Is It Still Safe to Be a Jew in America?

As society has grown more polarized, classic forms of hatred have increased dramatically.

Members and supporters of the Jewish community come together for a candlelight vigil, in remembrance of those who died earlier in the day during a shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
Members and supporters of the Jewish community come together for a candlelight vigil, in remembrance of those who died earlier in the day during a shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP via Getty)

On a blustery Baltimore night in the late 1980s, I went to hear Louis Farrakhan speak to a packed crowd at Morgan State University, a historically black college. For more than five decades, the Nation of Islam leader has railed against Jews, variously describing them as “satanic,” “bloodsuckers,” and “termites.” He was at the peak of his influence at the time. As the editor of the weekly Baltimore Jewish Times, I wanted to experience firsthand the impact his hate-filled invective had on audiences.

I went with a fellow editor from the paper, and ours were among a handful of white faces in the large crowd. In one of his long and angry tirades that night, Farrakhan focused his venom on white people, Jews, and the media.

Taking notes as surreptitiously as possible, my colleague and I exchanged worried glances, keenly aware that we represented a trifecta of evil in Farrakhan’s world. We sensed some hard stares from those around us, and as the gifted orator ratcheted up his pitch, rousing his listeners, we feared for our safety. A word from the reverend and the crowd might have turned on us. But then, as he neared the end of his rant, his pace slowed, his voice lowered, and he called on his listeners to show their pride and dignity when encountering television reporters outside the auditorium.

Farrakhan’s words had an immediate calming effect. I remember feeling a tug of gratitude for the shift in his tone and message, and noted how quickly a crowd can be stirred up or calmed down.

Amid the terrifying wave of anti-Semitism in the United States of late, I have thought of that scene and wondered what has stirred up such anger against Jews now.

How do we explain Jews being shot to death at Shabbat prayer in their synagogue by hate-filled white nationalists in Pittsburgh and Poway, California; and visibly Orthodox men and women violently attacked in Brooklyn and Monsey, New York, and shot down next door to a synagogue in Jersey City, New Jersey?

These headline-grabbing incidents are part of a broader pattern. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) began tracking anti-Semitic hate crimes four decades ago. This past year brought the third-highest spike on record. Jews make up less than 3 percent of the American population, but the majority of reported religiously based hate crimes target Jewish people or institutions. In a new study by the American Jewish Committee, 35 percent of American Jews said they had experienced anti-Semitism in the past five years, and one-third reported concealing outward indications of their being Jewish.

In nearly 50 years of reporting on the American Jewish community—19 years as an editor in Baltimore and the past 26 as the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week of New York—I’ve written about a wide range of incidents that ratcheted up anti-Semitic sentiment in America.

I wrote about the threat of a neo-Nazi march, four decades before Charlottesville, in the quiet Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois—chosen because its heavily Jewish population included a large number of Holocaust survivors. And I covered the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots in the summer of 1991, which targeted Jews in a Brooklyn neighborhood where many Lubavitch Hasidim lived. A 29-year-old rabbinical student was stabbed to death, and some black leaders, including Al Sharpton, stoked the fury of the crowds, calling for violence against Jews.

But in all those years, I never encountered such a level of palpable fear, anger, and vulnerability among American Jews as I do today, with attacks—verbal, physical, and, in two tragic cases, fatal—coming from the far left and the far right of our own society, and from attackers whose only common denominator is hatred of Jews. We had believed that such worries were relegated to our brothers and sisters in Europe, with its centuries of ugly history of Jew hatred and pogroms, culminating in the Holocaust. Now the attacks are the main topic of discussion among an American Jewish community shaken to its core.

Is it still safe to be a Jew in America?

The quintessential Jewish telegram is said to read: “Start worrying. Details to follow.”

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.

