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Like many other Jews—and non-Jews as well—many of my conversations since the atrocious Pittsburgh massacre on Shabbat Chayei Sarah, Nov. 3, 2018, have been about current antisemitism in the US and elsewhere, and how it relates to the long history of Jewish persecution. I’ve found that my views on this didn’t necessarily match those of friends and listserv acquaintances, even those who generally share my political perspectives, so I thought I’d share them here as well. Partners doesn’t have any particular view on anti-semitism (except that we absolutely oppose it, of course) so these should just be understood as my own musings on the matter. Comments are welcome at the end of this – and every – Israel Horizons article.
What struck me most about the massacre – apart from the unwelcome fact that it took place at all – was the apparently universal condemnation it received along with the widespread support for the Pittsburgh Jewish community it engendered, notably from Muslim groups. While I have no doubt at all that Donald Trump’s dog-whistles and outrageous comments (e.g., “very fine people on both sides”) have emboldened and encouraged people like Robert Bowers and his ilk, I am particularly intrigued how unlike the current reaction is to most other times in Jewish history, when powerful people and organizations were arrayed, covertly or overtly, against Jews, and antisemitism was open and unconcealed.
This period was well portrayed in a NY Times oped by James Kaplan that appeared on Nov. 9, which happened to be the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. The article was actually commemorating the 80th anniversary of the first performance of Irving Berlin’s song “God Bless America,” and the reception it received, which included infuriated denunciations by American Nazis (not yet “neo-“). While most Americans immediately loved it, a clearly visible fringe did not and, as the author notes, “the fringe was scarily close to the main fabric of American life in those prewar years. It was a time when Jews, even wealthy and famous Jews like Irving Berlin, had to watch their step…”
This is where our time decisively parts company with the 1930s, whether in the U.S., Germany, or most other places. We, as Jews, are not obliged to, nor should we, “watch our step.” While many of us seem to resist hearing that affirmation, for reasons I can only guess at, we are not guests at the US table who must watch our manners lest we be noticed and ejected. We are full-fledged members of the club because we fought for it and succeeded – and we should recognize that the antisemitism that clearly remains (as Pittsburgh horrendously showed us it does) pales in comparison with the prejudice, discrimination, and worse suffered regularly by African Americans, Muslims, Hispanics, and others, whether newly-arrived or not; or whether citizens, documented or otherwise.
I have heard all my life variations of “the German Jews too thought they were safe, and look what happened…” I reject the comparison, which reflects scant knowledge of that period. Jews were not only fewer (around 500,000 in 1933 Germany compared to about between 5.5. and 6.5 million in the US today), they were infinitely less integrated and accepted than we are. While I will leave statistics to the sociologists, there are very few bars, social or otherwise, to Jewish success today, while in pre-1933 Germany, despite seeming (for then) unprecedented acceptance, we can see that not only was antisemitism rife and open, but the social and other barriers were strewn everywhere, unlike today.
Perhaps most important is the curious fact that few of the most reactionary forces in the US today (the Koch brothers, for example, or other massive rightwing funders) are at all connected with any sort of antisemitism, or even are themselves vociferously Jewish (such as Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, the latter of whom will shortly receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I and most other progressives would indict the Kochs and Adelsons for any number of anti-social activities, but antisemitism is not among them. This may be contrasted to the German Junkers and industrialists of the 1920s and ‘30s, most of whom despised Jews and made no attempt to conceal it. Nor is there any group remotely comparable to the Nazi Party in the 1920s and ‘30s, for which antisemitism is a significant element. Rather, it is the lowlifes like Bowers who are the main carriers of the antisemitic virus in the US today, whose danger is hugely magnified by our criminally lax gun control laws.
Many, including me, are baffled by the undue attention and extreme demonization accorded George Soros, vilified internationally by the Right worldwide, including Bibi Netanyahu, another figure whose many sins do not include antisemitism. To my mind, Soros’s Jewishness is incidental to, not the cause of his demonization. He is, however, the only billionaire philanthropist who spreads his largesse to progressive political causes worldwide, and in my view it is his political effectiveness and not his Jewish identity that explains the fury with which the Right attacks him. I particularly enjoy a quote from Steve Bannon in the NY Times: “Soros is vilified because he is effective. … “I only hope one day I’m as effective as he has been — and as vilified.”
None of the above is meant to imply that antisemitism worldwide – or even in the US – is a spent force or not dangerous. Much of it today, though not by any means all, is connected with opposition to Israel and Zionism – but I don’t intend to set foot into that perennial quagmire here and now. Rates of antisemitic incidents in the US have risen lately – but my point is that it is invariably unaccompanied by support from the usual powerful forces except, albeit somewhat indirectly, from the one residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Of course, that by no means downplays the dangers of white nationalism to us and our fellow Americans, whether or not they include specific antisemitic manifestations.
Finally, I will freely acknowledge that my own geographical choices, and that of my parents, may have shielded me from antisemitic occurrences, whether due to ignorance or genuine antisemitism, that others may well have experienced. I grew up in New York City, and have lived most of my life there as well as in Berkeley, CA., Washington, D.C., and Jerusalem. Only in the latter location did I come very close to being blown up by a large bomb in the Hebrew University cafeteria during the Second Intifada, but that is a whole different subject. Others, who have grown up or lived in less Jewish-friendly environments have had their own experiences, which I absolutely do not belittle or downplay. Obviously, both their experiences and the views they formed, as well as mine, are part of current reality.
