem Report.
Putting aside whether the individual haters responsible for overturning tombstones or calling in bomb threats are themselves an immediate danger to Jewish people, lost in the dust-up is the genuine peril posed not only by radical Islam but by ultra-right extremism.
The so-far false alarms, seemingly coordinated, belie a menacing reality: alongside violent Islamists, white supremacists also present a clear danger to Jewish institutions and individuals. Indeed, that peril may be heightened around April 19, an “anniversary” that holds special significance to the most virulent strain of white Jew-haters.
All this begs the question: Has the antisemitic threat level actually changed? Jews have long been the most targeted religious group in the US, according to the New York-based Community Security Service. And yet, starting around January 9 of this year, the reports on antisemitic outbreaks have been fast and furious: New York City police reported over 70 anti-Jewish incidents in the first 100 days after the elections compared with 39 for the same period a year earlier. However, there is insufficient official data to substantiate a real increase nationally in anti-Jewish violence.
Although figures are not yet available for 2016, it is worth noting that federal authorities recorded 695 incidents of anti-Jewish violence in 2015, though this figure unlikely captures every episode. There were about 84 antisemitic incidents a month during Barack Obama’s presidency. Meanwhile, Canadian authorities reported 213 antisemitic episodes for 2014 – the most recent statistics available. During the first 100 days since the election, about 150 telephone threats were made to US Jewish institutions across some 30 states and in Canada.
Authorities reportedly believe that perpetrators use robo-call technology to mask their voices and phone numbers, and have the technical aptitude to make it appear as if the calls originate in the US or overseas. Buildings have been evacuated – including JCCs, schools and nursing homes. Tombstones at Jewish cemeteries in Missouri, New York and Pennsylvania have been overturned. It is more than likely that some of the cemetery desecrations are copycat crimes.
LOST IN the blizzard of data is that attacks on Jews are often precursors to larger attacks, according to the Community Security Service. For example, the assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane on November 5, 1990 was committed by a member of the same Islamist cell – Islamists being Muslim Brotherhood offshoots who embrace a deeply anti- Jewish theology – that carried out the first World Trade Center bombing on February 26, 1993.
Most community professionals, however, assume that the immediate danger comes from the domestic right. The director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism Oren Segal has said, “I don’t recall a time when white supremacists have felt they have a more welcome door in the White House.” He acknowledged that bomb threats are not new but “the sheer number is new.” He also said, “Haters are emboldened and the Internet has given them broader impact. They feel their ideas are more welcome than ever before.”
This “white supremacists have been emboldened” theme was echoed by American Jewish Committee director David Harris in a recent blog. There were, he wrote, “violent assaults on Jewish community centers in 1999 in California [where white supremacist Buford Furrow fired 50 shots inside the North Valley Jewish Community Center] and in 2014 in Kansas [where Frazier Glenn Miller killed two innocent people] and against a Jewish federation in Washington State in 2006 [at the hands of Naveed Haq, a Pakistani-American]. But, somehow, tragic as they were, these attacks were seen as more isolated incidents, unlike the current situation, which is national in nature.”
Such perceptions, though, may be misleading.
Leonard Saxe, a professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Brandeis University, tells The Report that while the ongoing threats and violence are distressing, particularly with regard to their impact on children and “our collective sense of security,” there is no evidence of a new wave of antisemitism.
To the contrary, in the midst of these threats, he points to a recent Pew survey that indicates Jews are the best-liked religious group in America: “It’s particularly surprising given our size – most Americans don’t have a chance to interact with Jews.” Saxe adds that positive perceptions of Jews notwithstanding, he’s not suggesting antisemitism has been totally eliminated, rather “we need to be able to accept both facts.”
Prof. Arnold Dashefsky is editor of the American Jewish Yearbook and teaches a course on the “Sociology of Antisemitism” at the University of Connecticut. He cites surveys that show the proportion of Americans who are regarded as holding antisemitic beliefs has actually declined dramatically from nearly one-third of the US population (29%) in 1964 to about one-eighth (or 12%) in 2013.
“Without minimizing the concern for the children and adults victimized by these despicable actions, but absent a new survey,” Dashefsky does not believe the antisemitic threat level has changed substantially. Like Saxe, he draws attention to that February 2, 2017 Pew Research Center report that showed Jews are, comparatively speaking, the most popular religious group.
“Americans express warm feelings toward Jews, with half of US adults rating them at 67 degrees or higher on the 0-to- 100 scale,” according to Pew. “I would also note that while there has been a dramatic increase in antisemitic incidents, it is not likely that there has been a corresponding dramatic increase in antisemitic individuals in the US,” Dashefsky tells The Report.
