The emergence of violent anti-Semitism as a widespread American scourge can leave no Jews with warm thoughts about the year that just passed. Until October 2018, just 15 months ago, there had never been a fatal attack on a synagogue in the United States. Now there have been two such atrocities, another planned attack was averted by authorities, while a kosher market and then a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi’s home next door to his synagogue both were the scenes of fatalities in the recent weeks.
The year 2019 saw distressing developments of a situation we have been watching with trepidation for a while: the rise of anti-Semitism here in America, the growth of this cancer in a country which has, throughout its history, experienced only a relatively minor infection of this deviant disease native to Europe and other continents. While the organized American Jewish community has been seriously concerned with the rise of anti-Semitism on college campuses for years, with anti-Zionism used as cover for virulent anti-Semitism on the political left, the last three and a half years have seen a dramatic rise in violent anti-Semitism on the right, in the lunatic fringes of society, and on the internet.
We can no longer ignore it or pretend it will fade away or go back to hiding under the rocks it crawled out from under in recent years.
When I began my radio show, Too Jewish with Rabbi Sam Cohon and Friends, 17 years ago, my second guest was Professor Leonard Dinnerstein, author of what was then the most important book on the subject, “Anti-Semitism in America.” Dinnerstein, who died in January 2019, spoke about the decline of anti-Semitism, and his principal thesis was that Jews had never been more at home in America than we were back then, in 2002. When a caller asked about rising Muslim anti-Semitism in the United States he was dismissive of it. Jews had ascended to extraordinarily high places in America, he said, and being Jewish was no disability here anymore. In fact, we were in greater danger of being loved out of our existence as a separate people, sought after as desirable marriage partners by non-Jews throughout the country.
Back then, he was right. Anti-Semitism existed in America, but it was fading out in those places where it wasn’t already extinct. And being an anti-Semite meant social exclusion from most civilized circles.
Now jump forward 17 years to 2019. Realize that the first fatal attack in American history on a synagogue at prayer took place in October 2018 — and the second took place in April 2019, and that the attack on a Hanukkah party at the rabbi’s house next door to the synagogue, basically the same thing, took place Dec. 28, 2019.
And then note that virulently anti-Semitic traffic on the internet in less-public forums has increased dramatically in the past year, and gotten much more vicious. See that highly ranked public officials have slandered prominent Jews with anti-Semitic stereotyping, and that Jewish students have been accused of dual loyalty and been forced off university boards, and that all the weirdest, sickest, most vile and evil vilifications are being revived online and in other public forums. Pay attention to the fact that all this is happening not in Europe, where anti-Semitism is in the very soil of the continent, or around the Arab world, where hatred of Israel has turned every response to Jews into malicious public defamation. No, this is in the very country where we Jews experienced citizenship and freedom from the very first day of our nation’s existence, the land of the free and the home of the brave.
So what’s going on here?
As Pirkei Avot tells us, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without it we would swallow each other alive.” In the past couple of years the balance and control that the government is supposed to provide to our great nation has been upended, and attitudes and even policies of hatred and demonization have become standard issue. We have turned into a Twitter-oriented people, focused on the latest outrageous statement or accusation, a thrill-a-minute nation, unfiltered id exploding on our small screens. And we have apparently become very, very angry about almost everything.
My friends, whenever you release unfocused hatred in society as a motivation to control some issue or to serve your own political ends, you are unlikely to be able to control where it will be directed. Angry people are generally not rational people, and they will act to destroy anything that gets in their way or happens to cross their path. Mobs do not act with balance and discretion. They act stupidly, out of ignorance and the selfishness that emotional disruption and hostility breed: “I want to damage what I don’t like, and I don’t care if it is reasonable or appropriate or decent or rational to do so.”
Back in 1976, the bicentennial of our country, the Paddy Chayefsky-written movie “Network” had Peter Finch’s insane newsman character shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” And it became the rallying cry of the nation.
Chayefsky — Jewish, of course — was writing satire, a fictional story. But today it feels like he was writing prophecy. There is so much anger out there about politics and government and public life, at a time when things are, frankly, not so bad. Yet everyone on a soapbox, or an Instagram feed, or a Facebook screed, or in the Twitterverse keeps shouting, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” This empowers those who are truly insane, and who prefer crazy conspiracy theories to hard facts, to take aim directly at Jews. After all, we have been a target for ignoramuses and those seeking scapegoats for over 2,000 years. One of the most vicious and longest-lived conspiracy theories of all pretends that Jews are controlling the world.
It is time to do something serious about anti-Semitism in America. It is a real live problem now, not a matter of hate literature or scrawled swastikas or even toppled tombstones. It is a threat to some of our very lives, to our peace of mind, to our freedom to be Jews.
There are four things we can and should do. The first is build bridges to other communities, to reach out to smart, caring people of all denominations and make alliances with people of all faiths who will come to our aid in this time of trouble. Attend their services, and have them attend ours. Create relationships that endure, because a strong religious and civil society is the best defense against the free-floating insanity aloft in America today.
The second is to fight against the disturbing elements trying to drive our nation into a crisis. Work for and elect sane people, those who seek to protect the rights of all Americans to pray, believe, and be who they are. Do not descend into the miasma of anger and hatred yourself. We are facing a time of danger. The best responses will come when we reason carefully and strategically, not shout incoherently.
And, sadly, the third thing we must do is make certain that we are protecting our people, all of our people, as well as we possibly can. That means having serious security at all Jewish institutions in America, as it exists all over the rest of the world. That means training people in how to respond to acts of insanity, how to defend ourselves. That means funding it appropriately.
And finally, we must resist any form of anti-Semitism, whether it comes from the right or the left. If people you otherwise agree with politically are using anti-Semitic tropes or attacking Jews, you must be willing to stand up to them. Because you have a far greater chance of changing the mind of someone you know and work with than of someone far off on the other side of the political divide.
That’s four ways to combat and defeat anti-Semitism: build bridges; seek sanity; protect people; and argue against. We don’t know what the new secular year will bring; but if we act with energy, vision, and commitment we can make 2020 a far better year than 2019 was for Jews in America.
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon leads Congregation Beit Simcha and is host of The Too Jewish Radio Show with Rabbi Sam Cohon & Friends.