In my view, any serious identity is liable to become grounds for attacks on those who visibly wear it – and the Jewish experience of being on the receiving end of such attacks during the last 2000 years is probably unparalleled. Nevertheless, history is not destiny, and I contend that our here and now is very different from other times and places, that antisemitism is not a virus carried in the bloodstream but a social attitude, and that such attitudes may and do change fundamentally over time. I will never proclaim “It can’t happen here,” but I think it’s clear it is not happening here. If conditions change, I will eat my words, but I doubt very much I’ll ever have to do so.
All in all, I think the response of Jews and others to the dangerous trends of the last few years have generally been appropriate – and reasonably effective. I am proud that 76% of Jews voted Democratic in the midterms, and I am heartened that some of the mainstream Jewish organizations have been willing to take more courageous stands than in the past. Jews have an inside-outside relationship with American society, and we need to continue to use it to expand – and not contract – that space.
Paul Scham is Research Associate Professor of Israel Studies and Executive Director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland. He coordinated Jewish-Palestinian joint research projects at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from 1996-2002
I concur with what you write as regards Jews, but as I’ve said elsewhere, I think the challenge in our time is to recognize the parallels to the1930s when we are not the group most threatened.
Perhaps I am missing something, but I don’t see why this article might be seen as “controversial.” I see it as a nicely written commentary that conveys a historically and politically accurate perspective on Anti-Semitism. Well done, Paul.
Paul: I need to think more about this. My immediate reaction is that you’ve correctly summarized the current situation but that the long-term depends on whether Trumpism endures or fades. The divisiveness that Trump has let loose will not be easily reversed. Jews have been scapegoats throughout history and the angriest of Trump’s supporters need someone to blame for the loss of the socio-economic setting which they regard as their birthright. Neo-Nazism is one of several
ideological strains competing for their allegiance. I hope that it will lose its appeal when Trump leaves the scene. Repairing the divisions in our society will not be quick or easy work, however.
Thanks to Chaia, Ken, and Norm for your comments. Chaia, I think that’s well put, though a lot of Jews on the Right, taking their cue from Bibi and others of his ilk, are making explicit comparisons between our age and the 1930s- for us though of course they see the real danger from the Left; Pittsburgh put a minor dent in that, but they’re trying to gloss over it. Ken, I’m glad you see it as non-controversial, but this article had its genesis in a leftist listserv discussion in which I was very much in the minority in making these arguments. I have since sometimes gotten the feeling that many Jews hold tightly to our history of persecution and feel very uncomfortable with the argument that our position in the US IS very different from any previous society,. I m assuming we will get some assertions that I’m being pollyannish.
Norm, the most solid part of Trump’s base is the mass of evangelicals who support him, seemingly come what may. They are also overtly philosemitic – though their preferred Jew is a West Bank settler, not an American liberal. A lot of people think this will change and they will turn against us when the wind shifts. I have no idea, but I don’t see that happening soon. I don’t think Trump cares about Jews one way or the other, but he knows that Bibi is an important ally against Iran – and he knows that people like Adelson are important in fundraising. Thus, between the evangelicals, Bibi, and Adelson (and their hangers-on, which include the State of Israel) Trump has every reason to maintain his putative philosemitism for the foreseeable future.
My point, to reemphasize, isn’t that it can’t happen here but rather that it isn’t happening here – that Pittsburgh is not a symptom but an aberration. Of course any number of unexpected things could (and will!) happen – and some might tear down this argument. But for now, I think the lachrymose vein of Jewish history is essential to remember but not particularly relevant to our situation in the US today, i.e., the here and now. But I think many knowledgeable Jews would dispute that.
The commentary and response is at least as interesting as this insightful blog itself. Within the context of Thanksgiving, this makes for provocative reading. I agree that we should be thankful for the post-Pittsburgh support we have received (and I thank you for pointing this out again – it can’t be done too often, especially the support Jews received from the Muslim community). But should we also be thankful that we are mostly white and not first-generation refugees or from another, more hated group? (You didn’t suggest that, Paul, but I am raising the ante here.) We need to respond to xenophobia, discrimination and outright hatred not only because we are increasingly its victim these days, but also because most of us belong to the more privileged sectors of society. Our responsibilities to promore basic human dignity, justice and social cohesion are as important as ever.
We can’t congrol history in terms of whether Pittsburgh will remain an aberration or not, but in small ways we can influence history and this blog is a welcome contribution thereto.
Most evangelical Christians who support Israel (though not necessarily Jews), do so for theological reasons, not because they are philo-Semitic. They don’t have any intrinsic interest in Jews as people. The basis of their interest is biblical and personal. They believe that God gave the land of Israel and Gaza and the West Bank/Palestinian Territories to Abraham and God’s chosen people/Jews as their homeland. And they believe that the end times will not start and Jesus will not return until the Jewish homeland is returned to the Jews. They also believe that in the end times Jews will either convert and accept Jesus as their savior or not be saved.
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Surely part of the reason the synagogue murders generated so much sympathy and support is because for us now the holocaust has happened, and because history has taught us to see scattered anti-Semitism (which might not be abhorred universally) as a slippery slope to genocide (which is). Also it’s my impression from readings that in Germany at least Jews were well assimilated, and there wasn’t really the makings of so simple a slippery slope even there in the mere prevailing animus toward Jews. I think mainly the slope was engineered by the Nazi state, and I don’t see support for the Jewish community as preventative. It may well be right that race hatred fuels a transformation to autocracy, but I don’t suppose it has to toward Jews, and it seems such a transformation must be much nearer to underway with respect to immigrants from Latin American. If I could feel confident that as much sympathy and solidarity that we recently saw expressed for Pittsburgh Jews existed and could be mobilized for the caravan refugees, I’d find more comfort in it.
My thanks for the reminder that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing” (John Stuart Mill).
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