(JTA) — The “fear itself” thing? FDR was on to something.
The rash of JCC bomb threats and cemetery desecrations, combined with a general sense that the country is becoming more intolerant, has Jews on edge in ways they haven’t been in years. The head of a major American Jewish organization wrote to me that the recent outbreak of anti-Semitic activity “is the worst America has seen since the 1930s.” (It’s not.)
Ronald Lauder of the World Jewish Congress has declared that “in recent weeks and months we have witnessed an unprecedented and inconceivable escalation of anti-Semitic acts in the United States” — again, an exaggeration.
The stats, tracked rigorously but narrowly by the Anti-Defamation League and haphazardly by the FBI, aren’t in for 2016 or early 2017, the period covering the presidential campaign and that presumably would include the kinds of “spikes” many would like to attribute to Donald Trump’s racially and ethnically charged campaign and emboldening of the “alt-right.”
One of the more worrisome accountings came from the NYPD, which found that anti-Semitic incidents were up 94 percent in the city over this time last year, with 35 anti-Semitic incidents reported in January and February.
But such numbers don’t yet point to an “unprecedented and inconceivable escalation” in anti-Semitism. And they don’t take into account the counter-evidence, like a Pew study that found that Jews are the most “warmly” regarded religious group in the U.S. (“Great news!” said parents and staff huddled outside an evacuated JCC). Or the acts of kindness and concern that followed many of the attacks, from Muslims raising money to restore a vandalized cemetery to the unanimous Senate letter urging the White House to boost security measures at Jewish institutions and assure the investigation and punishment of hate crimes.
Nor can it be overlooked that American Jews are as comfortable and accepted as they have ever been in history. No school, no neighborhood and no profession is off limits. Jews are over-represented in politics, academia and media. Even the high rate of intermarriage is a sign of social acceptance of Jews. Unlike many parts of Europe, where armed guards protect synagogues and observant Jewish men often hide their kippot under caps, American Jews can be out, proud and as loud as they want to be.
But the numbers and sociology can’t account for the way Jews feel, and right now many are not feeling good. The high levels of Jewish anxiety owe to a combination of the commander in chief, the political mood, the nature of the JCC attacks and the media.
Let’s start with President Trump: 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.
Recent Republican and Democratic administrations alike gave at least lip service to the idea of America as a vivid tapestry in which people of all races, religions and nationalities are welcome. Bannon, you’ll recall, is not just a foe of illegal immigration, but of legal immigration, which has “kinda overwhelmed the country,” as he said in a 2016 radio interview with (wait for it) Trump advisor and speechwriter Stephen Miller.
Even for those who believe Trump is the savior Israel has been waiting for, and who accept his disavowals of the alt-right, and who take him at his word that he is “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen,” it upset their assumptions about the Jewish position as a privileged minority when it took him so long to denounce the JCC threats and other anti-Semitic acts.
The nature of the JCC attacks are diabolically brilliant in their ability to unsettle Jews. I imagine a lone wolf or a team of hackers, armed with some cheap electronics and a motive to maximize mischief, working off an easy-to- find list of institutions with “Jewish” and “community” in their very names. There are far fewer JCCs than synagogues, but targeting JCCs assures you of hitting at least one easily identifiable Jewish institution in every consequential Jewish community across the country. I’m betting it’s only an unhappy accident that the hoaxer picked one of the few Jewish places that cuts across all movements and ideologies, and even attracts non-Jews to its fitness centers and childcare programs. That potentially puts every Jew on edge.
Coverage of these attacks, while unavoidable, also instills fear. As the editor of a Jewish news service, I feel implicated: What if in the name of informing the community, we are merely spreading anxiety? Readers rely on us to cover acts of anti-Semitism large and small. These include nasty anti-Zionist demonstrations on college campuses, grotesque internet “memes” originating with the alt-right and increasingly bizarre examples of swastika graffiti, including some carved in snow and one shaped out of human feces.
But do these various acts, in a country of over 300 million, represent a growing trend or salacious exceptions?
And what if we and the anti-Semitism watchdogs are wrong? What if the JCC attacks aren’t the vanguard of the New Anti-Semitism, but a weird and personal vendetta on the part of the hoaxer? Sure enough, Juan Thompson, a suspected copycat charged last week in at least eight of the JCC attacks, turns out to be an unhinged young man whose apparent motivation wasn’t even anti-Semitism but revenge on an old flame.
That doesn’t make the targeted Jew or Jewish institution feel any better. Fear has its own dynamic. JCCs aren’t talking about the members or preschool students they’ve lost as a result of the hoaxes, but word is getting out that the numbers might be significant. You can’t blame the families who just don’t need the tsurris, but you can look at your own behavior and ask in what ways you are making a bad situation worse.
So yes, we need strong enforcement of our hate crimes laws. And institutions that have the security they need. And careful monitoring of anti-Semitism in all its forms. And government leaders who have the backs of targeted minorities and pledge to defend the diversity of multicultural America.
But we also need a reminder that Jews have it pretty good here, and that we shouldn’t give too much power to a kid with a Sharpie, or a hacker with a speed-dial, or a disturbed, disgraced stalker. We have to stand up and say these institutions are ours, and we’re here to stay.