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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Resuscitation of Anti-Semitism: An American Perspective

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, World Jewry
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

No. 13

“The generation of Jewish parents and grandparents who lived through the Holocaust and witnessed the birth of Israel believed they were leaving their children and grandchildren a friendlier environment for Jews. They thought that relating to their Jewish identity would increasingly become their own decision. In fact,” states Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), “not too long ago many good Jews were asking us, why waste your time fighting anti-Semitism? Several prominent Jewish leaders told us that the ADL ‘should get involved in more serious topics than anti-Semitism.'”

“But recent events have disillusioned many,” he continues. “Suddenly, Jews realize the impact their Jewishness has on them is outside their offspring’s control. The potential for increased anti-Semitism already existed during the Gulf War, but as the conflict ended quickly and successfully it didn’t play in the mainstream. Now however, it has started there too. The events of 9/11 and the Palestinian uprising and its ramifications in Europe have resuscitated anti-Semitism. What we do not know is whether it is an existential threat.”

Increasing Numbers of Anti-Semites

“Fascism, Nazism and Communism have largely died out. Anti-Semitism has survived and been reincarnated,” Foxman affirms and points out a bizarre situation. “Over the last twenty years, polls conducted by the University of Chicago concerning the American Jewish community have always found anti-Semitism to be perceived as the number one menace to its survival. A survey of rabbis showed that while they considered anti-Semitism a great threat, they hadn’t experienced it personally. The survey indicated anxiety and insecurity about anti-Semitism rather than personal knowledge.

“The ADL was arguing that anti-Semitism wasn’t as serious as the Jews believed. We told them we are a relatively affluent, well-educated and – per capita – a most influential community. While the ADL was claiming the threats were much less than perceived it was accused of manufacturing anti-Semitism.

“The figures until 2000 showed a clear decline in anti-Semitic attitudes. In 1964, 30 percent of the American people were infected with serious anti-Semitic attitudes. By 1992 this had decreased to 20 percent. It further declined to 12 percent by 1998. We measured this on an index asking people whether or not they agreed with anti-Semitic perceptions – though these findings do not reflect an exact science.

“In a poll we conducted in early 2002, the figure increased to 17 percent – the first time in many years it had swung the other way. This means that 30 to 40 million Americans consider Jews to be too powerful and disloyal. Many believe Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United States.”

Minority Communities

“Minority communities in the United States have a relatively high percentage of anti-Semites. In 1964 we polled the African-American community for the first time; 35 to 40 percent of them held anti-Semitic views. The figure has been constant ever since. Initially they claimed it was untrue. Congressman Charlie Rangel, who receives significant Jewish financial support, accused me of fabricating the figures so that I could substantiate my salary.

“Among foreign-born Hispanics, 44 percent are infected with anti-Semitism. The ‘good news’ is that the figure for American-born Hispanics is 20 percent. The sizable immigration of Hispanics partly explains the recent rise in overall American anti-Semitism. The Muslims are another above average anti-Semitic minority, even though their numbers are not yet significant.

“Demographic changes are thus an important factor in the assessment of anti-Semitism. The number of African-Americans is rather static. That of Hispanics – the most politically dynamic community – is growing by leaps and bounds. Each election gives them more local, state and national representatives. Within 10 to 20 years time many states will become majority-Hispanic. In a few years we may see Hispanic governors in such states as Nevada, Colorado and Arizona. They will be a major block in deciding American policy on both Israel and church-state issues. They have little understanding of the Jews and are often ignorant about us.

“We are working very hard to build relationships through politicians and churches. They are a very diverse community. The cultures of the Columbians, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Mexicans are different. To their churches we say: Rather than blame anti-Semitism on your historical stance, let’s stand together and find a way to fight it.”

Anxiety about the Lieberman Candidacy

“Jews are a diminishing political entity if one looks at our numbers. We participate politically, fund politicians and take part in elections at a rate far above the average. Most of us are Democrats, but on issues central to Jewish welfare, the Jews perceive their interests clearly. Israel is the most dramatic example.

“The discussion about Joe Lieberman’s presidential bid is another indicator of our basic anxiety. Many of us thought that when Lieberman announced his candidacy in the Democratic primaries for president, it meant America had reached political maturity. We had to wait for a Jewish candidate several decades after a Catholic, John Kennedy won the presidency; but most Americans felt America would accept a Jewish candidate.”

