Why Antisemitism is Rising in America

December 18, 2020 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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The last edition of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council’s (AIJAC’s) Live Online webinar series for 2020 featured Holly Huffnagle, the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC’s) US Director for Combating Antisemitism.


Huffnagle, whose topic was “Why Antisemitism is Rising in America”, explained there has been an upsurge in global antisemitism beginning in the early 2000s, especially in Western Europe and, in the last five years, in the USA. Lessons learnt have included that it is important to be aware of antisemitism, to identify the various sources, and to speak out unambiguously against them, whether left-wing, right-wing or otherwise.

She also emphasised the importance of there being a national approach to combating it, as it should be an issue for everyone. She warned that there is no quick fix and that efforts fighting it must therefore be sustained.

On why antisemitism is rising, she cited seven factors: economic uncertainty; a lack of confidence in democracy; increased emphasis in society on race and national identity; the fading legacy of the Holocaust – a US survey showed 11% of youth think Jews caused it; a deepening polarisation between the right and the left over the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; the rise in the use of the internet and social media, where lies spread six times as fast as the truth; and the growing number of sources of antisemitism and the growing complexity of it, with recent US antisemitism coming from the Black Israelites, who are religious extremists, from the left and from COVID-19 protests.

Another lesson, she said, was the importance of surveys to identify the problem, so the AJC surveyed the American Jewish community and general public about antisemitism.

The survey found that 88% of American Jewish adults believe antisemitism is a problem in the US, compared to 63% of the general public, with 37% of Jews saying it’s a very serious problem. Eighty-two per cent of Jews believe it has increased over the past five years, 43% by a lot, compared to 43% of the general public believing it has increased.

More than one in three Jews have been the targets of antisemitism in the past five years, mostly online, including on social media, but 46% of those who reported it said they had received no response from the social media platform.

One in four had, over the past two years, avoided showing their Jewish identity, while 31% avoided certain places events and situations out of concern for their safety as a Jew, which had risen from 25% in 2019.

FBI figures showed that 60.2% of all religious bias crimes in the US target Jews, even though Jews are less than 2% of the population. This is up from 56.9% in 2018.

Fifty-three percent of Americans know what antisemitism means, 25% have heard of it but don’t know what it means, while 21% said they’d never heard of it. Only 25% said they’d be more likely to consider something antisemitic if a Jewish person or organisation said it was, so, she said, it’s important that non-Jews also call out antisemitism.

Eighty-five percent of Jews and 74% of the American public agree that the statement, “Israel has no right to exist,” is antisemitic. Tropes about Jewish money being responsible for US government support for Israel and US Jews being more loyal to Israel than the US were only recognised as antisemitic by 55% and 50% of the American public respectively.

From here, the AJC will try to “transform how Americans see antisemitism, understand antisemitism and especially why should they care about it,” she said, adding that the next step would be building coalitions to fight it. She noted that 76% of Jews who were targeted didn’t report the attack because they thought either it wasn’t a big enough deal or law enforcement would do nothing, so the AJC is lobbying Congress on bills that will help law enforcement with hate crime reporting.

She elaborated that US Jews know antisemitism doesn’t just come from the far right – there is a long history of antisemitism from the left. There is a lack of awareness about that because “they advocate from the platform of anti-racism, but somehow they let every other minority to define the persecution against them except Jews.” She added that there is also Islamist antisemitism.

On the working definition of antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, she said there is now the need for a definition, because “in the early 2000s, Jews were starting to be attacked as ‘agents of Israel’ or Jewish sites were being vandalised but it was called ‘political actions,’ or ‘anti-Israel actions’, there were some protests where people shouted, ‘slaughter the Jews,’ and it was called, ‘inter-communal tensions’…synagogues were firebombed…in Europe…for the actions of a nation state, Israel, and it was not called antisemitism.”

Therefore, she explained, a definition was needed to bring in examples in context. Even denying the Jewish right to self-determination was not considered antisemitism.

She continued, “The critics on the left are saying this is a Jewish definition, that it’s a tool of the Israeli government, that it’s an Israeli government definition, and that was not the case. It was created by an apolitical body of experts, of policy-makers, and the IHRA is a non-Jewish body. It’s an intergovernmental body of at the time 31 member states that adopted it in 2016, and most of the governments in Europe and around the world that are using it and have adopted it, they aren’t Jewish.”

It can be and has been misused, she said, but it’s a useful tool that “has helped so much, in so many spaces, in understanding what antisemitism is.”

On US domestic politics, she said that President Donald Trump is not antisemitic, but has supporters who are and who see him as their friend. However, he has also taken many pro-Israel steps, and passed an executive order that combated antisemitism by specifically including Jews as a group protected against racism. He also encouraged the use of the IHRA definition.

President-elect Joe Biden will keep the Abraham Accords and hopefully the executive order, and will be better on combating the far right, but will need to be pushed harder on anti-Zionism being antisemitism than Trump.

The COVID-19 pandemic, she noted, has seen historical antisemitic tropes adapted to the new circumstances, by, for example, accusing Jews of initiating or spreading the coronavirus to profit from the vaccine. There have also been new instances, such as urging the spread of the virus to Jews, including the “Holocough” memes.

She described the size of the problem of antisemitism as overwhelming, and obstacles to countering it include anti-Israel Jews downplaying the connection of anti-Zionism to antisemitism. There is a loud minority of US Jews, maybe 10%, in this category, but most US Jews agree anti-Zionism is antisemitic.

There is a need to bring in more governments to adopt the IHRA definition, she said, noting that the governments of countries such as Sweden and Spain, which are further left than the US Democratic Party, and less friendly to Israel, have adopted it.

The UN, she said, will be the last domino to fall, as it is the sum of its parts. She hopes the current events of Israel normalising relations with various countries will help. On a positive note, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, spent an entire paper on freedom of religion talking about combatting antisemitism and the need for the IHRA definition to be adopted, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also recommended the definition.

She concluded that there needs to be a cost for antisemitism, as there is for other types of racism, and is not sure there currently is. However, it’s also important not to overuse the accusation, as that lowers the bar. It’s a hard balance to strike.


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