Why Anti-Semitism Is on the Rise in the United States
My grandmother Sarah would not have been surprised by the upsurge in anti-Semitism during the past few years. “Scratch a goy, you’ll find an anti-Semite,” she used to say, using the Yiddish word for non-Jew. I didn’t agree with her, but I understood where she was coming from—both geographically and psychologically.
She was born in Lithuania around 1883 and immigrated to the United States as a young girl. Her family left Eastern Europe to escape the violent pogroms against Jews. They arrived in the United States to discover that anti-Semitism—including the violent variety—existed here, too.
For centuries, Jews have confronted discrimination, persecution, and slaughter—during the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, and the Holocaust. Most Jews came to the United States to escape anti-Semitism, including the largest wave who fled Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Still, Jews also faced physical violence in United States, including the lynching of Leo Frank outside Atlanta in 1915, the attacks on Jews by American Nazis and other street thugs during the 1930s and 1940s, and the bombings of synagogues in response to Jews’ support for the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
Now we’re facing a new wave of overt anti-Semitism, including violence against Jews. We saw it in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, where white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Jew haters chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans, wore uniforms with swastikas, and killed a counter-protester. In October 2018, a man stormed the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh armed with a semi-automatic rifle and three semi-automatic pistols. He fired all four weapons, killing eleven Jews at worship. Six months later, in April 2019, a man armed with a rifle fired shots inside the Chabad synagogue in Poway, near San Diego, killing one woman and injuring three others, including the synagogue’s rabbi. In December, attackers killed three people at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey. A few weeks later, on the seventh night of Hanukkah, a man entered the home of an Orthodox Jewish family in Monsey, New York, pulled out a machete, and stabbed five worshippers.
According to the New York City Police Department, more than half of the 423 reported hate crimes in the city last year were directed at Jews. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), there were 1,879 attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions in the United States in 2018, the third-highest year on record since it began tracking such data in the 1970s. In addition to violent attacks, the last few years have also witnessed the vandalizing of hundreds of Jewish gravestones in Pennsylvania and Missouri and anti-Semitic graffiti painted on the walls of synagogues and other Jewish institutions.
Few Jews today would use my grandmother’s words to explain the resurgence of blatant anti-Semitism, but every Jew knows that while overt acts of Jew hatred wax and wane over time, anti-Semitism is always somewhere below the surface. American culture has long been replete with widespread (and contradictory) anti-Semitic stereotypes—that Jews are Communists, part of a global banking cabal, control the media and Hollywood, or engage in unscrupulous business practices.
A national poll conducted in 1939 found that 53 percent viewed Jews as “different” from other Americans. About 32 percent believed that “measures should be taken to prevent Jews from getting too much power in the business world.” Nearly 10 percent favored their deportation.
Over time, these numbers have decreased. Polls sponsored by the ADL found that 29 percent of Americans held anti-Semitic views in 1964. That figure dropped to 20 percent by 1992 and 12 percent in 2009. Although, in 2016, the latest year for which we have data, there was a slight increase to 14 percent.
But if the number of Americans who hold anti-Semitic views has generally been declining, why has there been an uptick in anti-Semitic hate crimes in recent years?
Overt anti-Semitism comes in many varieties. Most prevalent in the United States during the twentieth century was the “polite” anti-Semitism of the Protestant upper class. They not only kept their social distance from Jews but also used their power to adopt college quotas against Jewish students and restrictive covenants to keep Jews out of certain neighborhoods. They discriminated against hiring Jews in certain industries and barred them from certain country clubs, hotels, and private schools, as depicted in the 1947 Oscar-winning film Gentlemen’s Agreement. These forms of anti-Semitism began to wane after the Second World War, but they didn’t disappear. The “No Dogs, No Coloreds, No Jews” sign at the Baltimore Country Club in Maryland didn’t come down until 1970.
Unlike the Protestant upper-class, middle- and working-class Americans who harbored anti-Semitic views lacked the economic and political influence to exclude Jews. They usually kept their attitudes to themselves, but occasionally they turned to violence. When that occurs, we must look to sociological, economic, and political factors, including the anger and insecurity that comes from hard times and demographic changes, the rise of media that make it easier to spread messages of hate, and the use of anti-Semitic stereotypes and scapegoating by political leaders.
Another variant is the anti-Semitism rooted in Catholic theology, which viewed Jews as “Christ killers.” Radio broadcaster and priest Charles Coughlin played on this during the Depression, with his message resonating particularly among Irish Catholics. Irish street gangs were among the most aggressive assailants of Jews in the first half of the twentieth century, as James T. Farrell depicted in his 1939 novella, Tommy Gallagher’s Crusade. It wasn’t until the Catholic bishops gathered for a second Vatican Council in 1963 that this canard against Jews was removed, but it persisted among many Catholics.
