Long after the current hostilities in Israel and Gaza end, the American Jewish community will have to face an even greater and more personal challenge: how to address the emergence, or reemergence, of overt antisemitism in the U.S.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), in an unprecedented speech on the floor of the Senate on Nov. 29, called antisemitism in the U.S. a “five-alarm fire” for American Jews. Indeed, it is.
“The vitriol against Israel in the wake of Oct. 7 is all too often crossing a line into brazen and widespread antisemitism the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations in this country, if ever,” Schumer said. “In many ways, we feel alone.”
Since Hamas attacked Israel, deliberately targeting women, beheading babies and taking people of all ages as hostages, there has been a nearly quadruple spike in antisemitic incidents reported to the Anti-Defamation League. And we know that such incidents are significantly underreported.
What is especially disturbing is the surge of antisemitic activity on college campuses. Pro-Palestinian students have created an environment where many Jewish students feel physically threated and forced to remove jewelry or clothing that identifies them as Jewish. The shameful equivocation about antisemitism of the three university presidents at a congressional hearing just added fuel to an already festering concern about campus antisemitism.
Pro-Palestinian advocates express legitimate concerns about the safety of their relatives and the future of Gaza. But their statements are often based on misinformation, ranging from a lack of understanding of Middle East history to outright denial of the atrocities of the Hamas soldiers. It is discouraging, even frightening, to see the level of misinformation, in fact total ignorance, exhibited by many college students, not just those with emotional ties to Gaza, but also among non-Jewish, non-Palestinian students who have no personal stake in Israel-Palestinian relations.
The concern about campus violence does not affect only Jewish students. Three Palestinian students were shot in Vermont and Palestinian students on some campuses have told the media they too are frightened.
Another disturbing factor that has emerged is the decision by many pro-women’s groups in the U.S. to initially and in some cases still avoid condemning Hamas’ targeting women and girls. It has been documented that Hamas soldiers were instructed to rape and kidnap women. Many purportedly pro-women’s groups have been silent about this anti-women, pro-rape strategy. These groups must be held accountable for their silence.
The American Jewish community has been focused on the hostages’ release and on how Israel can achieve its goal of crushing Hamas with minimum impact on Palestinian civilians. Within Israel and the Jewish community worldwide, while there are expressions of concern for the innocent Gazans, there is resolve that an enemy whose stated goal is annihilation of the Jewish people cannot be left capable of resuming its terrorism. As Schumer said, even though we are 90 years past 1933, when Hitler took power in Germany, within every Jew rests the commitment that never again will Jews fall victim to antisemites.
While what is happening in Israel and Gaza is very disturbing to American Jews, what is happening closer to home in our own communities is frightening. We see overt antisemitism in neighborhoods and local schools, spurred on by social and other media.
As we look beyond the present hostilities, the Jewish community in the U.S. must reinvigorate our efforts to prevent antisemitism from taking hold or spreading. To address the recent surge, there are steps that we as a community must pursue.
One, we must encourage our leaders – not just political, but also celebrities, social media influencers, academics at all levels – to be unequivocal in speaking out against antisemitism and hate against any group. During the current conflict, Israel has been supported by many influential leaders, but many influencers have been silent, or even have supported Hamas for fighting what they describe as Israeli apartheid. The equivocation by the three university presidents escalated this concern to front-page attention.
Our leaders, especially non-Jews, must be encouraged to speak out. Public figures with influence must condemn hate speech and terrorism, especially when the terrorists target civilian women and babies.
Two, we must be more proactive in providing accurate information on the internet and in social media, and in correcting the vast amounts of misinformation. The Jewish community in the Greater Washington area and across the country has long had programs in place to address antisemitic misinformation and educate about the Holocaust but given the five-alarm fire that Schumer labeled, these programs must be expanded. Social media has been especially susceptible to spreading misinformation among the younger generation.
Three, education at all levels must be expanded. Education about Jewish and Middle East history cannot be limited to the Holocaust and cannot end in 1945. Israel’s history cannot begin in 1948. One high school in Montgomery County at one time centered its Jewish history education around showing “Schindler’s List.”
For today’s Americans, even American Jews, the Holocaust is history. Education about Jews and Judaism must focus on the present – the place of religious and racial minorities in the U.S. culture, the Jewish community’s historical and ongoing commitment to diversity and equity.
The ignorance demonstrated by college students is appalling. Even Jewish students (and adults) do not seem to understand what Israel stands for and how efforts to attain a legitimate state for Palestinians have been thwarted by Palestinian leaders themselves, whose intent is not to build a state where Palestinians can thrive, but to destroy Israel and Jewry.
There are many other steps that can and should be taken to combat the surge in U.S. and worldwide antisemitism. But most importantly, it is essential that Americans stand up to combatting hate in all its forms, including antisemitism, and specifically that the American Jewish community understand the seriousness of the threat exposed in the past two months and be proactive in assuring that the U.S. remains safe for people of all religions.
Wayne Pines lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.