After more than 200 hate crimes were committed against Jews in New York City two years ago, including a series of violent attacks on Orthodox Jews, 25,000 people walked across the Brooklyn Bridge in a solidarity march organized by the UJA Federation of New York and sponsored by a host of other major Jewish organizations.
But this month, with antisemitic attacks on American Jews — violent incidents on the streets of New York and Los Angeles, vandalized synagogues and a sharp spike in anti-Jewish hatred online — increasing 80% during the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, the response has been far less unified.
While American Jews grapple with a very real surge in antisemitism, they are also debating it among themselves, asking the most fundamental questions about how to define and react to it. For many, that often heated conversation and the way it connects to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become as discomfiting as the antisemitism itself.
“The weird thing is how it’s been politicized,” said Julia Jassey, a college student in Chicago who founded an organization to combat antisemitism last year. “Wherever you stand on the conflict tends to correlate with how you view the increase in antisemitism.”
Some of the progressive responses include tactical arguments, for example, that antisemitism gives Palestinian activism a bad reputation. Conservatives have tended to lump harsh criticism of Israel in with physical assaults on American Jews.
“Those marches and rallies do not look peaceful,” Roz Rothstein, director of the pro-Israel group StandWithUs, said of the protests over Israel. “They’re using terminology that’s clearly antisemitic and so I think they’re getting people very revved up.”
On the left, activists for Palestinians rights, long wary of their criticism of Israel being countered with bad faith accusations of antisemitism, reject the idea that it’s the protests targeting Israel that have put American Jews in danger. While progressives connected the far-right synagogue shootings during the presidency of Donald Trump to rhetoric coming from mainstream figures in the Republican Party, they tend to view violence committed by people who were also protesting for Palestinian rights as isolated incidents.
“Attacks on Jews are unequivocally wrong no matter who does it — whether it’s a protester who attended a Palestinian rights rally and is wearing a keffiyeh or whether it’s a Trump supporter,” said Ben Lorber, an analyst at Public Research Associates, a left-wing think tank. “But we’re in a situation where progressives and, increasingly, the general public are clear that these protests for Palestinian rights are not driven by antisemitism.”
That sentiment is born out by data collected by the Anti-Defamation League. Oren Segal, director of the organization’s Center on Extremism, said that while there was some bigotry on the fringes of events held to protest Israel’s actions in Gaza and Jerusalem, they were the exception.
“The protests in this country have not been marked with the level of antisemitic expressions that we have seen in previous years,” said Segal.
At the same time, online antisemitism tied to the conflict has soared — and Jews have been brutally attacked on the streets of New York City and Los Angeles by men holding Palestinian flags. Synagogues in Arizona, Illinois and Utah have also been vandalized, and Jews have reported street harassment that stopped short of physical violence elsewhere in the country.
The case that has drawn the most attention is the beating of 29-year-old Joseph Borgen, who was wearing a kippah and on his way to a pro-Israel protest near Times Square last Thursday when he was knocked to the ground in the middle of the street and kicked, punched, hit with a crutch and pepper sprayed. On the same day, pro-Palestinian protesters in cars shot fireworks at people standing on the sidewalk in the heavily Jewish Diamond District of Manhattan, burning one woman.
Another high-profile incident took place in Los Angeles earlier that week, when a group of men broke off from a pro-Palestinian caravan of vehicles to attack Jewish diners at a sushi restaurant; a video circulating on social media also showed a Jeep attempting to run down an Orthodox Jew in the city.
“While it’s unfortunate and illogical, some Palestinian activists seem not only prone to violence but to conflating all identifiable Jews with Israel,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel, an Orthodox umbrella group. “I’m not a particularly nervous person, but I’m never without my pepper spray, just in case.”
Other Jews are wondering whether it’s safe to wear a kippah outside their homes. Police have stepped up their patrols of Jewish neighborhoods in New York and fitness buffs in Los Angeles have volunteered to escort Jews to Shabbat services. Last week’s ceasefire between Israel and Hamas has not allayed fears and Jewish leaders met Monday to discuss the spike in antisemitism with President Joe Biden.
Many progressive activists, including Palestinian-American leaders, have sought to draw a clear line between their work and anti-Jewish violence and online harassment.
“Antisemites are never welcome in the movement for justice and peace in Palestine,” Jehad Abusalim, who works at the American Friends Service Committee, and has been a vocal advocate for Palestinian rights, wrote on Twitter last week. “Pass it on.”
But some American Jews feel that the condemnations of the antisemitism from activists and public figures has paled in comparison to the outrage over Palestinian casualties in Gaza and to the concern expressed for other American minorities like Blacks or Asians.
“We are quite struck by the silence that we’re hearing from certain corners of American civil society,” said Avi Mayer, director of global communications for the American Jewish Committee. “Just as we rightfully rose up when other groups were being targeted, we hope and expect our allies throughout American society will do the same.”
Jewish responses to the rise in antisemitism vary from Mayer’s frustration that more people — including other Jews — aren’t more upset, to a worry that some claims of recent antisemitism are unfounded, and circulated to undermine the Palestinian cause.
