Contemporary American anti-Semitism
Contemporary American anti-Semitism

Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Alvin Rosenfeld

“While American history is not free of anti-Semitism, there is a substantial contrast to the situation of Jews in several European countries today. American Jews do not typically encounter any ongoing, seriously threatening anti-Jewish hostility. Unlike Jewish residents of Christian and Muslim lands who suffered over the centuries from more systematic intolerance and persecution, Jews in the U.S. have never faced large-scale pogroms or other organized forms of mass violence.

“In earlier decades, social anti-Semitism restricted Jews from certain forms of employment, residential areas, some universities, social clubs, holiday resorts and so on. By and large, such discriminatory exclusion of Jews no longer exists in the U.S. Acts of aggression against individual Jews and Jewish institutions occasionally occur, but these tend to be episodic and not chronic or continuous.

"The great majority of American Jews go about their daily lives without having to deal with overt antagonism directed against them. They are however aware of the upsurge of anti-Semitism elsewhere in the world. One cannot take for granted that America will remain immune from such hatreds.”

Professor Alvin H. Rosenfeld holds the Irving M. Glazer Chair in Jewish Studies at Indiana University and is Director of the university’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism. He has written widely on the Holocaust, Jewish literature, and anti-Semitism.

“A few previously unknown or marginal figures, mostly affiliated with the newly vocal white supremacist movement, are currently running for political office and have made outrageously anti-Semitic statements. They are always quickly denounced by their political parties for doing so. Yet the fact that they have a public platform at all for voicing wild conspiracy theories about Jewish “power” and other anti-Jewish canards seems to reflect a weakening of the taboos previously in place against the open expression of Jew-hatred. Alert to these hostile developments abroad and, now, also to some degree at home, many American Jews live with feelings of social and political unease that are new to most of them.

“According to annual reports by the FBI, Jews are the most targeted religious group in America. By contrast, the most recent Pew poll found that Jews are also the most admired religious group in the country. The picture is thus mixed. The most recent report of the Anti-Defamation League records a 57% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 over the previous year. Some 1,986 events and activities were directed against Jews and Jewish institutions. The numbers are troubling, although almost all incidents involved acts of vandalism and verbal abuse and not physical assaults.

“Campuses are probably the main areas of anti-Semitism. America has over 4,000 colleges and universities. The great majority of these are free of chronic anti-Semitic activities and anti-Israel incitement. However, at some of the country’s more elite universities, especially on the east and west coasts, BDS, Israel Apartheid Week, and other manifestations of extreme antagonism to Zionism and Israel take place. This has introduced what many observers see as a hostile environment for Jewish students, faculty members, and others.

“Such antagonisms, when they occur, are never campus-wide. They tend to originate among activist students and some faculty members within several humanities and social science departments. Campus science departments, business schools, medical schools, agricultural colleges, etc., are rarely, if ever, hospitable to such hostility. Activists include people in some radicalized Muslim student organizations, left-wing political groups, Jewish Voice for Peace, and others allied with these.

The so-called ‘alt-right’ refers to a loose, diverse, and still amorphous collection of white populist and nationalist groups. They range from Ku Klux Klan and overt Nazi groups, which are proudly anti-Semitic, to less militant and to date, less openly anti-Semitic white ‘pride’ groups. All bear watching.
“White nationalist and white supremacist groups have long existed on the margins of American society. More recently, they have felt emboldened and are making efforts, as in the much-publicized Charlottesville rally, to enter the mainstream. Their numbers are small, but they have an active on-line existence and, more recently, a negligible but visible public presence. The so-called ‘alt-right’ refers to a loose, diverse, and still amorphous collection of white populist and nationalist groups. They range from Ku Klux Klan and overt Nazi groups, which are proudly anti-Semitic, to less militant and to date, less openly anti-Semitic white ‘pride’ groups. All bear watching.

“There is no well-defined, well-organized ‘left wing’ in the U.S as in the European model. Yet some Americans who identify as political ‘progressives,’ including numbers of Jews, devote a lot of time and energy to actively opposing Israel’s present government, policies, and actions. At their most extreme, as in Jewish Voice for Peace, they are passionately and determinedly ‘anti-Zionist.’ They oppose Israel’s very existence as a Jewish majority state. They often collaborate, on campuses and elsewhere, with BDS supporters and other extreme anti-Israel and sometimes, anti-Semitic political allies. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish anti-Israelism is a minor affair and lacks any appreciable political weight.

“As far as Muslims are concerned, their current presence in America is relatively small. For the most part they are not apt to take to the streets, as in Paris, London, and elsewhere in large and hostile anti-Israel demonstrations. From time to time, imams in some American mosques voice extreme Jihadist sentiments, sometimes even calling for the death of Jews and the destruction of Israel. A number of such events have been recorded by the MEMRI organization. To date, these voices seem untypical and unrepresentative of majority American Muslim sentiment.

“Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam is one of America’s most vocal and tireless antisemites. He persists in giving speeches about ‘Satanic Jews,’ Jewish ‘evil’ and “corruption.” Farrakhan is more than a minor irritant but also less than a major influence. His immediate following in Chicago is not large. Yet it is possible that some of those who hear his impassioned words may be sympathetic to his calls to put an end to the Jews and may be inclined to act on those ideas.

“One has to realize that America is a polarized society. That divisiveness long precedes President Trump. There is no doubt that it has increased since he took office. There are many social, cultural, religious, anti-religious, economic and political reasons for these sharp and angry divisions. It would be simplistic and wrong to pin them all on the present incumbent in the White House. Nevertheless, he is an extremely unconventional political leader and has introduced an angry, hostile, often aggressive rhetoric into mainstream discourse. Many others now do the same. As a result, the social and political climate is overwrought.

“To date, President Trump’s policies toward Israel have been extremely supportive. His recognition of Jerusalem as its capital and the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem were diplomatically bold and courageous steps. Most American Jews, but by no means all, favor these actions.

“American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal in their political attitudes, do not favor President Trump, and many are also at odds with Netanyahu and Israeli policies. This is especially the case with Reform and secular Jews. Most Conservative Jews and Orthodox Jews appreciate President Trump’s stance toward Israel and applaud the diplomatic moves he has taken to date. At the same time, he is a mercurial political leader, and there is some concern about his next moves regarding Israel and other nations in the Middle East.

“Liberal anti-Israelism is a prominent force. Its presence, especially within the left wing of the Democratic party and among younger Jews, is growing. American Jews are badly split along both religious and political lines. One can no longer speak of anything like a unified American Jewish ‘community.’ As poll after poll reveals, the fracture lines are obvious. Among the splits, conflicting attitudes among American Jews toward the Jewish state have intensified and are especially worrisome. To date, no American Jewish leader of any stature has emerged to address these divisions in any compelling and healing way. That’s very much needed, but I see no signs of it happening anytime soon.”