Political partisans naturally prefer a less nuanced analysis.
Liberal Democrats point to the support Trump’s campaign enjoyed among extremist whites and “alt-right” populists and nationalists – the insinuation being that Trump’s arrival at the White House has been accompanied by an upsurge in expressions of antisemitism. Trump’s job approval among American Jews stands at 31%, according to a March 17 Gallup survey.
The president’s demeanor has helped muddy the waters.
After an initial reluctance to explicitly condemn antisemitism, Trump did so on February 21 at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He termed the threats and targeting of the Jewish community “horrible” and “painful” and a “very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.” HeTrump opened his first address to a joint session of Congress on February 28 by condemning as evil and ugly the targeting of Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries.
Conservatives maintain that no matter how many times Trump denounces antisemitism, liberals will find excuses to doubt his sincerity. Yet, the president has a knack for walking back his own message.
Speaking to state attorney generals a few hours before his speech to Congress, Trump seemed to intimate that, conceivably, the “reprehensible” attacks were, in fact, carried out to make his administration look bad. Jewish conservatives have thus been left with the unenviable job of having to construe Trump’s words and deportment in a positive mien.
Jonathan S. Tobin, a leading Jewish conservative writer, argues that “Trump’s reluctance to speak out is easily understood even if it is not defensible. He and his adviser Steve Bannon believe politics is warfare and see acceptance of demands from critics as weakness.
Trump believed invitations to denounce antisemitism implied he was an antisemite, a charge for which there is no proof against him or Bannon. That’s why he stalled. That was foolish, but not evidence of antisemitism.”
IN ISRAEL, former World Jewish Congress vice president Isi Leibler, a veteran America- watcher who retains close ties to several Jewish leaders in the US, has denounced America’s liberal Jewish majority for engaging in an “insane” and “obscene” campaign to demonize Trump as some kind of antisemite or fascist. Taking a different tack, Orthodox right-leaning groups such as the Agudath Israel of America have been quick to express appreciation to Trump for condemning antisemitic acts. They also praised Vice President Mike Pence for personally taking part in the clean-up at the vandalized Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery near St. Louis.
Predictably, Israeli leaders have been drawn into the fray. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come to Trump’s defence on a number of occasions. “I appreciate the fact that in the last few weeks and days, President Trump and Vice President Pence have taken a strong stance in condemning antisemitism,” he told the Jewish People Policy Institute on March 1. Likewise, a few days later, Netanyahu’s political nemesis President Reuven Rivlin found himself complimenting the administration, particularly Pence, for speaking out against antisemitism. However, Netanyahu’s full-throated embrace of Trump has exacerbated existing cleavages between his government and the predominantly progressive American-Jewish establishment.
Back in the US, politically conservative Jews point to the appointment of Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison as deputy Democratic National Committee chair as an example of liberal hypocrisy. He was tapped for the job by the newly elected DNC chairman Tom Perez – an Obama cabinet member – and his rival for the position. While in college, Ellison allegedly told a fellow student at Wayne State University that “European white Jews” were engaged in the oppression of minorities across the world and had, historically, played a huge role in the African slave trade. Ellison was also long closely aligned with Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitic Nation of Islam. Moreover, as late as 2010, the congressman (who was raised a Catholic) told supporters that US Muslims needed to upend Washington’s pro-Israel orientation.
For 7 in 10 Jews, attachment to Judaism goes hand in hand with attachment to Israel, according to Pew’s 2013 portrait of American Jewry. So, antagonism toward the Jewish state makes many Jewish people uncomfortable.
This leads conservatives to point out that, while 74% of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, only 33% of Democrats back Israel more – indeed a third of Democrats side more with the Palestinians, according to another PEW survey earlier this year.
Finding a comfortable space for someone who is pro-Israel in the anti-Trump camp is getting tricky, as Emily Shire, an editor at Bustle, a trendy women’s website, explained in a recent New York Times op-ed.
On January 21, more than one million women marched in Washington, DC against Trump. But the women’s anti-Trump campaign is being co-opted by anti-Zionist and BDS activists, leaving Shire to worry “that my support for Israel will bar me from the feminist movement.” She asks, “Why should criticism of Israel be key to feminism in 2017?” Among the leading voices of the anti- Trump international women’s movement in-the-making is Rasmea Yousef Odeh, formerly of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. She served time in an Israeli prison for her involvement in a February 21,1969 bombing of a Jerusalem supermarket that killed two young students, Leon Kanner and Eddie Joffe, and wounded nine others. “More and more frequently, my identity as a Zionist places me in conflict with the feminist movement of 2017. I will remain a proud feminist, but I see no reason I should have to sacrifice my Zionism for the sake of my feminism,” Shire wrote.
