The Invisible Victims of American Anti-Semitism

If a hateful act doesn’t fit a preset political narrative, the public rarely notices it.

Picture of an orthodox family facing a police car.
Spencer Platt / Getty

Last week, a gunman shot two Jews at close range as they departed morning prayer services in Los Angeles. The first victim was shot in the back on Wednesday. The second was shot multiple times in the arm on Thursday, less than 24 hours later. The attacks sent fear pulsing through the Jewish community of Los Angeles, as members wondered if their own place of worship would be targeted next. On Thursday evening, the alleged assailant was apprehended. Prosecutors say the 28-year-old Asian American man had a history of making anti-Semitic threats and possessed both a .380-caliber handgun and an AK-style rifle. It was a harrowing ordeal for America’s second-largest Jewish population. And yet, outside the Los Angeles Times and Jewish media outlets, the story went largely undiscussed on national front pages and cable news networks. The attacks never trended on social media. Which is why you might well be hearing about them now for the first time.

This is not an uncommon occurrence when it comes to American anti-Semitism. Here’s another disturbing story that has garnered little national attention: Over the past several years, local elected officials in New York and New Jersey have systematically worked to pass and impose laws with a single purpose—to keep Orthodox Jews out of their communities. The conduct of those officials was so egregious that the states’ attorneys general, Democrats Letitia James and Gurbir Grewal, respectively, pursued civil-rights lawsuits, alleging deliberate anti-Jewish discrimination.

In the case of Jackson Township, New Jersey, Grewal accused the local authorities of an array of abuses. These included “targeted and discriminatory surveillance of the homes of Orthodox Jews suspected of hosting communal prayer gatherings,” “enacting zoning ordinances in 2017 that essentially banned the establishment of yeshivas and dormitories,” and “discriminatory application of land use laws to inhibit the erection of sukkahs by the Township’s Jewish residents,” referring to the temporary huts built by religious Jews on their property to observe the holiday of Sukkot.

The enmity behind these efforts was not particularly disguised. A Facebook group for an organization opposed to any influx of Orthodox residents titled “Rise Up Ocean County” became so overrun with anti-Jewish invective—such as “We need to get rid of them like Hitler did”—that the social-media company took the rare step of shutting it down. Last month, Jackson agreed to pay $1.35 million to an Orthodox girls school whose opening it had blocked a decade ago. It also recently settled a related lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice by committing to repeal discriminatory regulations and set up a settlement fund for the people affected by them.

None of this is new. In 2018, the township of Mahwah settled with Grewal in a similar case and repealed a discriminatory ordinance against Orthodox Jews. This happened after a town-council meeting in which a participant called on legislators to “remove the infection” of Hasidic Jews, drawing no rebuke from the councilors.

The story of New York’s Orange County follows the same sorry playbook. The region’s town of Chester is reputed to be the birthplace of Philadelphia Cream Cheese. But when Orthodox Jews began moving to the area, the residents saw not potential fellow enthusiasts, but a threat. In May 2020, James joined a lawsuit against local officials and accused them of “a concerted and systematic effort to prevent Hasidic Jewish families from moving to Chester.” In June 2021, Orange County and Chester settled with James and agreed to comply with the Fair Housing Act. “The discriminatory and illegal actions perpetrated by Orange County and the Town of Chester are blatantly antisemitic, and go against the diversity, inclusivity, and tolerance that New York prides itself on,” James said in her release announcing the settlement.

These long-running systemic efforts to outlaw Jewish life drew local news coverage, but scant notice in our national media and politics. For years, the same was true of the ongoing assaults on visibly religious Jews in the streets of Brooklyn, with some notable exceptions.

Why do some anti-Semitic incidents capture broad attention, while others languish in relative obscurity? What distinguishes comments made by leaders of the Women’s March from the actions of New York–township officials, or a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh from one in Los Angeles?

In my decade reporting on such stories, I’ve come across many answers. Only one has consistently held true: Anti-Semitism is acknowledged when it conforms to one of two overarching partisan narratives that many journalists know how to tell and the public knows how to digest. On the one hand, there is the anti-Jewish bigotry that stems from white supremacists and neo-Nazis. This prejudice is right-coded, and typically attributed to conservatives. On the other, there is the anti-Jewish animus that results when anti-Zionism strays into anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel turns into vilification of Jews. This prejudice is left-coded, and typically attributed to progressives. Although these stories are simplifications, they should sound familiar because debates over them dominate our public discourse, not just in the press, but in the halls of Congress and the hothouse of social media.

What you’ll also notice is that all of the very real instances of anti-Semitism discussed above don’t fall into either of these baskets. Well-off neighborhoods passing bespoke ordinances to keep out Jews is neither white supremacy nor anti-Israel advocacy gone awry. Nor can Jews being shot and beaten up in the streets of their Brooklyn or Los Angeles neighborhoods by largely nonwhite assailants be blamed on the usual partisan bogeymen.

That’s why you might not have heard about these anti-Semitic acts. It’s not that politicians or journalists haven’t addressed them; in some cases, they have. It’s that these anti-Jewish incidents don’t fit into the usual stories we tell about anti-Semitism, so they don’t register, and are quickly forgotten if they are acknowledged at all.

In December 2019, two gunmen shot up a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, killing four people and injuring three. In the aftermath of the attack, Representative Rashida Tlaib posted a tweet alongside a picture of one of the Jewish victims, declaring simply, “This is heartbreaking. White supremacy kills.” When it became clear that the culprits were, in fact, tied to the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, the lawmaker deleted the tweet, and did not post a replacement. In this, Tlaib is not exceptional but representative. When Americans do not have a convenient partisan frame through which to process an anti-Semitic act, it is often met with silence or soon dropped from the agenda. We understand events by fitting them into established patterns, and without them, we can’t even see the event.

To be sure, anti-Semitic incidents elude our attention for other reasons as well. If an anti-Jewish attack leaves its victims bloodied but breathing, as happened in Los Angeles, it is less likely to make headlines. What’s more, if there is no explicit violence at all, as in the townships of New York and New Jersey, there is often no news. Without a body on the pavement to illustrate the impact, such discrimination remains abstract. There is also the uncomfortable question of the perpetrator’s identity. When the victimizer comes from a victimized community, like the Asian American assailant in Los Angeles or Black attackers in Brooklyn, many observers lack the vocabulary to address the complexity and opt to avoid the conversation entirely. Likewise, when the victims are visibly different, like Orthodox Jews, some have trouble identifying with them. On the flip side, the involvement of a celebrity—such as Kanye West and Mel Gibson—can lend a story greater popular appeal.

But although these considerations have some explanatory capacity, they cannot match the power of partisanship, which regularly enables some acts of anti-Semitism to achieve escape velocity, even as others do not. After all, nothing is able to elevate even the most abstruse anti-Semitism to our attention like a Trump tweet about Jews.

Partisan pull explains how Americans process the problem of anti-Semitism. It is also part of the problem. As long as the frames through which we view anti-Jewish prejudice are narrow and politicized, we will tend to misapprehend its nature and overlook incidents we should not. This has real-world consequences. Just because something goes unremarked doesn’t mean it doesn’t leave a mark. When we lack the language to discuss an anti-Semitic act, we cannot develop a strategy to counter it or find a way to protect and comfort its victims.

Anti-Jewish prejudice is as old as Judaism itself and predates our modern political categories and ideologies. Before there were Republicans and Democrats, progressives and conservatives, there were anti-Jewish bigots. Our response to the problem should acknowledge this fact, and make manifest the victims who have been rendered invisible by our own blinkered biases.