In the last two months, almost 100 Jewish community centers and day schools have been targeted with antisemitic threats. The map of the threats is shocking. It stretches from Maine to Florida, Texas, Colorado, all the way to California and Washington.
Despite more than 190 antisemitic incidents, no arrests have been made. These are terrifying times for many, and there is a feeling that antisemitism is reaching a crescendo in the US. The perception is that America has historically been safe and tolerant, but today a rising “wave” of antisemitism may be breaking on its golden door.
The US administration’s response has been tepid at best, and a case of denial at worst. Although Vice President Mike Pence stopped by a desecrated cemetery in St. Louis, it took more than a month for US President Donald Trump to make his denunciations clear, despite numerous chances to do. Trump is personally blamed for “unleashing” antisemitism during the election campaign last year. Rabbi Daniel Bogard, a victim of online antisemitic abuse, told the JTA,“There has been permission that’s been given to say these things we didn’t used to say.”
This feeds a growing narrative about the rise in antisemitism. There are more than nine million results in Google relating to “Trump antisemitism,” including the recent headlines “Report: Trump mulling axing antisemitism envoy as part of budget plan,” and “Trump suggests Jewish community is spreading antisemitic threats.”
However, Mark Oppenheimer at The Washington Post notes, “There is no good statistical evidence (yet, anyway) that Americans have grown more anti-Semitic in recent months…Overall, however, we won’t know for many more months, when the FBI and the Anti-Defamation League have better data to work with, if Nov. 9, 2016, was the start of something new or just a continuation of a regrettable but enduring legacy.”
The Anti-Defamation League has released a list of the 10 worst antisemitic incidents of 2016, though the data for that year is not yet complete. There is data, however, for previous years.
If there was a major rise in antisemitism, then the 190 incidents that the media have reported on in the first two months of 2017 should be significant. That’s 95 a month. Let’s use that as a barometer and look at the first seven years of Barack Obama’s presidency. The 2016 data, when it is released, will be influenced by the apparent rise in antisemitism during the election. But the years 2009-2015, for which we have data, are untainted by the alleged rise in attacks from Trump supporters.
There were 1,211 antisemitic incidents in Obama’s first year in office. This was after four straight years of declining antisemitism. For instance, in 2008, there were 1,352 incidents. Attacks had peaked in 2004 with 1,821.
Over the years, the number of incidents continued to decline. After an initial uptick to 1,239 in 2010, they declined to 751 in 2013. They began to rise again to 914 in 2015, the last year for which we have data. When we tally the total number of incidents between 2009 and 2015, the overall number of attacks reaches more than 7,000. However, the number of assaults increased, almost doubling during the Obama administration.
Overall, there was an average of 84 incidents a month under the Obama administration. Let’s step back for a moment and compare that to the 95 incidents between January and February 2017. That’s a 10% increase. It could be more once all the data comes in. But the media haven’t been telling us there is a slight increase; the narrative has been that there is an antisemitic wave sweeping the US. In Berlin, there was a 16% increase in antisemitic incidents by comparison. It was also “sweeping” the UK in 2014.
One of the key indicators of rising antisemitism during the Obama years was the number of physical assaults. From a low of 17 in 2012 they rose to 56 in 2015. The ADL noted a “dramatic rise” in assaults that year.
So why are headlines today claiming a “pandemic” of antisemitism in the US? Abe Foxman used the word “pandemic” to describe antisemitism in the US in 2009. “This is the worst, the most intense, the most global that it’s been in most of our memories. And the effort to get the good people to stand up is not easy,” he said in a speech that year. Jonathan Greenblatt said in November of 2016 that the US was suffering extreme levels of hate. “Anti-Jewish public and political discourse in America is worse than at any point since the 1930s,” he was quoted by JTA as saying.
Looking back almost a decade puts things in perspective. Where was the media in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 to highlight thousands of incidents of antisemitism? 210 physical assaults on Jews. 3,900 threats against Jews and Jewish institutions. 2,900 incidents of vandalism. 180 incidents of antisemitism on campus. Every six days, a Jewish person in America was being attacked in 2015 and it went largely ignored. On average, there were threats every day against Jews and Jewish institutions over the last eight years and most of them did not receive headlines.
There were also incidents of vandalism every day on average. Why did 7,034 incidents of antisemitism not get major headlines for so long? Was it because of an agenda to protect the Obama administration from criticism, or due to complacency and people becoming inured to the phenomenon? The cesspool and swamp from which today’s hate crimes on Jewish cemeteries emerge is not in a vacuum and it may not be due to the toxic divisions of 2016; it may have deeper roots. That’s the elephant in the room: 7,000 incidents that were recorded — and reported by the ADL — which almost no one wants to talk about.
Is the media misleading us through fear-mongering about antisemitism in the United States? The data seems to show that the recent wave of threats, while unique in their target and regularity, are not a massive increase from years past. Threats occurred throughout the last decades, and many went unreported. The key indicator of physical assaults has been rising in the last years. Campus antisemitism, the ADL says, peaked in 2015. The most important thing is to present the public with real data on the number of incidents. The 24-hour news cycle tends to encourage the feeling that antisemitism is leaving people under siege, with swastikas on subways and memorials, at rural synagogues and on homes.
There is also a tendency to feed a narrative that there is a major rise in hate crimes in the United States connected with the toxic election of Trump. There may be a rise in hate crimes, but many of them are not directed at Jews; many of them are directed at Muslims and other groups, such as the Georgia couple recently sentenced for threatening African-Americans.
The reality is that the American press even ignores serious antisemitism in other countries, while reporting on its expression in the US. Video footage recently emerged of a preacher at Canada’s Al Andalous Islamic Centre — Sheikh Wael Al-Ghitawi — claiming Jews were “people who slayed the prophets, shed their blood and cursed the Lord.” Another sermon in Toronto referred to the “filth of the Jews.”
Are there videos in America of anyone preaching such hatred openly without a pushback?
This raises serious questions about how we discuss and learn from antisemitism. When people sit through a sermon and don’t raise a hand in protest when a preacher says Jews should be killed, that’s a huge problem.
What about when there are clear cases of antisemitism whose perpetrators are not charged with hate crimes? In Avignon, a man tried to light firecrackers in front of a synagogue, but was cleared of antisemitism charges. He just happened to do it in front of a synagogue, not any of the dozens of churches in the town?
This is one of but many examples.
The question is: Are we only offended by certain types of antisemitism and not others?