Responding to Shire in an interview with The Nation, Linda Sarsour, a prominent Palestinian-American anti-Israel campaigner answered: No. You cannot be a Zionist feminist. She said Israel occupied “territories in Palestine” and holds Arab women under siege at checkpoints and, therefore, it just doesn’t make sense for someone who supports Israel to play a role in the feminist movement. In a cynical, yet politically astute, maneuver, Sarsour raised more than $100,000 to repair a vandalized Jewish cemetery in Missouri, proving that “Dead Jewish Lives Matter.”
As the disrupter-in-chief, Trump also has a following among black extremists who endorsed – or otherwise signalled support for – him during the campaign.
Experts surmise that Trump’s election could actually bolster separatist groups within the African-American community, among them the Nation of Islam and New Black Panther Party, which are intrinsically anti-Jewish. Absurdly, many black and white racists share the same toxic idea, namely, that they are the true Israel (or one of the Lost Tribes of Israel) while today’s Jewish people are devilish imposters. For example, in November 2016, Federal agents raided the Star of David-adorned storefront headquarters of a schismatic New York City-based antisemitic black religious sect calling itself the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ. The group’s high priest Jermaine Grant bewilderingly refers to himself as “Holy God Sent Comforter of the Nation of Islam.”
The radical white right and radical blacks share a common antipathy toward Jews. For example, in 2001, authorities foiled a plot by white supremacists to bomb the US Holocaust Museum in Washington. In 2005, Kevin James, an African-American who converted to Islam, and his Jami’at al-Islam al-Sahih cell were apprehended before they could attack Los Angeles area synagogues and US-based Israeli targets. In 2009, law enforcement foiled a plot by several African-American converts to Islam to bomb synagogues in Riverdale, New York.
Extremism makes for the strangest of bedfellows: Farrakhan has been a welcome guest on the Alex Jones program. The Texas- based Jones, whose following is strongest on the far right, is a purveyor of dark conspiracy theories: questioning whether the 9/11 attacks on the homeland were really carried out by al-Qaida; suggesting that the authorities may be putting chemicals in the water supply to foster homosexuality; and inflaming paranoia that the so-called deep state is working to topple Trump.
Jones emphasizes that he is not against individual Jews, only those involved in the global corporate conspiracy with the Japanese, communists and other evil forces.
Trump telephoned Jones on the day after his election victory to thank him for his assistance in the campaign. “He said, listen, Alex, I just talked to kings and queens of the world, world leaders, you name it, but he said it doesn’t matter, I wanted to talk to you, to thank your audience, and I’ll be on in the next few weeks to thank them,” Jones related. “I said, is this a private call? And he said no, I want to thank your viewers, thank your listeners for standing up for this republic, we know what you did early on, throughout this campaign, standing up for what’s right.”
Not surprisingly, liberal Jewish discomfiture with Trump is palpable – and catalyzed by a White House that managed to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 without mention of Jews and by that chilling moment on February 16 when Trump lashed out at Jake Turx, an ultra- Orthodox reporter for Ami magazine, for asking why “we haven’t really heard you address” the spate of antisemitic incidents.
Conservative Jews say that given the number of influential Jews situated in the White House, it is plain unfair to blame Trump for stoking antisemitism. Foremost are Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and his daughter Ivanka. Another six or seven Jews have entré to the president, and that’s not counting Boris Epshteyn, his special assistant for communications; and Stephen Miller, the chief speechwriter who, oddly enough, was a college buddy of white nationalist Richard Spencer.
While hardly reassuring to liberal Democratic Jews, claims of Jewish influence in the White House can’t but dismay the white supremacist set who were drawn to support Trump by his loutish America First rhetoric. It is easy to lose sight of how dangerous white fanatics can be – especially if they feel they’ve been conned. Recall that before 9/11, the deadliest terrorist incident on American soil was the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, carried out by Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier: 168 people were killed and more than 500 wounded.
McVeigh would feel right at home in the Sovereign Citizen Movement, which today poses a considerable threat to domestic US security. No less than radical Islamists, SCM disciples are capable of significant acts of violence, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The movement has its roots in the violent, white racist Posse Comitatus, which is Latin for “power of the county,” that was especially active in Idaho during the 1980s farm crisis. SCM is mobilized by a virulent antisemitic philosophy called Christian Identity, which teaches that today’s Jews are charlatans. Adherents are acutely conspiratorial- minded and convinced that the US is controlled by the Zionist Occupation Government.