At the same time, Jews are thriving in America as never before. Ivy League universities that once employed quotas to restrict the number of Jewish students now have Jewish presidents at the helm. Joseph Lieberman, an observant Jew, was almost elected vice president in 2000—the Democratic ticket won the popular vote—and his religious beliefs were not a major campaign issue. Michael Bloomberg mounted a serious campaign for the presidency; Bernie Sanders remains in contention for the Democratic nomination. And Jews are prominent as leaders in business, medicine, science, fashion, theater, and other professions.

This paradoxical pattern—success paired with persistent discrimination—is as old as anti-Semitism itself. What is different today, and what offers a degree of consolation, is that following the recent rash of attacks, government officials—at the national, state, and local levels—have spoken out forcefully and taken steps to counter anti-Semitism. The Jewish community’s efforts in recent decades to align itself with other minorities in the face of racial, ethnic, and religious prejudice are now bearing fruit. In contrast with communities over the centuries that have turned their back on Jews in distress, if not actively abetting their persecutors, Americans of all faiths have expressed solidarity with their Jewish neighbors in condemning all forms of bigotry.

Abraham Foxman, a child survivor of the Holocaust who led the ADL for five decades, describes anti-Semitism as “an ancient virus without an antidote or vaccine.”

He told me that throughout history, depending on the circumstances, the virus of anti-Semitism has lain dormant or become more virulent. “We’re living in an environment today that is more user-friendly to the virus,” he said, “a time of incivility, lack of tolerance, no respect for the truth. And with it comes politicization, polarization, frustration, anger, hate—all the elements that fuel the virus.”

Anti-Semitism is being fed by religion, politics, economics, and social issues, he added. The “firewalls” of protection that worked in the past—a common base of truth and facts, a shared consensus, fairness and accountability, a media that educates—“no longer have credibility. They’re gone,” Foxman said. “It’s like a perfect storm.”

Some critics attribute the recent spate of anti-Semitic violence, at least indirectly, to the rise of Donald Trump, a charge that reflects the deep political and cultural divide in American society. They say that his rhetoric and tweets, his targeting of minorities, his bullying and name-calling have created an atmosphere conducive to such attacks.

Recent data indicate that the attitudes of most Americans toward Jews have not changed significantly in the past 25 years—about 11 percent hold “intensely” anti-Semitic views, according to a new ADL poll. What has changed, according to the ADL’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, is that “more of the millions of Americans holding anti-Semitic views are feeling emboldened to act on their hate.”

The president’s harsh criticism of immigrants and minorities; his reluctance to condemn white supremacists, such as David Duke; and his comment that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, combine to foster an ugly and confrontational atmosphere.

In her book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, the New York Times writer and editor Bari Weiss decries Trump’s “shameless and savage style of politics.” Trump, she writes, “dismissed civility and decency as virtues for chumps, and cultivated a climate of rage and paranoia that has already proven deadly.”

His attitude toward Jews is more complicated.

The president is deeply proud of his daughter Ivanka, an observant Jewish convert, and he has been an outspoken and forceful supporter of Israel. He brought two trusted associates, both observant Jews, into the government, appointing David Friedman as the U.S. ambassador to Israel and having Jason Greenblatt work closely with Jared Kushner in developing the administration’s Mideast peace plan.

Defenders of the president emphasize his bold steps on behalf of Israel: moving the American embassy to Jerusalem and seeking to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict by openly backing the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and placing the onus and pressure on the Palestinians. And they say that an executive order issued in December will be highly effective in combatting anti-Semitism on college campuses.

Ellie Cohanim, the deputy special envoy to combat anti-Semitism, a State Department position, praises the president for his strong stand against Iran and his forceful and frequent statements decrying anti-Semitism, which he has called “the vile, hate-filled poison … that must be condemned and confronted everywhere and anywhere it appears.” She says the executive order is a “game changer” for Jewish students who have felt under rhetorical siege on campus.

