Two of the deadliest acts of anti-Semitism in American history have occurred in the past seven months. Following the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, many are asking if we have entered a new phase of Jewish life in North America, marked by a level of vulnerability unprecedented in this part of the Diaspora.
Research confirms a global resurgence in anti-Semitism. Chilling data from Tel Aviv University reveals that last year saw the highest number of Jews killed by anti-Semites in decades. The question is no longer quantitative, but qualitative: what is new about Jew hatred in 2019?
Today, as always, anti-Semitism manifests in attitudes and actions along a spectrum of hostility. At its most lethal, it continues to pose a threat to Jewish lives, inspiring violence on the part of white supremacists and Islamist extremists alike. At its most socially acceptable, it threatens the Jewish way of life by alleging, subtly or not-so-subtly, that Jewish identity is anathema to humanity – and Jews must abandon the former to be accepted as part of the latter.
In its most captivating, it revolves around conspiracy theories that claim to expose the Jew as the source of all misfortune, offering clarity and a cause to the “awakened”. Anti-Semites have consistently, and often with delusional sincerity, cited noble ends to justify their darkest deeds.
But if anti-Semitism is a psychological virus, it is one that adapts itself to changing political and social conditions. Understanding the new dimensions that underpin the current rise in anti-Semitism is crucial in tackling it. Three immediate conclusions may be drawn.
The first concerns the threat to Jewish life. Canadian Jewry is security conscious to a greater extent than I have ever seen since I began working for the community in the early 1980s. While it has long been routine for many synagogues to hire paid duty police officers during the High Holidays, CIJA – in concert with our Federation stakeholders – is actively exploring additional measures and public policy options to enhance security at Jewish institutions year-round.
The challenge is not only to ensure that security measures are effective and properly calibrated. It is to foster an environment of healthy vigilance in which security is seen as a collective responsibility, for which all community members have a role. This is why it is encouraging that the government of Canada is considering investments, as CIJA has advocated, in security training for vulnerable houses of worship and schools – which proved lifesaving in Pittsburgh and Poway.
The second concerns the threat to the Jewish way of life. That is, the extent to which Jews are accepted in society without feeling the need to negate their identity. Readers are familiar with the challenge this poses on campus. In the political sector, the growth of anti-Semitic discourse in mainstream American circles has reached disturbing proportions.
The House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee now includes someone who voices anti-Semitic tropes of dual loyalty and Zionist financial influence in politics. The head of the Women’s March has openly stated that Zionists have no place in the feminist movement. Both should be reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s insight: “When people say Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism.”
These voices, which are just a few among a growing number of examples, have always existed. But post-Holocaust, they have never been given a pass by mainstream American institutions. It is no coincidence that multiple candidates for the Democratic presidential ticket refused to participate in this year’s AIPAC policy conference. The boundaries of acceptable discourse around Jews and Israel have moved dramatically. Is it any surprise that the New York Times published a cartoon about the US-Israel relationship reminiscent of Der Sturmer?
Third, the impact of technology on the spread of anti-Semitism has permanently changed the environment. History demonstrates that a societal learning curve follows technological breakthroughs. That curve is often painful. We have only begun to understand, let alone address, the scale and nature of online anti-Semitism.
Lone anti-Semites draw inspiration from a global network as never before. Every vulnerable individual with a smartphone has virtually unlimited access to anti-Semitic content, from conspiracy theory “documentaries” to anonymous message board echo chambers. This is why we have focused significant energy on advocating for a national strategy to tackle online hate and radicalization, in which government and social media companies would work together to counter these trends.
Now more than ever, we must make a compelling argument that what starts with Jews never ends with Jews – and that all Canadians have an interest in ensuring our places of worship, political parties, and online platforms are insulated from Jew hatred.