History is flashing warnings to the world.
Outbursts of antisemitism have often been harbingers of societies in deep trouble and omens that extremism and violence are imminent.
So the wave of global hatred directed against Jews – intensified by Israel’s indiscriminate response in Gaza to horrific Hamas terrorist murders of Israeli civilians on October 7 – should not just be seen as a reaction to the Middle East yet again slumping into war.
Recent antisemitism is also a reflection of destructive forces tearing at American and western European societies, where stability and democracy are already under pressure.
The Hamas attacks – a pogrom against Jews that killed 1,400, mostly civilians – have initiated a sequence of events that have left Jewish people around the world feeling threatened. And now that the Israeli government has sought retribution through air strikes and operations in Gaza targeting Hamas, the scenes of carnage in Palestinian communities threaten to further drain public sympathy for Israel abroad and, in some cases, contribute to an atmosphere that risks worsening harassment of Jewish people.
In the United States there is a climate of growing fear.
Jewish day schools have canceled classes. Synagogues have been locked. Social media has pulsated with hatred against Jews, leaving a community that can never escape its historic trauma yet again wondering where and when it can ever be safe.
Rising hate is tangible. The idea that Jewish Americans studying at Cornell University could so fear for their lives on their Ivy League campus in rural New York that they couldn’t even eat together in 2023 seems almost impossible to believe. Yet it’s the case after death threats were posted online. Tensions were already high after a Cornell professor said he was initially “exhilarated” over the Hamas attacks at a pro-Palestinian event because the group had changed the balance of power. He later apologized for his choice of words. Police Monday stepped up patrols and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, traveled to campus to vow that “we will not tolerate threats, or hatred or antisemitism.” But a feeling of fear pervades Cornell, said Molly Goldstein, co-president of the Cornell Center for Jewish Living. “Jewish students on campus right now are unbelievably terrified for their lives,” she told CNN. “I never would have expected this to happen on my university campus.”
The frightening online threats at Cornell, which are just part of the spate of antisemitism exacerbated by the fallout of the Gaza war, has many Jews wondering if their safety can be guaranteed in the United States — let alone in Israel where the attacks shattered illusion of security for the Jewish people. Pro-Palestinian protests at some universities have crossed over the line into antisemitism and prompted Republicans and some Democrats to warn campuses are in the grip of far-left radicalism.
Elsewhere, in one of many other incidents, a Beverly Hills home of a Holocaust survivor was daubed with antisemitic graffiti reading “F— Jews.” There have also been multiple cases of antisemitism in Europe, which was often criticized by US officials in years past for doing too little to crack down even as the scourge was metastasizing in America. In one of the most shocking scenes, a crowd of people stormed an airport in Russia’s mostly Muslim region of Dagestan, where a flight from Israel arrived on Sunday, chanting, “There is no place for child-killers in Dagestan.” These are scenes with chilling echoes of the 1940s – a decade of destruction and carnage that has already been evoked in the last 18 months by Russia’s onslaught against civilians in Ukraine.
Nearly a century after the rise of Nazism and the beginning of the Holocaust, which killed at least 6 million European Jews, descendants of the dead are yet again being threatened because of who they are, their history and how they worship. Nations that often vowed “Never Again” at Holocaust memorial events now face a responsibility to tackle antisemitism at home, just as they were forced to mobilize against anti-Muslim rhetoric, violence and prejudice after the September 11 terror attacks in 2001 by al Qaeda – which is also still a threat today, as President Joe Biden noted in his Oval Office address on October 20, after returning from a trip to Israel. “We reject all forms of hate, whether against Muslims, Jews, or anyone. That’s what great nations do, and we are great nation,” he said.
Biden on Monday unveiled new measures to tackle antisemitism on college campuses and senior officials underscored the need to combat anti-Jewish hate. “It’s dangerous, it’s unacceptable –- anywhere in the world, certainly here in the United States of America,” John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, said on “CNN This Morning.”
The need is great since FBI Director Christopher Wray warned Tuesday that antisemitism is reaching “historic levels” in the US.
“In fact, our statistics would indicate that for a group that represents only about 2.4% of the American public, they account for something like 60% of all religious-based hate crimes,” Wray said of the Jewish American community in a Senate hearing.
But efforts to combat the situation with added security may struggle while the horror in the Middle East continues to unfold.
Israel rejects the idea that its action in Gaza is indiscriminate, saying that unlike Hamas in its terror attack, it does not seek to target civilians and it blames the militant group for embedding its military infrastructure in highly populated areas in Gaza. Still, its military strikes have caused large numbers of civilian casualties, and the Gazans it has advised to evacuate have nowhere to go in a territory facing a humanitarian catastrophe amid shortages of water, medical care and food. The question of Israeli tactics arose again Tuesday after an Israel Defense Forces attack caused a massive blast at the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza, leaving many casualties, officials on both sides said.