Cohanim, who as a child fled Iran with her parents in 1979, told me that one lesson she learned from the experience was never to be complacent, and noted that Iran had been home to Jews for 2,500 years and had been “moving toward enlightenment.” “Everything can turn overnight,” she said, referring to the Islamic Revolution that deposed the shah, who had been friendly to the Jewish community.

Yet in his statements and tweets, Trump sometimes sounds like a classic anti-Semite. In a speech to the Israeli American Council in December, Trump made several comments that drew criticism from the American Jewish Committee and other Jewish organizations for “money references that feed age-old and ugly stereotypes.” (The group also expressed appreciation for the president’s “unwavering support for Israel.”)

During his 45-minute talk, Trump said: “A lot of you are in the real-estate business, because I know you very well. You’re brutal killers, not nice people at all.” He added that some American Jews “don’t love Israel enough,” and that “some of you don’t like me. Some of you I don’t like at all, actually.” He told the crowd that they would be his “biggest supporters” because they care about their wealth, and liberal Democrats advocate for a major wealth tax.

Jews like to tell ourselves that anti-Semitism isn’t really a Jewish problem. Rather, it’s a manifestation of a society’s fears and flaws acted out on a people seen as alien. While Jews are often the initial target of bias and hatred when a scapegoat is sought, they are never the only minority to suffer.

It follows, then, that any attempt to address anti-Semitism will have to be as multifaceted as the problem itself.

What is required, experts agree, is more security and law-enforcement patrols as a deterrent; greater efforts to treat mental-health issues (about one-third of the recent attacks in New York were committed by people with previous psychiatric problems); a more effective way to deal with juvenile offenders (responsible for most of the New York attacks); and various forms of education to counter racism and hate, and to promote a healthier society.

In New York, the relationship between African Americans and Jews has added another layer of complexity to the problem. In the civil-rights era, prominent Jews fought alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in his struggle for equality. But after King’s assassination in 1968, Black Power advocates, frustrated with the results of peaceful marches, took the stage. Leaders such as Stokely Carmichael, Jesse Jackson, and Louis Farrakhan blamed Jews for oppressing blacks and aligning with Israel, condemned by these critics as an apartheid state.

Jackson’s brief run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 was derailed, in part, after he used the words Hymie, in reference to Jews during a private conversation, and Hymietown, in reference to New York City. After initially denying the comments, Jackson publicly apologized before a Jewish audience, saying that “however innocent and unintended, it was wrong.”

But things are changing. Public expressions of anti-Semitism have become more and more taboo in American society over the past three decades, as Jewish organizations have been more aggressive in calling out offenders—from professional athletes to government officials—as well as more proactive in seeking alliances with minority communities.

It took Sharpton 28 years, but in May he publicly acknowledged his “cheap” rhetoric at the time of the Crown Heights riots, telling a Reform Jewish convention that he could have “done more to heal rather than harm.” Sharpton, whose reputation has been rehabilitated in recent years and who now hosts a talk show on MSNBC, strongly condemned the recent anti-Semitic attacks on Jews, “particularly because they were perpetrated by members of the African American community.” Other African American religious and political leaders in New York have issued similar statements.

African Americans and religious Jews have lived in close proximity in Brooklyn neighborhoods for decades. In the late ’60s, at the height of the white flight from the area, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the revered leader of the Lubavitch Hasidim, called on his followers to stay put in Crown Heights, and they did. Media coverage of attacks by African American youngsters against Hasidic men, women, and children has been intense in recent months, but Jewish residents say that such problems have occurred sporadically over the years, away from the spotlight. And they are upset at the previous lack of outrage from the Jewish community and civic leaders.

Some view the problem more through the lens of economics and gentrification than religion. With rising housing costs in the neighborhood, some African Americans have had to move, replaced by white people—and that anger and resentment has focused on the white neighbors who live in closest proximity. Today, many in New York’s Jewish community are calling for more of the kind of under-the-radar but effective black-Jewish community coalition efforts in schools and between youths and civic leaders that emerged after the 1991 riots.

But not everyone is on board with that approach.

