The great anti-Semitism panic of 2017
I'm not insensitive to anti-Semitism. Despite growing up in Jew-friendly New York City, I experienced my share of it—kids throwing rocks at my Jewish Day School bus, anti-Semitic graffiti on our home's fence, among other incidents. And as Volokh Conspiracy readers know, I've blogged quite a bit about anti-Semitism. I've mostly written about anti-Semitism coming from the far left, but I'm not at all naive about the existence and virulence of anti-Semitism on the far right.
Nevertheless, I've been rather taken aback by the panic in the Jewish community over American anti-Semitism since Donald Trump won the election. The recent spate of hoax bombing threats to Jewish community centers and other Jewish institutions around the country has been a precipitating factor, but the fear is drastically out of proportion to the threat; no bombs have been found, and there are no indications that there is any real physical threat to Jews. By contrast, in the past decade or so there have been actual murders at a JCC and a Jewish federation office without precipitating such panic.
It seems that much of the panic is in fact due to Trump, with the JCC threats seen as a potential first sign of the deteriorating status of American Jews. While Jews are the most-liked religious group in the United Sates, some degree of trepidation is not unreasonable. As Andrew Silow-Carroll points out,
Most Jews didn't vote for him, and regarded his campaign antics as particularly unsettling, from his appeal among white supremacists and ethno-nationalists to his willingness to exploit the country's racial and ethnic divides.
In his embrace of a fiercely chauvinistic "economic nationalism," White House strategist Steve Bannon represents something "unprecedented and inconceivable" in the minds of many Jews. Until Trump, resurgent nationalism seemed a problem for Europe, where economic malaise, fear of immigrants and the ghosts of the 20th century have combined into a particularly toxic brew on the right.
Yet, just looking at my Facebook feed, the origins of the fear bear only a tangential relationship to the actual Trump campaign. For example, I've lost track of how many times Jewish friends and acquaintances in my Facebook feed have asserted, as a matter of settled fact, that Bannon's website Breitbart News is a white-supremacist, anti-Semitic site. I took the liberty of searching for every article published at Breitbart that has the words Jew, Jewish, Israel or anti-Semitism in it, and can vouch for the fact that the website is not only not anti-Semitic, but often criticizes anti-Semitism (though it is quite ideologically selective in which types of anti-Semitism it chooses to focus on). I've invited Bannon's Facebook critics to actually look at Breitbart and do a similar search on the site, and each has declined, generally suggesting that it would be beneath them to look at such a site, when they already know it's anti-Semitic.
There is also a general sense among Jews, at least liberal Jews, that Trump's supporters are significantly more anti-Semitic than the public at large. I have many times asked for empirical evidence that supports this proposition, and have so far come up empty. I don't rule out the possibility that it's true, but there doesn't seem to be any survey or other evidence supporting it. Given that American subgroups with the highest proportions of anti-Semites—African Americans, first-generation Hispanic immigrants, Muslims and high school dropouts—are strong Democratic constituencies (though the latter group appears to have gone narrowly for Trump this time), one certainly can't simply presume that Trump has a disproportionate number of anti-Semitic supporters.
Often living in a blue bubble, liberal Jews easily can panic when they don't know anyone who voted for the other side's candidate(s), and can assume the worst about the other side's supporters. Indeed, liberal Jews tend to panic whenever "the right" is doing well in American politics. Consider this Wall Street Journal headline from exactly 22 years ago: "Religious Fervor: Some Liberal Jews, To Their Own Surprise, See a Rise in Bigotry—And, Unlike Many Orthodox, They're Concerned About The Right's New Power." The article elaborates:
These are anxious times for American Jews. Still reeling from the results of the November election, many liberal Jews are alarmed by the rise of the religious right. They are increasingly uncomfortable with verbal attacks by conservative commentators on the "cultural elite" and on "Hollywood," both of which they believe are code words for Jews. And they are shaken by well-publicized reports of neo-Nazi groups and of anti-Semitic violence by teenage "skinheads." Suddenly, secular Jews—for whom anti-Semitism was always something remote—are feeling a new vulnerability and wondering whether the political and religious tide is turning against them.