There’s also a strain of anti-Semitism in northern black culture. These attitudes accelerated from the 1940s through the 1970s, as African Americans moved into urban neighborhoods that were once predominantly Jewish, often because of bank redlining and real-estate blockbusting that exploited Jewish fears and black desperation. As the demographics of these neighborhoods changed, many Jewish shopkeepers and landlords remained, contributing to both black anti-Semitism and Jewish anti-black racism. “When we were growing up in Harlem, our demoralizing series of landlords were Jewish, and we hated them,” wrote James Baldwin in a 1967 essay. “The butcher was a Jew and, yes, we certainly paid more for bad cuts of meat than other New York citizens, and we very often carried insults home, along with the meat. We bought our clothes from a Jew and, sometimes, our secondhand shoes, and the pawnbroker was a Jew—perhaps we hated him most of all.” The following year, black-Jewish tensions erupted in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where the Jewish-dominated teachers’ union and black community leaders clashed over control of the hiring and firing of teachers in predominantly black schools.
Ironically, during the 1950s and 1960s, Jewish support for the civil rights movement and racial integration led angry Southern segregationists to bomb synagogues and rabbis’ homes.
Most African Americans don’t harbor antipathy toward Jews, but the comments of some black leaders—such as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s routine depiction of Jews as responsible for the slave trade, plantation slavery, Jim Crow, sharecropping, and the oppression of African Americans—are hard to ignore.
One of the assailants in the Jersey City shooting reportedly published anti-Semitic posts online and was linked to the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, a hate group that has no ties to mainstream Judaism and is a small fringe group within the black community. Grafton E. Thomas, the black assailant, of the Orthodox Jews in Monsey, reportedly kept a journal that contained references to Hitler and Nazis as well as terms associated with the Black Hebrew Israelite movement.
Despite these incidents, African Americans and Jews generally share common political views. In 2008, for example, 78 percent of Jewish voters embraced Barack Obama—a higher proportion than any other ethnic or religious group except black voters, at least 90 percent of whom voted for Obama (compared to 43 percent of white voters). In the 2018 midterm elections, Jewish and black voters led the “blue wave” that swept in a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives; 79 percent of Jews and 90 percent of African Americans supported Democratic candidates compared with only 44 percent of all white voters.
The biggest threat to Jews today are not wealthy WASPs, working-class Catholics, or low-income African Americans, but white supremacist groups—whose members are distinct from but sometimes overlap with white evangelical Christians—that have grown in number and audacity in the last few years.
It is no accident that anti-Semitic incidents have spiked since Donald Trump began campaigning for president in 2015. While Trump takes umbrage at being called an anti-Semite—“I’m the least anti-Semitic person you’ve ever seen,” he’s said on several occasions—his use of anti-Semitic stereotypes has emboldened Jew-haters. He verbalizes, encourages, enables, tolerates, winks at, and makes excuses for anti-Semitism, most notably when he said that some of the Nazis marching in Charlottesville in 2017 were “good people.”
Anti-Semitic comments on social media skyrocketed after Trump announced his campaign. An ADL report uncovered more than 2.6 million tweets with anti-Semitic comments and images from August 2015 to July 2016—a huge upsurge from the previous year. Many of the commenters identified themselves as Trump supporters or Clinton haters, and many of the tweets (including death threats) were directed at Jewish journalists who had been critical of Trump.
Trump has consistently used anti-Semitic stereotypes in his business and political careers. In July 2016, during his campaign, Trump tweeted a graphic borrowed from 8chan, a website frequented by white supremacists, showing Hillary Clinton against a backdrop of $100 bills. Inside a six-pointed red star (clearly the Star of David) were the words, “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!”
In a speech in October 2016, Trump claimed that “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors.” He didn’t need to use the word “Jew” in order to evoke the sort of global banking cabal familiar to anyone who has read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the anti-Semitic forgery that has fueled anti-Jewish violence for over a century. Trump’s comments were not an off-hand remark. The speech was designed to fire up Trump’s white nationalist supporters. Trump’s frequent references at campaign rallies and during the debates to Sidney Blumenthal, George Soros, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz—Jewish supporters of Hillary Clinton—were also no accident.
In December 2015, in a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Trump said, “I’m a negotiator like you folks, we are negotiators. . . . Is there anybody that doesn’t renegotiate deals in this room? This room negotiates them—perhaps more than any other room I’ve ever spoken in.” Digging himself deeper, Trump added: “And I know why you’re not going to support me. You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. Isn’t it crazy? You want to control your own politician.”
