Pessimism runs deep in the Jewish psyche, with, tragically, good cause. Anti-Semitism goes back to the very beginnings of Jews as a people. Since biblical days, Jews have been seen as “the other,” outsiders, victims of conspiracy theories and myths that have no rational source. The pages of Jewish history are bloodstained from countless persecutions and pogroms. Jews have been accused of being too wealthy and too poor, too powerful and too weak, communists and financiers.
Anti-Semitism drove Jews to the New World, and it followed them there. In 1654, Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch governor of the colony of New Amsterdam, sought to expel Jews as “deceitful,” “very repugnant,” and “hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ.” The Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna points out that Stuyvesant also railed against “the Lutherans and the papists,” noting that “in America, the fate of Jews and the fate of other persecuted minority groups were, from the very beginning, entwined.”
Even as Jews gained greater acceptance in American society, anti-Semitism persisted. During the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant moved to expel “Jews, as a class,” from the war zone he commanded. Leo Frank, an innocent man, was accused of murdering a 13-year-old girl in Atlanta in 1913. Two years later, when his death sentence was commuted, he was taken from jail by an angry mob and lynched.
In the 1920s, Henry Ford wrote a series of articles in his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, accusing Jews of being part of a worldwide conspiracy based on an anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In the 1930s, Father Charles Edward Coughlin, a Detroit-based precursor to today’s talk-radio shock jocks, drew up to 30 million listeners to his weekly program, on which he spewed pro-Hitler and anti-Semitic vitriol, until the show was canceled in 1939.
During World War II, an estimated half million American Jews served in the armed forces, and many encountered anti-Semitic verbal attacks from fellow soldiers questioning their loyalty to the U.S. After the war, anti-Semitism was often more subtle but still present, with quotas on Jews in universities still in practice, and Jews restricted from many neighborhoods and professions.
In recent years, as overt anti-Semitism has declined, criticism of Israel’s policies from the left has often morphed from anti-Zionism into anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism from the right has been more direct, and violent; both of the men charged with the fatal synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway claimed that Jews are a threat to the white race.
Jews are contending with a growing effort on university campuses to demonize Israel as a racist, illegitimate state, and thus define Jewish students who support Israel as untouchable. As a result, such students are frequently excluded from liberal groups that support causes such as Black Lives Matter, gay rights, and combatting climate change. To distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and racism, the Soviet refusenik turned Israeli politician Natan Sharansky applies “the three D’s”: delegitimization, demonization, and subjecting Israel to a double standard. Among many on the left, Israel, once admired for boxing far above its weight in a chaotic region, is viewed now as a pariah state.