One factor that may have led to the scattered and delayed response to incidents is that many of those leading the charge against recent antisemitism have grouped a wide variety of events together.
There have been more ambiguous cases that don’t fit squarely into the category of unprovoked street attacks, like the man who showed up to a large pro-Palestinian demonstration in suburban Cleveland with an Israeli flag and told the Cleveland Jewish News that he and his wife were assaulted and his yarmulke burned. A video captured the man, Alec Popivker, running after someone who appeared to have stolen his flag and fighting with a group of protesters before the item was returned. Some at the scene said he had started the altercation by hitting a protester with the flag pole.
And while some of the vandalism has been explicitly tied to Israel, such as an incident where a “Freedom for Palestine” sign was found next to a broken window of a synagogue outside Chicago, others — like the swastikas painted on a south Florida bus stop — might be unrelated to the Middle East.
The ADL has also been criticized on social media for labeling signs declaring Zionism racist as examples of recent antisemitism, underscoring one of the challenges in bringing people from across the political spectrum together to oppose discrimination against Jews.
Equating a Jew getting randomly jumped in the street to a protester holding a sign saying “Zionism is Racism”, and flattening these statistics into an “80 percent surge in antisemitism” creates a “cry wolf” dynamic where people will be skeptical about antisemitism when it happens— #SaveSheikhJarrah #YemenCantWait (@telushk) May 26, 2021
“It’s difficult for the American Jewish community to come together in opposition to antisemitism because they’re so divided when it comes to Israel,” said Dov Waxman, chair of the Israel Studies department at the University of California, Los Angeles. “You get this very polarized reaction.”
The surge in online antisemitism, including on relatively new platforms like TikTok and Clubhouse, can also make some Jews feel that they are facing a level of hostility that goes well beyond the clutch of violent attacks last week. Social media communities of largely pro-Israel Jews have banded together to speak out against what they see as widespread antisemitism, which often includes sharing videos, articles and data from Europe, where violence against Jews has spiked during every outbreak of hostilities in Israel going back to the Second Intifada in the early 2000s.
The conflation of American and European experiences can muddy perceptions of the threat facing Jews in the U.S.. For example, Hen Mazzig, an Israeli writer based in London, has been sharing an alarming statistic: “attacks on Jews have gone up 438%.” That number, which comes from the Community Security Trust, which seeks to protect Jews in Britain, was specific to the United Kingdom and referred to 86 reports of antisemitism, four of which included violence, according to the Jewish News. Yet the 438% figure circulated widely among Jews in the United States without context, suggesting an off-the-charts increase in domestic antisemitism. Though Security Trust’s American counterpart also reported a dramatic spike in antisemitism in the U.S., the reported British increase was more than five times higher.
One area where both those in the Jewish establishment and more leftist Jewish groups agree is that more work needs to be done in making it clear that individual Jews are not responsible for the actions of the State of Israel. Segal, the ADL executive, said that people who might not otherwise hold antisemitic views can turn on Jews in the United States when violence flares in Israel and the occupied territories.
“That’s not necessarily the antisemitism of white supremacists, that’s not necessarily the casual antisemitism that people find during more quiet times,” Segal said. “But it is as problematic and dangerous and I don’t think we should overlook or underestimate the impact of that simply because people are angry.”
Antisemitism — or not?
In an attempt to address this phenomenon, Palestinian activists have sought to combat antisemitism by separating Jews and Judaism from Zionists and the State of Israel.
“We are not against the Jews, we are against Zionists,” Canadian activist Sarah Elnaffar said in a popular TikTok video during the conflict. “To all the Jews who are against Israel, we stand with you.”
To many Jews, that’s a distinction without a difference. Rothstein, the StandWithUs director, said that trying to stop antisemitism by more narrowly focusing criticism on Zionists overlooks the emotional attachment that most Jews feel toward Israel, regardless of their distinct political beliefs.
“The majority of Jewish people — forgetting about politics — have Israel as part of their identity,” Rothstein said.
According to a recent Pew Research Center report, an overwhelming 82% of Jews said “caring about Israel” was essential or important to what being Jewish meant to them, though only 40% approved of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and 33% believed the Israeli government was sincere about making peace with Palestinians.
The question of whether anti-Zionism should be considered antisemitic has roiled the Jewish community during the early months of the Biden administration. So has the conversation over whether it’s antisemitic to call Israel racist or an apartheid state, or for it to lose its Jewish majority. Jewish organizations have debated the definition of anti-Jewish bigotry and Zionist groups are pushing for the widespread adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which rules much of this kind of criticism out of bounds.
Noah Habeeb, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, which is opposed to Zionism, said that it is necessary to combat antisemitism because of the direct harm it causes Jews, while also opposing the way claims of antisemitism are weaponized to hurt Palestinians. But, he said, that doesn’t mean any Jews should be considered fair targets for the kind of attacks seen earlier this month.
“I wish that all Jews would support Palestinian human rights but I know many do not,” Habeeb said. “They too should be safe from antisemitic violence.”