Remember the great anti-Semitic pogroms of 1995? Neither do I. To take another example, I'm not sure what, if anything, Philip Roth was trying to say with his 2004 book "The Plot Against America," but I know liberal Jewish reviewers welcomed it as a warning of the ever-present threat of anti-Semitic right-wing fascism looming over the United States in Republican-dominated America.
Meanwhile, Jewish "defense" groups, most prominently the Anti-Defamation League, have stoked the panic with wildly exaggerated rhetoric. Jonathan Greenblatt, a former Democratic politico who now runs the ADL, stated in November that the "American Jewish community … has not seen this level of anti-Semitism in mainstream political and public discourse since the 1930s." Among other omissions, Greenblatt must have slept through the George W. Bush administration, when mainstream "experts," mostly on the left, were claiming that the small number of Jews in the Bush administration had somehow manipulated the Gentiles running the administration into leading the United States into a war against Iraq to benefit Israel. Unlike the current anti-Semitic rhetoric coming from the neo-Nazi fringes, these allegations were coming from places such as the Harvard University and the University of Chicago faculties.
The ADL, though, has a strong self-interest in such exaggerated complaints. When Greenblatt took over the ADL from the long-serving Abraham Foxman, he announced that the younger generation among ADL's primary constituency, liberal, secular Jews, was no longer terribly interested in the issue of anti-Semitism, and instead wanted the ADL to focus on oppression more generally. The enthusiasm and fund-raising dollars were in supporting Black Lives Matter and transgender rights, not worrying about anti-Semitism on college campuses. One strongly suspects that this is because the threat of anti-Semitism was seen primarily as coming from the anti-Israel left. Trump created a wonderful entrepreneurial opportunity for the ADL to focus on what is naturally its core issue, anti-Semitism (and also to ensure that the more conservative Simon Wiesenthal Center, whose director was invited to give the invocation at Trump's inauguration, doesn't steal its thunder), by focusing on the threat from the right. The ADL's reticent donors are no longer reticent in the age of Trump, with the media reporting that donations have been pouring in since Trump's victory. It's therefore hardly in the ADL's interest to objectively assess the threat from Trump and his supporters. Indeed, I'm almost impressed that an ADL official managed just the other day to link the JCC bomb threats to emboldened white supremacists, even though the only suspect caught so far is an African American leftist. Meanwhile, Foxman has been a cooler head who has been telling people, "cool it, cool it."
Another group that has had a strong incentive to exaggerate the present threat of right-wing anti-Semitism is Jewish progressive activists. For the past decade or so, leftist Jews have increasingly found themselves excluded from progressive coalitions that not only take very harsh anti-Israel lines, but also have refused to take seriously anti-Semitism in their midst, suggesting that allegations of such anti-Semitism are mere covers for the "privilege" of "white Zionists." So long as the problem of American anti-Semitism was largely associated with anti-Zionism and far-left politics more generally, Jews were not permitted to be part of a coalition of the marginalized.
Lo and behold, along comes Trump, and left-wing Jewish activists are portraying Jews as one of the many groups threatened by him. Trump, and, more specifically, exaggerating the threat of anti-Semitism from Trump and his supporters, gives these Jews an opportunity to, for example, stand side by side with Muslim activists in opposing various "isms" and "phobias," rather than quarreling with them over Israel.
The irony of all this is that if you talk privately to those who work in the Jewish organization world, many will confide that the greatest threat to the security of the American Jewish community is "changing demographics," which is a euphemism for a growing population of Arab migrants to the United States. Anti-Semitism is rife in the Arab world, with over 80 percent of the public holding strongly anti-Semitic views in many countries. The issue of whether and to what extent the United States should expand refugee admissions is a complex one, and a potential rise in (potentially violent) anti-Semitism, at least in the short term until refugees and their families assimilate, is hardly the only factor to be considered. But it's surely a paradox that the groups and individuals who express the most public fear of potential anti-Semitism emanating from the Trump administration express little if any concern about the potential problems of admitting an untold number of refugees and immigrants from countries where extreme anti-Semitic sentiments are mundane.