The surprising thing about the reaction of American Jews to the current wave of virulent anti-Semitism is their surprise. The war launched by Hamas did not create a wave of anti-Semitism: it revealed a previously unnoticed cancer lurking under the skin of American civil life. It was always there, undetected by generations that came to political adulthood long after its emergence in Germany, a country then known for its civilised cultural achievements.
One day, some of the great Jewish minds were enjoying the cafés of Vienna; the day after the Austrians voted overwhelmingly to join Hitler’s Germany, they were forced to scrub the streets of the city on their hands and knees. One day, German Jews were prosperous shopkeepers; the day after Kristallnacht they were sweeping glass from the streets in front of their closed shops. And one day, Jews across the US were busy supporting efforts to ban the sale of guns; the next day they were lined up in Miami, New York and other cities to buy guns and learn how to use them.
Adding to the surprise was the fact that so many American educational institutions proved to be dominated by administrators unmoved by threats to Jewish students. These deans of elite universities have spent years preparing safe spaces for students who might be upset by certain words or ideas and be much in need of sweet treats and crayons to calm their shattered nerves. When Jewish students, such as those at Manhattan’s Cooper Union college, were bolting themselves in libraries to avoid physical harm from protesters, well, that is an unavoidable consequence of the constitutional exercise of free speech as these deans, many of whom have never read the US Constitution, understand it.
Surely their inaction is not due to the fact they were too busy enforcing edicts against discrimination to protect Jewish students. Between 1976 and 2018, full-time administrators and other professionals employed by US colleges and universities increased by 164 and 452 per cent, respectively, and the number of students by 78 per cent. The top 50 schools now have one non-faculty employee for every four students. Surely they could find time from writing yet another set of rules to consider the plight of the Jewish students on their campuses.
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I am old enough to have been raised during the Holocaust in a rather typical American family, one with relatives in Europe, their fate a daily topic of discussion. I recall the German American Bund, an American Nazi organisation, marching in the streets of Manhattan in support of Hitler, and tales of the sainted Franklin D Roosevelt turning away Jews seeking asylum lest he antagonise voters in Midwestern states and the durable, long-serving anti-Semites in his State Department.
On Good Fridays, kindly teachers advised us to stay away from school lest we “Christ killers” run afoul of kids from the homes of immigrants who brought their prejudice with them from Europe. On graduating high school, I received a polite letter from a leading university informing me that its Jewish quota was filled, and instruction from my adviser that it would be a waste of time to apply to the Ivies. When I established a consulting firm, a potential client congratulated us and told us that if he ever hired Jewish consultants, we would be the ones. The venue selected at which to review competitive bids for a large research project was a restricted country club, the date Yom Kippur. White-shoe Wall Street firms told my friends who graduated at the top of their classes at elite law schools to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Most New York co-op apartments were no-go zones, as they blocked Jewish residents. Little wonder that our rapidly disappearing generation did not share in the surprise of younger American Jews at the turn in their lives.
The practices of the Wasp ascendancy gradually faded, luring younger Jews into a belief that all was well for them, safe in America, as safe as assimilated Jews felt in Germany before Hitler. Then came Hamas, its pledge to kill Jews wherever they were found, and an outpouring of support for the terrorists from the affluent students who took to the streets to chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, although they could not find Israel on the map from which they wanted it erased, or name either the river or the sea referred to in their chant.
Hamas is waging a war against Israel that has succeeded in providing cover for the anti-Semitism that has always been present in America. This is not the soft, socio-economic anti-Semitism that the Wasp ascendancy relied on to keep its country clubs, co-ops and white-shoe law firms free of a Jewish presence. It is what Lance Morrow of the Ethics & Public Policy Center calls anti-Semitism of “gentiles… on their fourth glass of Chablis… [of] a discreetly covert quality… a kind of sly politesse”.
Today’s is the anti-Semitism of the gutter, broken glass at Jewish-owned shops, harassment on the streets and campuses, Jewish students cowering behind locked doors in the library of the Cooper Union, where Abraham Lincoln proclaimed in 1860 that we should never “be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us”, unable to walk safely across campuses at elite institutions they attended and at which I had studied and later taught.
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The successors of the governing class that denied Jews a haven from Hitler, blocked reports about the Holocaust from reaching the US, kept Jewish immigration below even the miserable quota allowed, and opposed recognition of the state of Israel have kept the bureaucracy’s faith. Some 500 government officials and 1,000 employees of the Agency for International Development dissented publicly from the administration’s support for Israel. Their letters were, of course, unsigned, allegedly to protect the signatories’ families from violence.
By the time those letters reached the press, Jews were no longer surprised. Surprise has given way to a realisation that what is true for their friends, relatives and others in Israel is true for them. Israel has always known that in the long run it is on its own, that when the going got tough for politicians around the world, any aid they would receive would be ringed around with impossible conditions.
American Jews now have a similar feeling of being alone, abandoned by the keepers of the academy, living with a police force unable to contain violent protests hiding under the protection of the free speech provision of the Constitution.
Anti-Semitic acts in the weeks after the 7 October Hamas invasion rose 400 per cent in the US from a year earlier. Jews are advised not to wear yarmulkes (kippahs, or skullcaps) and to remove the traditional mezuzah – little scrolls of scriptural verses – from their doorposts. Several Jewish schools are closed.
Many Jews are reacting by buying guns, as I wrote in a recent column for the Sunday Times. A salesman I interviewed at a gun club told me he had never seen so many yarmulkes in all his years in the business. An instructor in the safe use of guns told me his business has doubled, mostly from an influx of Jewish beginners. In Florida, home to 740,000 Jews, FBI criminal background checks for gun purchases rose 30 per cent in October.
The feeling of a concealed weapon snug against the body can offset that feeling of helplessness created by attendance, unarmed, at a venue known for catering to Jews – a synagogue, school or restaurant. Self-defence is not the ultimate weapon against anti-Semitism – although as Woody Allen pointed out in the 1979 movie Manhattan when discussing possible reactions to a pro-Nazi march, “Well, a satirical piece in the [New York] Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really get right to the point.” Indeed, there is no such ultimate weapon against that prejudice as centuries of its survival prove.
But it is too soon to despair. It took time, but a backlash is taking shape, as evidenced by the congressional committee that grilled the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT on what they are doing about anti-Semitism on campus (the Penn president has since resigned). Five prominent Jewish interest groups have formed what they call the “10/7 Project” to fund a battle on misinformation about the Hamas-Israel war and provide media a source of “fact-based” information, much needed by organisations that rely heavily on Hamas for information. Finally, individual Jewish donors, their generosity the key to the success of many cultural and academic institutions since the days of the first wave of German-Jewish immigrants, have begun to withdraw support from academic institutions that have allowed threats and coercion against Jewish students.
Perhaps most importantly, American Jews no longer believe “it can’t happen here”. It can and it has.
[See also: What it means to be Jewish now]