The New Wave of Anti-Semitism in America

Is there really a new wave of anti-Semitism sweeping the United States?

At first glance the answer appears to be in the affirmative. There’s certainly substantial – though fragmentary – evidence to support this response. Here are some manifestations of hatred toward Jewish people that confirm the existence of such a wave. Exhibit ‘A’ is of course the murders of 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018, the most lethal episode of its kind in American history. Then there was August 2017 gathering of some 1000 white nationalists in Charlottesville who staged a parade chanting “The Jews will not Replace us”. We should also enter into evidence Deborah Lipstadt’s recent best-seller Antisemitism Then and Now (2019) in which she recounts a long list of episodes on American college campuses where students, instructors, and various public speakers denounced Israel, often equating it with apartheid South Africa, and then preventing pro-Israel speakers from a chance to have their say at similar public forums. In addition to these developments, the various social media have provided platforms for anti-Semites to launch anonymous attacks on Jewish journalists – who’ve written stories on topics (e.g. sex abuse in the Church) that the sender regards as out-of-bounds. Jewish figures in public life have also been the recipients of these anonymous messages.

Furthermore, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and other watchdog organizations report a significant increase in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 over the preceding year. (The Community Security Trust in the UK reports a similar increase, as have comparable monitoring groups in France and Germany). The Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) annual report on ’hate group’ activity in the United States observes that the number of such groups grew to over 1000 during 2018, including neo-Nazis, white nationalist, and racist skinhead bands.

If we concede the existence of a new wave of anti-Semitic activity is now underway, it seems remarkably different than earlier ones. During earlier episodes, especially the 1930s (see Charles Herbert Stember, Jews in the Mind of America, 1966), hostility to Jews was essentially a right-wing phenomenon receiving the support of various fascist groups (e.g. Father Charles Coughlin’s Christian Front, the German American Bund, William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts) emulating their German and Italian originals. Today, hostility to Jews and Jewish organizations has spread from right to left. Some ‘progressive’ groups, e.g. the Women’s March, perceive American Jews as ‘privileged’ and, consequently incapable, by definition, of being the targets of discrimination. Much of the current left-wing perspective involves hostility to Israel because – or allegedly because – of its treatment of the Palestinians. This outlook explains the indifference with which many on the left viewed the suicide attacks carried out by Palestinian jihadists against Israeli (and Jewish) civilians over the first decade of this century. To be supportive of Israel currently is for many on the left to be beyond the pale – inhibiting people with supportive views from speak openly on many college campuses and similar venues.

Religious organizations have also undergone substantial change. During the Depression era and the immediate postwar years the Catholic Church in the US – along with fundamentalist Protestant denominations – harbored hatred towards the Jewish people based on the long-standing accusations of deicide taken from their reading of the Gospels and the view Jews were promoting communism on a world-wide basis. In the 21st century these views have largely passed from the scene (see the Church’s 1998 statement We Remember Reflections on the Shoah). If anything, these denominations have become philo-Semitic, with evangelicals especially becoming ardent supporters of Israel. On the other hand, the more ‘progressive’ Protestant groups, much like their secular counterparts, have become among Israel’s strongest critics – whose views include support for the boycott of Israeli-made products and the divestment of securities in Israeli (and often Jewish) owned companies. In this ‘progressive’ milieu it is not unheard of for the Palestinians to be depicted as latter- day versions of Jesus being crucified, once again, by the Jews.

Then there is the matter of the Jews themselves. By contrast to earlier periods in American Jewish history, there is now a significant Jewish presence on the conservative side of political spectrum. From the Roosevelt era forward, Jewish voters and those with strong political voices were overwhelming liberal in outlook. This is no longer the case. Currently there is a significant Jewish presence on the right as well as the left. Jewish intellectuals led the way; – e.g. Norman Podhoretz, Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol- were among the founders of the neo-conservative movement. The billionaire Las Vegas casino owner, Sheldon Adelson, has become the largest single contributor to Republican Party election candidates, after promoting the formation of a so-called Jewish-Republican coalition. The GOP now wins a significant share of support from Jewish voters. The Trump administration abounds with Jewish appointees, including the president’s own son-in-law Jared Kushner and such cabinet appointees as Steve Mnuchin, the treasury secretary.

Polls taken by the Gallup organization during the late 1930s through the postwar years suggested widespread public fears of excessive Jewish power and influence. American Jews were widely perceived by those polled as having too much power over business, banking and the entertainment industries especially. Some of those polled advocated doing something to limit this alleged power. The reality of course was that the Jewish community in these decades had little if any ability to influence the course of events. To the contrary, American Jews were largely excluded from major areas of public life (see the award-winning 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement) and, crucially, were even unable to get European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution admitted to the country.

In these years the Gallup polls also found many Americans thought Jews possessed a number of objectionable personal traits. Greedy, pushy, and cowardly were among the attributes mentioned most frequently. So far as the latter item is concerned, during World War II there was a widespread rumor Jews were evading the draft.

In the midst of the current wave of anti-Semitism we should emphasize dramatic attitudinal changes from earlier episodes. To the extent it can be measured by public opinion surveys, the evidence indicates Americans overall tend to like Jews, regarding them favorably for having strong family values and for being hard-working. A substantial majority of Americans are also aware of the major contributions Jews have made to the sciences, the arts and present medicine.

Survey evidence also suggests an irony. During the Depression years high percentages of Americans perceived Jews as having too much power when, in fact, they were virtually powerless. Today, with American Jews present in virtually all areas of public life, with some clearly playing leadership roles, the number of Americans thinking Jews have too much power has declined dramatically from earlier times.

The evidence suggests then that the current wave of anti-Semitism is therefore likely to be pretty weak, transitory and momentary.

Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Career Fellow at CARR and Foundation Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Nevada. His profile can be found here:

© Leonard Weinberg. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).