When I saw Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School listed among the latest round of Jewish institutions to receive bomb threats, I immediately texted my friend Liz,* an alumnus of the school. She still lives in the D.C. area, working as a government contractor, and was shaken by the incident. “This just keeps getting closer to me. Feeling like I need to get out,” she told me.
I had been watching the bomb threats and anti-Semitic incidents appear in my newsfeed with disturbing regularity. I knew I could not assure her things were going to be ok, and only asked that she not leave the country for my own selfish, friendship-related reasons.
This past week, Jewish-Americans like Liz breathed a sigh of relief after the FBI finally caught up to the alleged perpetrator, an Israeli-American teenager, who is behind most of the bomb threats that have been called in to Jewish institutions in recent months. But, the suspect’s arrest will do little to address the rising number of other anti-Semitic hate crimes in the United States. In fact, because the accused happens to be Jewish, it may actually empower anti-Semites, by feeding conspiracy narratives that anti-Semitism is either made up by Jews or simply does not exist.
Hate crimes directed against all American minority groups are on the rise, and Jewish Americans are no exception. Anti-Semitism is very real, and has become increasingly common, since the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. Between January 1 and February 26, in New York City, there has been a 55% increase in hate crimes, including a 94% increase in anti-Semitic incidents, compared to the same period last year.
Arguably one of the best integrated minority groups in America, Jewish-Americans are finding themselves “othered,” like so many other minorities in this country. Simply living in a liberal, elite, coastal “bubble” city, often described as safe from racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, does not protect members of this group from either hate crimes or casual prejudice.
Together with Liz, I spoke to five other Americans who have all spent the majority of their life in either Boston, New York, D.C. or L.A. All of them described how anti-Semitism has increasingly become a very real, and frightening part of their existence. For most, this reality has come as a shock.
A Rise in Anti-Semitism
Lauren Wolfe is a journalist who has written for The New York Times, the Atlantic, and is currently a columnist at Foreign Policy. She also worked for five years at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
As a professional journalist who has worked specifically on press freedom, Wolfe felt compelled to respond to President Trump’s recent assertion that the media is the “enemy of the people.” She replied to his tweet, pointing out that those kinds of statements make it harder for the United States to call out rights violations in other countries. Wolfe went on to tweet out examples of other countries, such as Burma, Venezuela, and Russia, where governments have described the press as the enemy of the state. “That to me was pretty benign, press-freedom tweeting,” she told me.
As a result of her attempt to educate other Twitter users, Wolfe was brutally targeted with anti-Semitic and misogynistic harassment. “Totally surprised me. I wasn’t tweeting about rape, as I often do. I wasn’t tweeting at anyone, to offend anyone directly. I was merely just tweeting about the freedom of the press, so this response really really shocked me.”
The most disturbing and graphic threat was posted not on Twitter, but on her personal website. Someone writing under the pseudonym Adolf Hitler wrote a comment telling her to “go jump in an oven, you used up old slut hag. You’re going to be tweeting from behind barbed wire by the end of the year if you keep this up. TREASON. OBEY THE LEADER.”
Because of her work on sexualized violence, and the simple fact that she is female, Wolfe has received numerous threats and hateful messages before. She has never, however, been so personally and violently targeted. “I reported on Syria for years, and I did get a lot of anti-Zionist hate mail then. It was much more about Zionism than Judaism… Misogyny is usually the thing that gets directed at me if people want to say hateful things,” she observed, “So this is shocking and new for me and I do think it is a direct result of the current political climate.”
The school and daycare attended by the young children of Michael Koplow, a policy professional at an Israel-focused think tank in the D.C. area, were among those targeted by the recent wave of bomb threats. Speaking before the identity of the perpetrator was known, Koplow emphasized that the current climate of anti-Semitism in the United States “goes beyond specific incidents at schools and JCCs.” What is happening is not only unprecedented, in his personal experience, but historically significant. “For my entire life, I have assumed that American Jews are not Americans and Jews as two separate categories, but are Americans completely and Jewish completely as two indivisible components of a whole,” he reflected.
Drawing on his professional knowledge, Koplow observed,
That Jews have been able to live in the United States in a way that runs counter to thousands of years of Jewish persecution in the diaspora – not as a sometimes protected and oft-persecuted minority but as complete and full citizens like everyone else – has been a remarkable moment in Jewish history. There has always been anti-Semitism and that will continue irrespective of anything going on in domestic politics, but this is the first time that being Jewish in the United States has to me felt different.