In an article in the Palm Beach Post (February 11, 2003), Foxman addressed the Lieberman candidacy and wrote: “Jews historically have been more or less open about their Jewishness; the senator’s openness didn’t seem to hurt him at all in the 2000 campaign; if anything, it seemed to earn respect from many Americans who can identify with someone who is proud of his beliefs. As to questions concerning restrictions on the Sabbath, the senator has explained that this is not an issue for him. Matters of national concern would take precedence.”

Now he adds: “I was shocked to find out that many American Jews are not yet ready for a Jewish candidate. In this wonderful country, the Jews still have a serious level of insecurity. It reflects the ambivalence of minority groups who like to see one of theirs in office, but are afraid that they will be blamed as a group if things go badly; or that the elected individual may be accused of being biased when making decisions. This fear exists, despite the fact that it is the general American conviction that if one has power and influence, it should be exercised.

“When Lieberman was a vice presidential candidate in the previous elections, I criticized him. He said something similar to Pat Robertson, claiming that morality comes only from religion. Many Jews were upset: how can one Jew criticize another Jew? Now that he is running for the presidency, we see that even more Jews are feeling unsettled. They ask, What do we need this for? How is he going to deal with Israel? These questions are even more troubling to them after 9/11 and the Iraq war.”

Europe and the United Nations

“There is only justification for insecurity if it remains within proportion. One should not live with blindness and say everything is wonderful and everybody loves me. Jews have historically earned the right to a certain level of paranoia. In Europe, however, anti-Semitism is reaching extreme proportions. In France and other European countries Jews are hiding their Jewish identity. They are no longer wearing yarmulkes or Magen David emblems. What is next? Not going to synagogue for fear of being attacked? Not sending one’s children to Jewish schools as they may be targeted there?

“Indeed, findings show that political anti-Semitism in Europe is twice as high as in the United States. In Spain, there are perhaps only 15 to 20 thousand Jews, yet 74 percent of all Spaniards believe Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Spain. The figure in France is only slightly lower.

“Social anti-Semitism has declined. This however, only means that Jews are accepted as equal individuals. What continues is prejudice vis-a-vis group rights. At the United Nations and many other international forums, we are not accorded equal status. In many forums it is considered racist for the Jews to have a Jewish state, but not for the Palestinians to have a Palestinian one. This is the clearest illustration of double standards applied to the Jewish people.”

Arabs Promoting Jewish Guilt

“All this was playing in the background when on 9/11 America woke up to a trauma. Americans like simple answers to difficult questions and started asking: Why do they hate us? What did we do? The Arabs promoted the idea that ‘it’s all the fault of the Jews.’ You have your military in Saudi Arabia and support the Israelis, they said. Before the Iraq war one started reading about hawkish people with Jewish names, with the implication that these were the people who wanted the war – as though the president, the vice president and the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, were non-players.

“The false notion that this war was driven by ‘Jewish interests’ or the ‘pro-Israel-lobby’ followed earlier insinuations by Holocaust deniers and other anti-Semites. They accused Israel and Jews of having been involved in causing the Columbia shuttle disaster. They said there was something sinister about having an Israeli astronaut in the mission.

“If one-third of the U.S population thinks we are not loyal and some consider the Iraq war as a ‘Jewish war’ on behalf of Israel, the anti-Semitic potential is major. A senior Jewish journalist friend called me before the first anniversary of 9/11 and said to me: ‘You have to do something about the Arab concept that the Jews are responsible for 9/11. Can you find out how many Jews were killed there?'”

500 Jews Killed on 9/11

“A week later I called him and said ‘about 500,’ which is 15 to 17 percent of all the victims killed in the World Trade Center. The figure would have been even higher had it not been for the fact that many Orthodox Jews went to work an hour later because of the Selichot prayers recited in the days before the Jewish New Year.

“My friend then replied, ‘Don’t tell anybody that because the Arabs will say the Jews had religious reasons in choosing the date of the attack. They claim that the Iraq war started on the Purim holiday and fantasize this to be further evidence of the Jews controlling the world.’

“The communications revolution has given a major boost to Arab and other anti-Semitism. The most outrageous things can be said on the Web. These have credibility as they appear in a medium which also provides news and entertainment. For much of the world the Internet is the fountain of everything they know.”

Importance of the Upcoming Elections

“Cynics say that if the Jews were as smart as everybody says they are, they wouldn’t vote 80-20 in favor of the Democrats, but rather 60-40 or 55-45. Then the Democrats wouldn’t take them for granted and the Republicans would move quickly away from their past stance of ‘we’re not going to worry about them.’

“Unless we can establish in the minds of both parties that Jews are not an automatic voting machine, our influence will wither away. The Republicans understand that Jewish votes can be important in places where they have problems with the minorities voting Democrat. The Republicans saw it as a sign of hope that the Jews were instrumental in the re-election of Florida’s governor, Jeb Bush. I do not think Jews will vote for a Republican congressman to say thank you to the president. There are longstanding relationships on the congressional level, and local issues also play an important role.”

The Social Agenda

“At the same time, Jews are nervous about the social agenda. I reprinted a column by Ralph Reed – formerly of the Christian Coalition and until recently the head of the Republican Party in Georgia. It appeared in the Los Angeles Times and was entitled ‘Why people of faith support Israel.’ I thanked him and reprinted it inter alia in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Washington Times.

“I was then attacked by other Jews who said I was giving credibility to an enemy of the Jewish people, which he is not. As long as Pat Robertson, Jerry Fallwell and Ralph Reed do not make their support of Israel conditional on the Jews’ changing their views on separation of church and state, why should I reject them?

“We cannot expect to agree on everything with all who support Israel, nor is it necessary to get support on specific issues important to us. It often leads to dilemmas. Tom DeLay, as majority leader of the House of Representatives, appeared at a breakfast entitled ‘Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem’ together with then Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert. How can any Jew object to the idea of praying for the peace of Jerusalem?

“In the afternoon the mayor appeared at the Christian Coalition saying that the Christians have a duty to elect candidates to office who are good Christians and believe in Jesus Christ. Then we attacked him as this was contrary to what we understand to be the American tradition. A small Jewish organization sent me condoms to tell me they thought I had been ‘sleeping with the enemy.'”

Campus Problems

“The campus has become a place of preoccupation for the Jews. Polls conducted there, following classical polling methods, found only three percent anti-Semitism. Our definition of an anti-Semite may, however, no longer be adequate for the current situation. Much radicalism and third-worldism expresses itself against Israel in anti-Semitic ways.

“Radicalism plays in many ways in campus attacks against Israel. In autumn 2002 there was a divestiture campaign against Israel on a number of campuses. At the University of Michigan a national divestment conference was held which encouraged the 400 students who attended to promote divestment from Israel at their universities.

“The singling out of Israel went far beyond criticism of Israeli government policies. It made hideous comparisons to apartheid and referred to Israel as a racist state. At the conference there was talk about the ‘racism and discrimination inherent in Zionism,’ while no reference was made to Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians.

“The campaign against Israel was accompanied by frequent cancellations of invitations to Israeli academics and other speakers, even when visits to these institutions were apolitical. On some occasions there have been physical assaults on Jewish students and vandalism of Jewish facilities. The main movers of this extremist activism are Islamic and left-wing groups. Their rhetoric can result in a further increase in anti-Semitism on campus.

“One should not be misled by perceptions. The anti-Israel issue may exist on perhaps 50 or 100 campuses. On some of them – such as Berkeley and Columbia – radicalism has always been accompanied by attacks against Israel. The campus has always been less supportive of Israel than any other group whenever the ADL measured it, but nobody cared. Only when the Palestinian uprising erupted, Jewish parents and grandparents realized their children had no clear Jewish identity and were embarrassed to be asked on campus about it.

“There are disturbing indicators on what is happening to Jews on campus. The president of Harvard – Lawrence Summers – spoke out against anti-Semitism. He considered carefully every word he said and indicated that even unintentionally, one can sometimes become anti-Semitic, and that people should be aware of this. An editorial in the campus newspaper at Harvard accused Summers of stifling debate, and since then he hasn’t been heard from. Had he talked about Native Americans, Chinese, Blacks or Hispanics, he would have been applauded for having the courage to stand up against bigotry and racism.”