SCM has had its ups and downs; there is no leader, but the ability of disaffected individuals nowadays to find each other via social media raises the possibility of a venomous resurgence.
Other white extremists are drawn to the so-called patriot movement (also known as Oath Keepers) and their armed militia wings, which are organized around opposition to the federal government. Trump’s flirtation with conspiracy theorist Jones has actually bolstered the president’s standing among anti-government extremists to the extent that some enthusiasts see Trump’s victory as a reason to go into a hiatus. Still, there are roughly 623 active militias, according to estimates by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
BESIDES BEING the date of the Oklahoma City bombing, April 19 marks several anniversaries: It is Patriots’ Day, the start of the American Revolution at Lexington, Massachusetts in 1775; it was when, in 1993, federal agents raided the compound of the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, and more than 80 followers of David Koresh died in a fire that began during the raid; it was when, in 1985, federal agents laid siege to The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord stronghold in Fort Smith, Arkansas; and, on the same day as the Oklahoma bombing – April 19, 1995 – white supremacist Richard Snell was executed for murdering two people in Arkansas. It is also the eve of Adolph Hitler’s birthday.
Given the gravity of the ultra-right threat, some liberals are coming to the conclusion that casting Trump as some kind of white extremist fellow traveller is misguided and counterproductive.
Jeffrey Goldberg, speaking on National Public Radio, warned against piling on Trump with charges of antisemitism.
“These things happened before Donald Trump. What happened right now, I think, is because a certain narrative just developed around Donald Trump. People are saying this is the cause of these incidents. And I just think that that might be a little bit premature or a little bit over simplistic. We’ve had serious incidents of antisemitism in this country for years and years and years. They did not start on January 20.”
Suzanne Garment, formerly chief operating officer of the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy, tells The Report that evidence of a possible connection between the uptick in antisemitism and Trump’s election is murky. She also says it is hardly plausible to accuse Trump of personal anti-Semitism. “Even Steve Bannon, with his quasi-white nationalist rhetoric, has defenders asserting that they’ve never seen evidence of personal antisemitism in him. True, his ex-wife accused him of saying he didn’t want his children going to school with Jews; but, then, divorces can be very messy.
“We, nevertheless, know in our bones that those who reject liberal democracy are bad for the Jews. But where does this certainty – hard-earned, totally legitimate – lead? Do we blame Trump for telling these people that their illiberal impulses are legitimate? Do we blame the political establishment, of which Hillary Clinton is an exemplar, for leaving the same people’s legitimate grievances with no voice other than Trump’s?” The arrest of 31-year-old Juan Thompson in St. Louis, Missouri, who is believed to be responsible for a few of the threatening calls to JCCs, underscored the problem of attributing blame, says Garment. “Once an idea gets into the air, ‘Hey, Louie, let’s go kick over some headstones,’ Lord knows where it travels.” Thompson, a left-leaning discredited African-American reporter is suspected of making the calls to frame an ex-girlfriend.
Garment argues that, rather than rank and file Democrats and Republicans blaming each other, it is the American political elite class that deserves censure for having failed to tend to the needs of ordinary citizens, thereby creating an opening for demagogues and illiberal movements. “We’re reaping the harvest of 50 years of dereliction of duty,” she says.
AS FOR divisions within the community, Saxe says what’s important is that both Jewish liberals and conservatives are concerned about the rise in antisemitism.
“It shouldn’t be surprising that they have different narratives about the cause.”
Another Jewish professional, who requested anonymity, with decades of experience in the world of JCCs, national organizations and philanthropy tells The Report he thinks the internal bickering is being overblown.
“I believe the very real threat posed by the dozens of hoaxes – for now – is binding communities in a sense of great frustration not with the partisan government in power, but with the inability of the FBI to make significant headway in apprehending the suspect or suspects. The close cooperation with local law enforcement, and in some cases interfaith activity, is another binding rather than divisive trend,” he says.
Whether the threats come from white extremists or Islamist-inspired radicals, whether the incidents are coordinated or not, the work of twisted lone wolves or organized hate groups, or even some foreign mischief maker – the result has been disruption, alarm and division. The gulf between liberal Jewish leaders and the administration has widened while many Jewish liberals, and even some conservatives, are struggling to find a safe space within their respective camps.
Elliot Jager is the author of a forthcoming book on the Balfour Declaration, which marks its 100th anniversary in November. Twitter #Jagerfile