In Trump’s final campaign video, a clear appeal to anti-Semitism, he warned of “those who control the levers of power in Washington” and of “global special interests” who “partner with these people who don’t have your good in mind,” while pictures flashed of Hillary Clinton and three Jews: Soros, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.
Trump’s rants about immigrants “invading” the United States are also tied to the long-standing anti-Semitic slur that Jews have conspired to destroy America by encouraging mass immigration by non-white people. These racist fears are the origin of the slogan “Jews will not replace us,” chanted by the white supremacists who marched with Nazi flags and torches in Charlottesville. In 2018, Trump baselessly accused Democrats of encouraging a caravan of refugees to seek entry into the United States, while his close ally Matt Gaetz, a Florida congressman, accused philanthropist George Soros, who is a Jew and a Democrat, of funding the caravan.
The killers who went on rampages at two different synagogues in the past year and a half echoed this canard about Jews plotting to promote non-white immigration. Before he entered the Pittsburgh synagogue, Robert Gregory Bowers posted a message online attacking HIAS (originally called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), a Jewish nonprofit group that was helping bring refugees from Syria and Afghanistan to the United States. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” he wrote. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.” John T. Earnest, the attacker at the Poway synagogue, wrote “I would die a thousand times over to prevent the doomed fate that the Jews have planned for my race” on an anti-Semitic message board. “Every Jew is responsible for the meticulously planned genocide of the European race. They act as a unit, and every Jew plays his part to enslave the other races around him—whether consciously or subconsciously. Their crimes are endless.”
“We have a president who talks about ‘hordes’ and ‘swarms’ and all sorts of other things about immigrants,” explained Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory University historian, to a reporter for Vox. “This stuff has been around for a long time . . . but now lots of the barriers are down, and now people feel like they can say it and they can do things.”
In December, speaking at the Israeli American Council in Hollywood, Florida, Trump doubled down on his use of anti-Semitic stereotypes. “A lot of you are in the real estate business, because I know you very well. You’re brutal killers, not nice people at all,” he said. “But you have to vote for me—you have no choice. You’re not gonna vote for Pocahontas, I can tell you that. You’re not gonna vote for the wealth tax. Yeah, let’s take 100 percent of your wealth away!”
Trump’s ugly words reflected his frustration that Jews are not lining up to support his re-election. In the 2016 election, only 24 percent of Jews voted for him. Recent polls show that, next to African Americans, Jews remain the most anti-Trump of all religious and ethnic groups. Moreover, 71 percent of Jews disapprove of the way he has handled anti-Semitism. Similar numbers of Jews disapprove of Trump’s handling of family separations at the Mexican border (78 percent), DACA recipients (74 percent), guns (74 percent), and banning immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries (66 percent). Only 23 percent said they support him.
Jews are only 2 percent of the U.S. population, but they are a convenient scapegoat for different kinds of haters, especially during hard times and periods of rapid change and social upheaval. During the past decade, social media has amplified the voices of white supremacists and anti-Semites, but it is Trump who has lent them legitimacy and emboldened them to come out of the shadows. His racist comments offer encouragement to these hate groups to also target black and Latinx people, immigrants, and other vulnerable populations. The spike in shootings at black churches, mosques, and LGBT institutions have paralleled the rise of violence against Jews.
“As anti-Semitism has surged from the internet into the streets, President Trump has done too little to rouse the national conscience against it,” the New York Times observed in an April 2019 editorial. “Society in recent years has shown healthy signs of increased sensitivity to other forms of bigotry, yet somehow anti-Semitism can often still be dismissed as a disease gnawing only at the fringes of society,” the Times wrote. “That is a dangerous mistake. As recent events have shown, it is a very mainstream problem.”
We don’t need to know the political affiliations or psychological profile of each person who engages in an act of anti-Semitism, or where they picked up their hatred of Jews. That’s like looking into the individual background and mental condition of each mass shooter, rather than asking why we have such a strong gun culture. Like anti-Semitism, it is part of our society. Although we’ve seen an overall decline in support for so-called “gun rights” and Americans who hold anti-Semitic views, there will always be people who love guns and hate Jews. But we can adopt policies that make it harder to obtain assault weapons and that punish the perpetrators of overt hate crimes.
What’s concerning is that the rise of organized hate could outlast Trump’s presidency. Even in the unlikely scenario that Trump fades away into the shadows, he has inspired and emboldened an alt-right racist and anti-Semitic infrastructure that won’t likely retreat into the relative obscurity it inhabited before Trump became president. That will require our civic, business, labor, and religious leaders, and elected officials, to mobilize the political will to challenge the overlapping evils of gun violence, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism.
Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College. His most recent book is We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style (New Press), co-edited with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin.