A little more than a year ago, just before COVID-19 overtook our lives, we were lamenting the troubling rise of antisemitism in the United States. We were nervous. We were concerned. We were slowly being shaken from our “it can’t happen here” attitudes, as we experienced the tension and read reports from the American Jewish Committee and others of the rise of antisemitic events and the disturbing statistics. Even though Jews comprise less than 3% of the American population, the majority of religiously based hate crimes targeted Jewish people or Jewish institutions.
Those reports, and stories of Jews being attacked in broad daylight in major metropolitan areas around the country, were so disturbing that they prompted a March 2020 probing piece by Gary Rosenblatt in The Atlantic, entitled “Is It Still Safe to Be a Jew in America?”
Then came the pandemic and forced isolation. Things seemed to quiet down and attention was diverted with increased focus on serious racial issues that were playing out. But that was followed by the buildup to the deadly confrontation between Israel and Hamas during Operation Guardian of the Walls. And all of a sudden, the ugly scourge of antisemitism is upon us, again. This time, with a more ominous vengeance.
How else does one explain what was on the minds of the men who got out of cars while waving Palestinian flags and ran toward the tables of a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles shouting to diners, “Who’s Jewish?” and proceeded to beat patrons who identified themselves as Jews.
The recurring story of the search for Jews to pummel and exact revenge recalls the worst of history’s antisemitic terror. The attacks, as they mushroomed across the country, once again raised fear that the U.S. is no longer the exceptional nation as a home for Jews.
We once held out hope that attacks against Jews were an aberration. Recent events have disabused us of that dream. According to the Jewish community’s Secure Community Network, antisemitic incidents, including vandalism and physical attacks, have increased 80 percent over the last month. The numbers are scary; the attacks terrifying.
In New York City, 29-year-old Joseph Borgen was beaten by a group of people shouting antisemitic slurs as he lay on the ground in the middle of the street. A 20-year-old professional soccer player in New York said he was threatened by men holding knives who asked if he was Jewish and told him they would kill him if his answer was yes. In Hallandale Beach, Fla., a man shouted antisemitic epithets at a rabbi and later emptied a bag of human feces outside the rabbi’s synagogue.
But the violence is not limited to cities of large, visible Jewish communities. Vandals in Tucson, Ariz., hurled a large object through the glass door of a synagogue. In Anchorage, Alaska, surveillance footage shows a man placing antisemitic stickers on the doors and walls of the Alaska Jewish Museum and a gay bar.
Recognition of the significant rise in antisemitism in the U.S., and the related vilification and increased threat to the safety of Jews, prompted the leaders of 16 of the nation’s most prominent law firms to join together last week in a statement “to publicly denounce anti-Semitism and the demonization of Jews pervading the press, social media, and the streets of this country.” The law firm leaders declared that “we stand against the pernicious and violent attacks against Jews in this country. We are horrified by the vitriolic hate being spewed … on social media. We are disheartened and alarmed by the lack of urgency in denouncing these escalating and offensive attacks of Jews.”
Fortunately, leaders in both political parties are beginning to realize how serious the threat has become. Prodded by major Jewish organizations, the White House recently arranged two off-the-record meetings with Jewish organizational leaders. And while Congressional leaders from both parties have denounced antisemitism in clear and convincing terms, their words are not enough. They must act.
For starters, congressional leaders must lobby the administration to nominate and then back the appointment of a State Department ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat antisemitism. And the Biden team needs to fill the position of Jewish liaison to the White House. These two positions are more than symbolic. They identify departmental and White House personnel who can help address poisonous antisemitism and other issues of serious concern to our community.
But the real need is for the administration to promote the passage of an antisemitism hate-crime law, similar to the anti-Asian hate bill that President Biden signed on May 20. Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and David Kustoff (R-Tenn.) introduced just such a bill last week, which has legislative language closely mirroring that of the anti-Asian hate bill. This legislation against antisemitism is focused and clear, and is very different from the watered down resolution introduced in the House in 2019. Although the 2019 resolution was first introduced to condemn antisemitic comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), it was then neutered to condemn all forms of bigotry — making it as relatively meaningless as the reflexive, offensive rejoinder that “All Lives Matter.”
Any meaningful legislative effort to deal with antisemitism must stay focused on antisemitism. The issue is deadly serious. We join those who insist that it be addressed directly and clearly. If members of Congress are serious about the bill, they should join in a bipartisan effort to get it passed, rather than using the issue as another weapon in their incessant culture wars.
Antisemitism is hateful and corrosive. It is a unique problem that deserves focused attention. It must not be homogenized and lumped together with other forms of hate. We call upon our leaders in government to acknowledge that reality and to take targeted steps to stem the flow of hate that has been pouring down on our people.
We must do everything we can to make it safe to be a Jew in America.