Keep Dreaming: Antisemitism, moral obscurity and the Zionist imperative

Zionist ethos requires nothing less of us than a clarion call to eschew such ethical ambiguity, condemning the virulent racism and Jew-hatred that is the anathema of white supremacy.

White nationalist protesters at the protest in Charlottesville (photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS)
White nationalist protesters at the protest in Charlottesville
(photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS)
There is no antisemitism in America. Just ask my niece.
“Uncle David, there were kids in my senior high who lied on their college applications claiming they were Jewish because they thought it would help them get accepted,” she told me at the end of her Birthright trip, explaining why she still didn’t understand the need for a Jewish state even after 10 days here.
“They think you’re smarter and that you’re going to get richer,” she added for good measure and almost had me convinced. Until Charlottesville.
The truth is, I really had come to believe that antisemitism in the United States was nothing more than an inconsequential irritant that was probably best treated by being ignored. Indeed, there was a moment earlier this year during the rash of bomb threats against Jewish community centers when I had my doubts, but they were dismissed with a sigh of relief when it was discovered that most of them had been issued by a psychologically unhinged Jewish teenager cloistered in Ashkelon, in the same Jewish state, ironically, that was to have eradicated the phenomenon of antisemitism altogether.
It turns out I wasn’t alone in my estimation. Various studies over the years have indicated that a growing number of American Jews believe antisemitism is simply not a problem; up from only 5% in 2000 to 26% in 2016, according to the latest poll published by the American Jewish Committee.
Not alone, but still in the minority. That same AJC survey revealed that 21% of America’s Jews believe it’s a serious problem and 52% somewhat of a problem, meaning nearly three-quarters believe it to be an issue to be confronted. The ADL not only concurs, but has recently published data indicating the phenomenon is on the rise, reporting an increase of 3% in antisemitic incidents from 2014 to 2015 – before President Trump was elected and before the series of hoax phone calls began.
Where have I been since 1977? That was the year when Frank Collin, head of the Nationalist Socialist Party of America, announced his intention to lead his rank-and-file on a march through Skokie, Illinois, dressed in swastika-adorned uniforms and carrying Nazi flags.
Despite the shock waves caused by the American Civil Liberties Union’s successful appeal to the Supreme Court to intervene and allow the NSPA to hold its rally after it had been denied that right by the city of Chicago, the demonstration ultimately fizzled into a non-event. Fewer than two dozen of Collin’s neo-Nazi followers actually assembled when called upon to do so at the end of the legal battle and they dispersed after less than 15 minutes.
I thought that was the end of it. But Collin’s vituperation at the time has evidently lived on, festering in the recesses of hatred harbored by others as evil as himself. Listening to his words today, in the aftermath of Charlottesville, sends shivers down the spine and outrages the soul.
“The man I’m trying to get now is a fanatic,” he intones on YouTube. “I want people in the party who are willing to die for the movement... If you are not willing to kill, if you are not willing to shoot somebody for your ideals, you don’t really believe in them.”
That was two decades before 20-year-old neo-Nazi terrorist James Fields plowed his car into civil rights activist Heather Heyer last weekend, murdering her. Appallingly, there are those around today who view themselves as did Collin: “I just see myself as a soldier doing his duty to his fuhrer and his commander. I believe that Adolf Hitler prepared the philosophy of National Socialism, which is nothing more than white unity actually... and I figure I’m just following orders.”
Those exposed most frequently and most directly to this hatred are Jewish students on college campuses. According to recent studies conducted by Brandeis University and Trinity College, 54% of Jewish students nationwide have witnessed or experienced antisemitism themselves, with that figure reaching an even more shocking 73% among some segments of this cohort.
The situation has become problematic enough so as to prompt The Algemeiner to publish for the first time a survey of “The 40 Worst Colleges for Jewish Students, 2016,” based on an assessment of the overall degree of hostility toward Jews on campus.
According to the surveys, “the most Jewishly engaged students, including those who were more closely connected to Israel, are the most likely to perceive hostility toward Jews and Israel on their campus.” The researchers further note that “regardless of which school students attend, and how much anti-Israel sentiment they perceive, a significant minority of Jewish undergraduates are uncomfortable expressing their opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and “often feel silenced in debates about this topic.”
On those campuses “where the majority of Jewish students perceive a hostile environment toward Israel, and over one-quarter perceive a general environment of hostility toward Jews... it appears that the high rates of antisemitic harassment and hostility are largely driven by hostility toward Israel.”
Such findings underscore the responsibility that we in Israel have to speak out on the matter. This month we will be marking 120 years since the First Zionist Congress. At the time, Theodor Herzl postulated that the establishment of the Zionist movement – by heralding the normalization of the Jewish people – would in and of itself bring about an end to antisemitism, even before the Jewish state he envisioned would come into being. Obviously he was wrong.
Still, however fabricated the connection between Israel’s policies and the rise in antisemitism may be, if we indeed see ourselves as the nation-state of the Jewish people, we have a moral obligation to condemn forcefully and unequivocally the hatred targeting our brethren wherever they might be.
That duty rests first and foremost on the shoulders of our prime minister, who has stated repeatedly that he sees himself, by virtue of his position, as having been “entrusted with the awesome responsibility of ensuring the future of the Jewish people,” pledging that “no matter what pressure is brought to bear, I will never waver in fulfilling that responsibility.”
While this particular citation is from Netanyahu’s 2014 address at the United Nations, and was directed primarily toward Iran, Jews everywhere deserve to be reassured that the declaration applies not only to waging battle against the nuclear threat of an enemy pledged to our destruction, but also against the venom unleashed by the fanatic fringe in a friendly country.
My niece may or may not be correct about the advantages of being Jewish when applying to college, but she needs to know that once accepted, the Jewish state that she doesn’t understand the need for will do everything within its power to protect her.
While her president may be bogged down in a morass of moral obscurity, the Zionist ethos requires nothing less of us than a clarion call to eschew such ethical ambiguity, condemning the virulent racism and Jew-hatred that is the anathema of white supremacy.
The writer is deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a member of the Zionist Executive, the worldwide Masorti/Conservative movement’s senior representative to Israel’s national institutions and the founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational Center. The views expressed are his own.
Yaakov Katz’s column will return next week.