My friend Liz has felt a similar shift. “Until recently, I had assumed that I’d see an overall reduction in anti-Semitisim and anti-Semitic attitudes (at least in the United States) in my life. As a whole, American Jews have become increasingly assimilated with each generation,” she told me a few weeks after the bomb threat at her alma mater. “I’ve always appreciated, intellectually, that it would be possible for public opinion in the United States to turn against Jews in a very bad way (the situation of the German Jews in pre-WWII Germany is quite similar to that of American Jews in America today) but I never felt that WOULD happen.”
“You’re telling them that they deserve to die.”
It is easy to dismiss comparisons between the United States today and Weimar Germany as simply a reflection of Godwin’s Law. But, as illustrated by Lauren Wolfe’s experience, perpetrators of anti-Semitism both on and off line are enthusiastically embracing the imagery and rhetoric of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany.
“I live in an area where you should be protected from this crap, but you’re not.” Like a typical Californian, writer Kim Kalish was on the freeway when we connected, the road noise joining in as a murmuring third party to our conversation. Kalish (who is also a friend) grew up in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Until recently, she had only ever experienced very low levels of anti-Semitism.
Kalish has noticed that people seem more comfortable with and are more willing to use anti-Jewish stereotypes and slurs since the election, even when speaking to a Jewish person. “I feel like people are suddenly emboldened…That the really shitty thoughts they’ve had in their head, suddenly they’re allowed to say these things.”
The frequent and casual stereotyping of Jews by her acquaintances was frustrating, but it did not prepare Kalish for the very personal run-in with a Trump supporter and anti-Semite, which she had last month. When she showed up to her job as a bartender one afternoon, she was warned by coworkers about a difficult customer who had already staked out a spot at the bar. As it was early, and there weren’t many other customers around, it was hard to ignore the man’s increasingly loud praise of the current president. “Trump is going to save the country from all these people, Trump’s going to make America what it was: those were big things for him,” Kalish told me over the static. “I just stopped interacting with him, because I’m not going to get into a fight.”
Kalish didn’t say anything to the man, but when a server came in to grab a drink for another customer, she couldn’t help but exchange a look. This triggered the customer to defensively ask Kalish, “what, you don’t think Trump is a great President?” She told the man she did not. And then he said something completely unexpected.
“He said, ‘are you a Jew?’ and I just sort of stopped and sort of froze. And then he very pointedly looked me in the eye, and maintained eye contact with me, and said “heil Hitler,” and just walked out of the bar,” Kalish said. Even with all the traffic-related background noise, I could still hear her voice wavering with emotion.
“The thing is, if you are speaking to a Jew, and you say ‘heil Hitler’ to them, you’re telling them that they deserve to die. Never, ever in my life has anyone ever looked at me and said you don’t deserve to exist, for no other reason than a religion. It was really upsetting.” The experience shook Kalish’s entire sense of personal safety. “Considering that I live in this little liberal bubble… I felt very unsafe, as if you don’t know what kind of treatment you get, based on something you have no control over. And that’s a very unsettling feeling.”
“Before I was targeted, I was afraid of being targeted.”
These stories of anti-Semitic hate speech have a common connection in Donald Trump’s presidency. Kalish was harassed by a vocal supporter of the president and Wolfe was targeted after responding to one of his tweets. Correlation does not equal causation, but there is significant circumstantial evidence connecting the words and actions of Trump with spikes in anti-Semitic activity.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released a year-long study of anti-Semitic harassment directed at journalists on Twitter in October of 2016. The report noted that, as would be expected, Jewish journalists were the primary targets of anti-Semitic tweets, but that “non-Jewish journalists also received anti-Semitic tweets following criticism of Mr. Trump.” Spikes in anti-Semitic tweets corresponded to times when Trump blamed either a Jewish person or minority group for something, or when he refused to disavow white supremacists.
When asked generally about how they thought the government was handling the recent rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes and speech, none of the individuals I interviewed thought that federal government or executive branch was doing enough to deter these incidents.
Alana Saltz is a freelance journalist who has been targeted by a Trump supporter for anti-Semitic harassment on Twitter. Prior to receiving these hate messages directed, Saltz watched in horror as Jewish friends and colleagues were subjected to disturbing anti-Semitic images and threats. “Before I was targeted, I was afraid of being targeted,” she related.
