Daily reports of anti-Semitism in different areas of the U.S. are alarming many in the Jewish community and beyond. Last year, there were 600 hate crimes against Jews on American college campuses and more than 130 such instances, including Swastikas painted on doorways, slurs, and physical assaults, have occurred since the beginning of 2017 less than three months ago.
Many American Jews had become complacent in the feeling that they were living in halcyon times where anti-Semitism was a thing of the past, something they would never have to confront in their own lifetimes. And yet, current events are now eerily reminiscent of a difficult and tragic past that Jews experienced in various parts of the world at different points throughout history. This ugly, age-old phenomenon is sending jolts through a forward-thinking society that prides itself on embracing diversity. The resurgence of anti-Semitism is not an isolated event – racism and intolerance of other groups have also increased.
Why is anti-Semitism rearing its head in the U.S. and what can be done?
Over the last year, as the presidential campaign heated up, the political scene became increasingly polarized. The moderate perspective nearly disappeared as the candidates’ rhetoric attracted voters to the ideology of the far right and far left. The resurgence of anti-Semitism is occurring across the political spectrum. On the far right, anti-Semitism is instigated by hyper-nationalism as it has been for millennia. American exceptionalism has been conflated with anger and fear directed against those who are perceived as different. Even Jews who have been an integral part of American society for centuries have been targeted by a small cadre of agitated “believers.”
On the far left, Jews and Israel are viewed and vilified as privileged and influential elites who wield control over U.S. banking and political systems. For some “progressives”, anyone with power is automatically suspect and corrupt. As politics have become more polarized, so has the media. With the proliferation of online outlets, everyone now has the option of reading only those news sources that espouse their own viewpoint and engaging only with those who speak their own political language. This reduces peaceful discourse and amplifies and exacerbates the national polarization and vitriol against specific groups.
On campuses, college students seem unwilling to engage in dialogue with those who they view as different than themselves as well as those who hold opposing views on key issues. Two weeks ago, protesters at Middlebury College in Vermont rioted and physically harmed a professor serving as a moderator when controversial guest speaker Charles Murray attempted to deliver his talk. Because they disagreed with Murray’s ideas and deemed them unacceptable, they decided they could flout the college’s rules for protests. Middlebury’s students’ actions have been criticized by their own faculty and administration and commentators across the political spectrum. Yet the polarized media atmosphere has fostered the kind of thinking that promotes intolerance and incivility. The Middlebury protests and those of so many students on today’s campuses seriously restrict the tolerance and free exchange of ideas that should be characteristic of higher education.
Anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred have been around for millennia and technological, political, and industrial progress do not seem to have eradicated bias and prejudice. That is why it makes sense to seek current solutions to anti-Semitism through the prism of history.
This week, Jews celebrated the miracle of Purim with a holiday commemorating the salvation of the Jewish people in the 4th century BCE from the story’s villain, Haman, who plotted genocide against all the Jews in the ancient Persian Empire. On Purim, the Jewish heroes of the story worked with the non-Jews in power to defeat those who plotted to destroy them. The solution was political as the King clamped down on the radical elements in his own administration, namely Haman, and protected the citizenry. Queen Esther and her uncle, Mordechai, showed their loyalty to the King and then successfully appealed to him to eradicate hate and evil. The solution to anti-Semitism required a partnership between the Jewish community and the political elite.
How can we apply the lessons of past successes to today’s challenges?
There are no magical solutions. We in the United States must restore civility and tolerance to politics and the national discourse. We must work together with those with whom we disagree and hear the perspectives of others. We need our leaders to act firmly and fairly and sometimes, as in the past, we need to lobby them aggressively.
On a national level, we would do well to take a page out of the Book of Esther and stand with our non-Jewish leaders to fight against hatred of all kinds. The recent resolution for combatting anti-Semitism, urged by all 100 U.S. Senators, must be supported. Additional protection under the law to battle anti-Semitism and racism must be encouraged so that all citizens feel safe in their own country. People who spew forth hate in words and action should be prosecuted. The emerging trope that that power and corruption are identical must be combatted as both illogical and immoral.
On a personal level, it is impossible to legislate against feelings of bigotry. Yet, if we open ourselves up to seeking out people who think, look and act differently than ourselves, we may be able to find human commonalities and reduce the polarization that is plaguing our society. Often, people who hate Jews, Blacks, gays, or other minorities, have not spent much time with any members of those groups and view them as stereotypes. Getting to know people on an individual level nearly always breaks preconceived notions and could be the first step toward building empathy and healing the toxic atmosphere that permeates our nation.
Alan Kadish, M.D. is President of Touro College and University System, the largest Jewish-sponsored educational institution in the United States. The system encompasses approximately 18,000 students across 30 campuses and locations in four countries. Under his leadership, Touro provides educational opportunities and career paths ranging from liberal arts to law, medicine, dentistry and health sciences to technology, business, Jewish studies, education and more. Follow Dr. Kadish at https://twitter.com/DrKadish