New surge in attacks on Jews raises old question: How do we fight antisemitism?

While most Jewish Americans say antisemitism is on the rise, Jewish organizations and leaders don’t agree on the definition of antisemitism or the reasons why attacks are occurring

It was midnight when Rabbis Benny and Avremi Zippel left their Salt Lake City synagogue on May 15 after making final preparations for Shavuot, when Jews celebrate receiving the Torah.

By the time a worker arrived the next morning to do some cooking for the holiday, there was a swastika etched on the glass door

“Hatred, antisemitism, bigotry are alive and stronger than ever,” said Rabbi Benny Zippel, who described feeling “violated” when he saw the vandalism.

The swastika in Salt Lake City was just one incident among a reported surge of antisemitic hate crimes that began during last month’s escalation in violence between Israel and Hamas.

From May 10 to 23, the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization founded to combat hate, received 222 reports of violence against Jews, a 75% increase compared to the preceding two weeks, according to Seth Brysk, the organization’s Central Pacific regional director.

This recent uptick in attacks on Jews has revived ongoing debates about how antisemitism is defined, what gives rise to anti-Jewish sentiment and — most importantly — how it can be eradicated.

Experts on Judaism and hate believe there needs to be more education around antisemitism and more leaders willing to speak out against xenophobia and hate crimes. In America, we also need to shore up civil society so that those who might gravitate towards extremist movements have somewhere more positive to take that energy, they say.

“We need to think outside of the box,” said Kenneth Stern, director of Bard College’s Center for the Study of Hate.

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What is antisemitism?

While most Jewish Americans believe antisemitism is more widespread today than it was five years ago — and there is broad consensus that hate and bigotry must be combatted — members of the Jewish community disagree about exactly how to define antisemitism. Most of the debate centers around whether or not criticism of Israel should be seen as inherently problematic.

“There are clear things everyone can agree on,” said Stern. “When somebody picks out a Jewish target — whether they hate Jews or because they’re holding Jews responsible for the action of Israel — it’s clearly antisemitism.”  

Whenever an individual is held “responsible for a collective,” it’s fair to say there’s antisemitism or racism involved, he added.

It’s less clear how to respond to or think about statements against Israel or Zionism, Stern and other experts say.

Ben Lorber, a research analyst for Political Research Associates, a social justice think tank, is among those who believe current tracking efforts are sometimes flawed. A horrific attack against a Jew should not be counted the same as a protester carrying a sign criticizing Israel, he said.

Brysk said the Anti-Defamation League obtains its data on antisemitic incidents from three sources: law enforcement agencies like the FBI; news articles; and people who report incidents, including online harassment, to the organization directly.

The Anti-Defamation League’s statistics include illegal attacks on members of the Jewish community, but also some incidents of “protected speech” that the organization sees as “expressions of hate,” Brysk said.

The Anti-Defamation League and other groups like it do not count all criticism of Israel as antisemitic, he added.

How do we solve antisemitism?

Save for more right-wing observers, those who track violence against the Jewish community agree the Palestinian movement is not in and of itself antisemitic and should not be blamed for recent attacks.

However, experts feel violence between Israel and Hamas has provided cover for some Americans to air anti-Jewish sentiments they already had.

“People are looking for excuses to share the feelings that they have inside of them,” Rabbi Benny Zippel said.

In general, both antisemitism and hate crimes have been on the rise in the U.S. since 2016. The climb began around the time President Donald Trump was elected — there was a dramatic spike in hate crimes on the day after the election — and continued throughout his tenure.

The surge in antisemitic incidents only accelerated in 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League. By 2019, hate crimes had reached their highest levels in more than a decade, The Associated Press reported last year.

While Trump did not make openly antisemitic remarks, his comments about foreigners and migration likely contributed to anti-Jewish sentiment, critics say.

“Antisemitism thrives best historically when people are given ammunition to act on an impulse to see an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’’’ Stern said.

He and other experts believe that growing interest in populism and conspiracy theories also contributed to the problem.

“Antisemitism is the granddaddy of them all,” Stern said, referring to conspiracy theories. “Even if you don’t start there, you might end up there.” 

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Similarly, Lorber sees tackling growing belief in conspiracy theories as a step towards tackling antisemitism.

“We see antisemitic conspiracy theories that portray Jews as the hidden mastermind of non-white immigration (and) of Black Lives Matter. These ideologies are deadly and have led to attacks on Jews,” he said.

Lorber also points out that the recent rise in hate crimes in the U.S. coincided with the rise of far-right movements. That populism and antisemitism go hand in hand well-known, he said.

Lorber thinks it’s important to take a compassionate stance towards those who are attracted to far-right movements because they feel marginalized. It’s important to make sure they have the economic and social resources they need so that they don’t have a reason to scapegoat Jews and other minorities, he added.

Lorber believes person-to-person outreach and relationship building could effectively combat the belief systems that lead to antisemitism. In general, personal connections can help people break free of radical ideologies, according to experts on deradicalization.

Pointing to the work of the political scientist Ira Katz Nelson, Stern said that some innovative solutions need to emerge to address middle and lower class feelings of angst and marginalization.

“30, 40 years ago they went to their labor movement,” said Stern. “Not having that avenue is related to why some of the more populist appeals have been successful.”

Tackling rising antisemitism might require building up new civil society organizations to replace those that no longer exist and also working to strengthen democratic institutions.

“The ability to beat back some of these other expressions of hate have to do with how strong our democratic institutions are,” said Stern, explaining that hatred always seems to flourish when democracy is taking a hit.

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Similarly, Rabbi Zippel said that hate crimes — along with growing political division — are “another indicator of a failed society.” 

But Rabbi Zippel is always looking for the silver lining.

He feels that, if Americans pay attention to these incidents, they can serve as a vaccine to help inoculate our country against more hate crimes. He also said that rather than intimidating Jewish Americans, they might actually foster a stronger sense of identity and might help the community coalesce.

“Nothing bad comes from above,” Rabbi Zippel said.

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