In an ideal world, criticism of Israel’s military response would center only on its government and not rebound against Jews around the world – many of whom oppose the country’s hardline government.
But in practice, antisemitism could grow more pervasive in the coming weeks.
A widening problem in the United States
In recent years, antisemitism has often been driven in the United States by far-right groups. The hate of White Nationalism was encapsulated by the haunting chant by marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 of, “Jews will not replace us.” Former President Donald Trump, meanwhile, played into an antisemitic trope by suggesting that American Jews were plagued by dual loyalties to the US and Israel and that they should be more grateful to him for his policies on the Jewish state. But reaction to the deepening crisis in Israel and Gaza has shown that antisemitism is also boiling on the far-left. Some pro-Palestinian protesters in the US, for instance, appeared to embrace Hamas, a Palestinian militant group categorized by the United States as a terrorist organization that itself has imposed repression on Palestinians in Gaza and perpetrated the Israeli massacres.
Academic studies have shown that antisemitism often spikes amid crisis points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This suggests that it is a latent force below the surface in US society and only needs the spur of an event to erupt. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, has catalogued a 400% increase in antisemitic incidents in the US since October 7. That said, organizations like the ADL also charted rising hate toward American Jews in recent years during a comparative period of calm in the Middle East, suggesting that domestic forces and the rise of extreme rhetoric and violence-fueled hate are also driving the problem. The organization detailed 3,697 antisemitic incidents in the US in 2022, up 36% year-on-year and the highest on record.
Still, the increasingly fraught and divided politics in Western nations already rocked by extremism makes the nuanced handling of the Israeli-Palestinian issue nearly impossible. Toxic dialogue on social media and a flood of inaccurate information makes the problem worse while partisans predisposed to support Israel or Palestinians often equate the actions of Hamas and the Israeli government with civilians who have no control over them.
Alongside the threats and harassment experienced by Jews in recent weeks, Americans were also traumatized by the shocking fatal stabbing of a 6-year-old Chicago boy of Palestinian descent, allegedly by his family’s landlord, which is being investigated by the Department of Justice as a hate crime. The senseless killing was a reminder of the murderous reach of historic antagonisms in the Middle East and underscored the magnitude of the region’s massive human tragedy in which civilians — Israelis and Arabs — are often caught up in horrific events in which they have no role or responsibility.
Middle East history is a moral maze
The Israeli-Palestinian question is one of such historic, geographic and political complexity that it is easy for domestic politicians in the West to latch onto any one aspect of the conflict as they seek to advance their own political ends. Each murder, war, massacre or conflict sows the seeds of its successors in the region.
That reality is being reflected in the domestic politics spawned by the conflict in the US and Europe.
Since the attacks in Israel, protesters who back Palestinian rights and worry about civilian casualties in the packed urban areas and refugee camps in Gaza have often been accused in conservative media of supporting terrorists. In the past, Israel’s most committed supporters have often and inaccurately tried to paint any criticism of Israel by politicians or journalists as antisemitism. Some on the left, in calling for an immediate ceasefire in recent days, have appeared to question Israel’s right to defend itself at all after the appalling civilian carnage.
Antisemitic threats, meanwhile, often arise out of a conceit that all Jews, by definition, must somehow share responsibility for what is seen as the denial of Palestinian statehood or hardline settlement building policies on Palestinian land in the West Bank that have been pursued under successive Israeli governments.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday tried to pinpoint the moment at which opposition to Israeli policies crosses into antisemitism. “I’m sickened and frightened by the news that has come out of Cornell University,” the New York Democrat said, warning that the threats were “utterly revolting” but not isolated. “We must condemn all forms of hate. Nobody denies that people of goodwill can have disagreements about the conflict in the Middle East, but the red line is crossed when these disagreements lead to violence or threats of violence.”
One lesson Americans learned in recent years is their country is not immune from political turmoil and hatred that many thought had no place in the 21st century in a modern, democratic, developed country. After all, the United States recently suffered a mob attack on Congress fueled by false claims of a stolen election.
Antisemitism is no exception.
“Many of us did not expect to see these events unfolding right here America – but the fact of the matter is that it could happen here,” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told Kasie Hunt on “State of the Race” on CNN Max on Monday.
“A mob tearing through an airport in Russia searching for Jews to lynch is terrifying, but it is equally terrifying for a student from Cornell to find on the general message boards these posts to ‘slit the throat of Jews.’”
“This is antisemitism, this is threatening Jews worldwide.”
History does not end. It merely slumbers, then repeats itself.
This story has been updated with additional developments and context regarding Israeli airstrikes.
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