The rabbi of the largest Orthodox congregation in Teaneck, New Jersey, an affluent suburb of New York, wrote in a recent blog post that American Jews should learn from Israel’s experience that “Jewish blood is not cheap,” adding that “no Jew should stand by and idly and passively watch another Jew being beaten or harassed.”

That sort of rhetoric echoes the kind of vigilante efforts that made Meir Kahane admired and loathed when he founded the Jewish Defense League in late-’60s Brooklyn. Proclaiming “Every Jew a .22,” he urged young Jews to arm themselves in the face of gang violence.

But Kahane’s already limited popularity dropped dramatically after his movement turned to violence, including a fatal bombing in the New York office of the impresario Sol Hurok.

While the Teaneck rabbi cautioned Jews not to be “over-aggressive, disproportionate in response,” he wrote that they “should respond blow for blow—two blows for every one blow—to every unprovoked attack.”

The great majority of American Jews, though, reject such vigilantism, instead favoring heightened security and police protection for Jewish neighborhoods and institutions. With significant financial aid from the government, the Jewish community has invested heavily in proactive security efforts in the past several years. Seeing professionals or volunteer guards outside synagogues, Jewish community centers, and religious schools is now common. Community and political leaders are now calling for major increases in such protection from would-be attackers, and government officials are responding positively.

The question is whether an armed presence will be enough to stave off physical attacks even as the long-standing effort to minimize, if not eradicate, anti-Semitism continues. The governor of New York is proposing the nation’s first domestic-terrorism law. And in New York City, a hate-crimes office has been created and a plan is in place to provide Holocaust education in all public schools.

Such moves toward increased action and vigilance may not eliminate the feelings of vulnerability a congregant might have in their synagogue. But knowing that the levers of government have been pulled in their direction should provide American Jews a measure of comfort, a feeling that we are not alone.

American Jews have long felt sorry for European Jews who feared to wear a kippah or Star of David in public in large cities such as London and Paris, where violent attacks and desecrations of gravestones and synagogues have become commonplace. But never here in the U.S., we thought. Never in the most welcoming country Jews have ever known.

Now we’re not so sure. Are Jews to accept that the new normal in the land of the free is that they must hide signs of their identity, avoid synagogues, and downplay support for Israel, as in much of today’s Europe?

Over the past century, American Jews have found their finest hours rising up to help others in danger, first with their endeavors, mostly financial, on behalf of Israeli statehood in the years before and after 1948, and then with the grassroots movement in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, to free the Jews of the Soviet Union from religious persecution.

These efforts were in some ways a response to the community’s feeling of guilt for not doing more to speak out on behalf of European Jews during the Holocaust and its failure to pressure Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration to take action. Since World War II, and especially after the founding of the Jewish state, American Jews have become far more organized, outspoken, and effective lobbyists.

In addition to private diplomacy, public rallies—most notably a 250,000-person march on Washington, D.C., in 1987—resulted in more than 1 million Jews emigrating from behind the Iron Curtain to live in freedom, primarily in the U.S. and Israel.

Today, though, the challenge is closer to home. I take inspiration from the biblical charge to “choose life,” seeking a life of affirmation and dignity rather than one of fear. Another mandate, that of tikkun olam (“to improve the world”), has been embraced by a younger generation of American Jews with a more universalistic view of the world than their elders. Whatever vision they embrace, Jews can take pride in asserting their identity, carrying forward an ancient tradition whose gifts to the world include monotheism, the Sabbath, and the belief that each person is created in the image of God.

On a cold Sunday afternoon in December, more than 20,000 Jews and others held a public rally, on short notice, in Brooklyn to protest the recent wave of anti-Semitic attacks. “No hate, no fear” was the theme, and government officials, including the governor, marched in solidarity. Many in the crowd recalled with pride the 1987 protest in D.C., but this was different. They were not marching for their brothers and sisters facing persecution in faraway countries. They were marching for their neighbors and families—and themselves.