In 2014, four people were shot to death at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium, two years after the killings of four Jews, including three children, at the Ozar Hatorah School in Toulouse in the south of France. These tragedies and others like them made it clear that anti-Semitism, that pernicious prejudice, was alive and well.
In response, we decided to reexamine anti-Semitism in a Moment symposium, exploring its causes and why it persists. We interviewed 36 scholars and writers, including playwright David Mamet, historian David Nirenberg, writer Cynthia Ozick and anti-Semitism experts Alvin Rosenfeld and Charles Asher Small. “Anti-Semitism is like a retrovirus, morphing from pagan anti-Semitism to Christian anti-Semitism… to now, an anti-Semitism that is associated with anti-Zionism,” said Ira Forman, then the U.S. State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism and now a senior fellow at Moment.
The focus of most of the symposium participants was largely on Europe and on the new anti-Semitism emanating from the Muslim world aimed at Israel. There was less discussion of anti-Semitism in the United States, and when it was brought up, it centered on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Anti-Semitism still clearly existed in white nationalist circles, but my general takeaway was that one had to dig fairly deep, or travel to the fringes of society, to find it. The white supremacist variety of anti-Semitism, the kind that associates Jews with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and global conspiracies, certainly wasn’t noticeable unless you were looking for it. It lurked on the web, but generally, most Jews in the United States felt safe and secure.
Four years later we live in a dramatically different country. White nationalism has reappeared, and with it a host of prejudices, energized in particular by the rhetoric of Donald Trump in his 2016 presidential campaign. In pursuit of power, Trump glorified violence and encouraged his supporters to beat up protesters, even offering to cover their legal costs. If he didn’t win, he warned, there would be riots in the streets.
That violence would occur in the run-up to the 2018 midterms—the first nationwide election since 2016—was foreseeable. Pre-election periods are times when weak or stressed democracies with troubled civic discourse are particularly vulnerable to violence. Although we may not be accustomed to thinking of our democracy as weak and stressed, it is. The evidence is on display for all to see: pre-election mayhem, including, in just one week, the largest massacre of Jews in the nation’s history; bombs sent to members of President Trump’s political opposition, including two former presidents and a vice president; and two African Americans killed at a Kentucky supermarket after the alleged shooter found the doors locked at a nearby black church.
Throughout history, dangerous rhetoric has led to dangerous consequences. History is littered with the tragic actions of deluded people driven by deluded rhetoric.
Throughout history, dangerous rhetoric has led to dangerous consequences. History is littered with the tragic actions of deluded people (mostly men) driven by deluded rhetoric. Since our 2014 symposium, we at Moment have been tracking the way anti-Semitism and other forms of extreme bigotry have been deliberately injected into the American mainstream. Moment’s articles over the last few years chronicle it all. A year and half ago we were in Whitefish, Montana to write about a neo-Nazi website that targeted four of the town’s Jewish residents. That was followed by the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, leading to the killing of Heather Heyer. We wrote about the centrality of anti-Semitism to the white nationalist worldview, including that of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. We examined the origins of the white supremacist slogans, “Jews will not replace us,” “blood and soil” and “the goyim know.” Although the slogans sounded new, each has a history linking it to Europe or the Nazis. During this period, Moment also covered anti-Semitism in other segments of society, including the links between the Nation of Islam and some of the leaders of Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March. Most significantly, we launched the Anti-Semitism Monitor on our website to aggregate incidents of anti-Semitism all over the world. (You can sign up for it at momentmag.com/anti-semitism-monitor-2018.)
As I wrote in Moment in January 2017, the impact of Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric was immediately apparent in my normally quiet Washington, DC neighborhood. The pizzeria at the center of the wild viral right-wing hoax claiming that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring is just a few blocks south of my house. This fake news inspired a young Salisbury, North Carolina father armed with an AR-15 assault rifle to charge into the restaurant on a busy afternoon and open fire. Fortunately no one was hurt. Five blocks in the other direction, white supremacist Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute threw an election victory party at an Italian restaurant, where an attendee proudly tweeted a selfie featuring the Hitler salute. Around that time, my husband found an anti-Semitic flyer on the sidewalk near our house, and swastikas appeared on street signs and mailboxes.
That March we published a new symposium, “Is Democracy Broken?” in which we talked to political sociologist Larry Diamond, author Tracy Kidder, feminist leader Gloria Steinem, historians Timothy Snyder and Gordon Wood and others. The consensus was that democracy was at great risk. In my column in that issue, titled “Ill Winds Keep Blowing,” I observed the alarming rise of anti-Semitic incidents (as of now, close to a 60 percent increase from 2016 to 2018, according to the ADL) and “the unanticipated injection of the white nationalist right and its brand of anti-Semitism into mainstream discourse.” Even though it was just a matter of time, none of us dared imagine a Shabbat morning when innocent worshippers at a synagogue here in America would be slaughtered.
When you read this, the 2018 midterms will be over. But the man stoking fear and hate will still command the ultimate bully pulpit. Unless he somehow transforms, which is highly unlikely, he will keep staging Make America Great Again rallies, feeding conspiracy theories and sowing discord to cement his relationship with his base. There will be no time to pause, rest, reflect and come together as a nation, because he will be fanning the flames for the 2020 presidential election. Campaigns that never end are anathema to good governance.
This is bad for all Americans and should be of special concern to American Jews. For as we know from history, minorities and political adversaries are predictably the first targets of violence. We also know that once prejudice takes hold it can take decades, centuries, even millennia to transcend.
It is my deepest hope that we will be able to push the anti-Semitism we now see in America back to the fringes. We are a strong and resilient nation, a strong and resilient people. We the people need to stay true to our values. Defend our free press. Run for office. Join civic organizations. Stay focused. Stay calm. That’s how we strengthen democracy.