Investing in Student Editors

“The ADL now holds an annual conference for editors of college and university newspapers where advertising responsibility is discussed. The First Amendment doesn’t require anyone to publish every piece that comes in. The ADL also has a program that sends about thirty college student-editors to Poland, Bulgaria and Israel each year. We started it twelve years ago when Holocaust denial was debated. If someone had printed an advertisement saying that American Indians hadn’t been massacred, campus journals would reject it. Yet many of them printed Holocaust denial advertisements which they defended as academic freedom of speech. This was another manifestation of the double standards used against the Jews.

“We thought the ADL’s editors’ travelers program would be a good investment. We chose Bulgaria as it had saved Jews during the Holocaust. In fall 2002, the editor of the Harvard Crimson called me and said he wanted to apologize for the editorial criticizing the university president about the anti-Semitism comment. He wrote a dissenting editorial and asked me to write an op-ed on why divestment from Israel was anti-Semitic.”

In this article published in Harvard’s student newspaper on October 29, 2002, Foxman wrote: “If we are to avoid revisiting the kind of hatred we saw during World War II, we must begin by admitting that there is a problem: anti-Semitism is alive and well, surely in the Middle East where many of the people believe the big lie that Jews were behind the events of September 11, in Europe where hundreds of serious anti-Semitic incidents have occurred over the last year and where governments have done little, and even in the U.S….It is unconscionable to draw comparisons between Israel – a democratic, pluralistic state and strong U.S. ally – and apartheid South Africa.”

Foxman now adds: “Anyone who saw the movie Hitler, the Rise of Evil understands that he could have been stopped many times, yet the Newark Board of Education gave an award to Amiri Baraka, an anti-Semitic poet. High schools in Newark invite him as does Yale. Another anti-Semitic poet, Tom Paulin, was invited to Harvard and Columbia. There is something sick in academia.”

Sinister Religious Anti-Semitism

Foxman addresses another major concern: “We should not ignore the religious element in anti-Semitism which makes it more dangerous and sinister. We suffered from church anti-Semitism for many decades. Hitler built on that even if he didn’t justify it by claiming God told him to do it.

“We are now living in an era where Allah is the rationale and impetus for anti-Semitism. Many Palestinian suicide bombers, who go out to kill Jews, don’t wrap themselves in a Palestinian flag. When one looks at their ritual they don’t talk about free Palestine, Hebron or Jerusalem. Theirs are religious acts represented by the flag of Islam and its ‘ideals’ of martyrdom. They go out to murder as many Jews or other ‘infidels’ as possible.

“We are very squeamish about confronting religion. President Bush – for understandable reasons – says that the war against Bin Laden is not a religious one, though it is. Due to religion, anti-Semitism has taken on a new dimension. How can you deal with a truth perverted and couched in a faith which is so threatening because it is so irrational and has become global?”

Different from the 1930s

“Yet today’s situation is not similar to that of the period before the Holocaust. Firstly, since the state of Israel exists, Jews in France do not have to worry about U.S. immigration quotas if anti-Semitism worsens there. Argentine Jews also have at least one place to go when the economy deteriorates.

“There is also a second major factor. America today is different from the 1930s. It is the only country where 99 out of 100 senators stand behind Israel and which reprimands Egypt and France about their anti-Semitism. An event I’ll never forget was when George Schultz, Secretary of State of the United States, held a seder for refuseniks in Moscow. The American Jewish community is also different. If led properly – despite its insecurity and anxiety – it is willing to stand up for what it believes in.”

Interviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld

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Abraham H. Foxman was born in Baranowicz, Poland, in 1940 and survived the Second World War in Vilna by assuming a Catholic identity. In 1946 he was subject to a custody battle in Soviet courts. In 1950 he went with his parents to the United States where he studied at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, City College, and New York University Law School. In 1965 he began working at the Anti-Defamation League and became its national director in 1987. He is the author of Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism, to be published in October by Harper Collins.

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This interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld will be part of his forthcoming book, Changing Jewish Attitudes and Expectations in the American Public Square, part of the project “Jews in the American Public Square” initiated by the Pew Charitable Trusts.