Saltz feels very strongly that Trump has not done enough to push back against the anti-Semitism being expressed by his supporters. “Trump has clearly handled the rise in anti-Semitism in all the wrong ways, from leaving Jewish people out of Holocaust Remembrance Day to silencing a Jewish reporter asking about anti-Semitism at a press conference,” she told me. She also believes he is being given a “pass” because his daughter and son-in-law are Jewish. “I’ve even had friends and acquaintances of mine make that argument. Having a Jewish family member, or even being Jewish yourself, doesn’t preclude you from being anti-Semitic.”
Notably, the majority of those I interviewed expressly connected their experiences to the rise in Islamophobia. Kalish said she is, in fact, “more worried about what’s happening to Muslims than what is happening to Jews.” Yair Rosenberg, a senior writer at Tablet magazine, contrasted Trump’s delayed, but eventual, condemnation of anti-Jewish hate crimes with what the president has said about similar incidents targeting Muslim-Americans– namely, nothing. “It is good that there’s been a pressure campaign that has forced him to speak out a little bit more on the Jewish stuff. It is telling that there’s just no way to pressure him to speak more on anti-Muslim stuff,” Rosenberg told me in a phone interview.
“It’s a power play.”
Rosenberg was the target of online anti-Semitic trolling long before Trump’s most recent presidential campaign. “When I went into journalism, and started writing about controversial things like Israel, I start getting [anti-Semitic harassment] from the hard right and the hard left in equal measure… Until the election, that is largely what I would get,” Rosenberg told me. After the current election cycle got underway, the harassment from the far-right spiked.
Rosenberg became such a popular a target for anti-Semitic trolls that, according to the ADL study on online anti-Semitic harassment, he was the second most targeted journalist on Twitter. Rosenberg wears this distinction as a badge of pride. “I will point that out, I am number two, but I am a distant second [to former Breitbart writer Ben Shapiro], so it’s good to have goals,” he said, half seriously.
Rosenberg believes Trump is reticent to condemn it because these are the same individuals who helped him win the presidency. “In general he views calls to condemn bigotry that is used to support him as accusations that he himself is bigoted. We saw that when he was asked about anti-Semitism by that Orthodox Jewish supporter at that press conference,” Rosenberg observed. There is the additional factor that Trump simply does not care about offending people. “He’s not very aware of this sort of stuff and doesn’t care very much about it,” Rosenberg told me.
As a long-time target of anti-Semitism, Rosenberg has devoted a significant amount of time and energy to raising awareness about the existence and persistence of anti-Jewish sentiment in the United States. He often does this by trolling his trolls– feeding their paranoid delusions about how Jews control the world, or simply making them look silly. Rosenberg enjoys finding the humor in the bizarre conspiracies he is fed.
“Making fun of these sorts of people who are in fact rather pitiable and comical, is the sort thing people enjoy, and they will share it because they laugh, and suddenly you’ve got several hundred retweets, raising awareness for the fact that there are these sorts of bigots out there,” he told me, clearly happy that his humorous tweets have found an enthusiastic audience.
“It’s a power play, and that’s what trolling often is,” he said of those targeting him. “But they don’t know what to do when you don’t respond to the power play the way they expected, and instead you turn it around on them and play it the same way.”
“What will you do about it?”
I sheepishly confess that, prior to the recent spike, I was among the many non-Jews living in a coastal bubble city, who believed that anti-Semitism was largely a thing of the past in the United States. In college, I studied the Holocaust and Second World War extensively, and even took a week-long study trip with survivors to a number of concentration camps in Poland. But, like many Americans, both Jewish and not, I could not fathom the American Jewish community being subject to wide-spread hate crimes.
Talking to Liz after the bomb threat at her high school, I was horrified to learn that this was not the first time an institution she attended had been targeted. When she was growing up, her Jewish elementary school, as well as the synagogue her family attended, was vandalized with Nazi-themed graffiti on more than one occasion. Anti-Semitism never went away, it just was on a slow burn, waiting for someone to add fuel.
At the end of our conversation, Yair Rosenberg posed the following question and challenge to all Americans currently concerned about anti-Semitism: “What will you do about it, and will you continue to care about it after Trump is hopefully gone from the world stage?”
Letting things go back to “regular” levels of anti-Semitism, like ignoring the underlying problems that built the framework for the Islamophobia-policy-complex, is unacceptable. Both the left and the right must speak out against bigots in their midst, even if they are funny or we generally agree with their political positions, like the notorious Islamophobe and liberal Bill Maher. I don’t believe that hate and fear of “others” can ever be fully eradicated, but what we are seeing now is a case study in what happens when societies fail to condemn bigotry. When bigots are not afraid, they are empowered.
*Liz is a pseudonym