Antisemitism isn’t new. So why did 2022 feel different?

Amanda Northrup/Vox
Amanda Northrup/Vox

By Marin Cogan

To consider it one way, there was nothing particularly new or notable about antisemitism in the United States in 2022. After all, to be Jewish in the United States during the last five years has meant being confronted with evidence of the hatred lurking in our neighbors’ hearts. We saw it in 2017, when polo-shirted Nazis chanted “Jews will not replace us” as they unleashed terror on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia; in 2018, when 11 Jews were massacred at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; in 2019, when a shooter killed one and injured three others at the Chabad of Poway in California; and in smaller attacks perpetrated in between, on streets and subways, at restaurants and rallies, outside shuls and sukkot.

The violence has eroded the sense of security American Jews have long experienced, the feeling that Jews are, historically speaking, the freest and safest we’ve ever been. According to a report by the Anti-Defamation League earlier this year, antisemitic incidents “reached an all-time high in the United States in 2021, with a total of 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism.” (Getting reliable data about hate crimes is difficult, and the ADL includes some incidents of anti-Israel sentiment, and there’s healthy disagreement, including among Jewish people, about whether or when opposition to Israel is considered bigotry toward Jews.) This year, a report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism says that the number of antisemitic hate crimes in major cities has gone up, and might ultimately be greater than last year’s totals.

It wasn’t just the rise in antisemitic attacks that made this year feel different. It’s what happened in our culture: Against the backdrop of violence, different strains of anti-Jewish bigotry converged thanks to one of the country’s most powerful tastemakers, whose words were seized upon by eager hate-mongers and then disseminated through social media. The result was a sum greater than its parts.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Kanye West’s transformation from one of hip-hop’s most salient rappers into one of the country’s most prominent Jew haters. In October, just days after sparking controversy with a “white lives matter” shirt at his Paris fashion week show, West, now known as Ye, announced he was going to go “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE,” before launching into an incoherent and disturbing campaign of hatred on social media.

In his statements online and in interviews, Ye mixed traditional white nationalist tropes with elements of Black Hebrew Israelite dogma: “The funny thing is I actually can’t be Anti Semitic because black people are actually Jew [sic],” he tweeted. “You guys have toyed with me and tried to black ball anyone whoever opposes your agenda,” evoking white supremacist narratives about Jewish power and control. Amid all of it, he kept delivering on a racist anti-Black theme he’s been espousing since at least 2018, when he suggested that slavery was a choice.

The right’s problem with antisemitism has been in full view since Trump took office, winking and nudging at the so-called “alt-right” and their opposition to “globalists” (a coded slur for Jewish people), and asserting there were “very fine people on both sides” of the riot in Charlottesville. In Ye, right-wing anti-Semites sensed an opportunity. Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist livestreamer, spent years building an audience for his hatred online. Ye was someone who could make his hatred more appealing and more prominent beyond his somewhat limited corner of the extremist internet. In November, former President Donald Trump hosted West and Fuentes for dinner at Mar-a-Lago.

When Ye was banned from Twitter in December for posting an image of a Star of David mixed with a swastika, the platform was filled with people questioning what, exactly, about Ye’s comments was untrue. On the same day, on Alex Jones’s show, Ye declared a fondness for Hitler. In the weeks between his first outburst and his final suspension, neo-Nazis stood on an overpass with a banner declaring “Kanye is right about the Jews”; a similar message was projected onto a building during a Florida football game in November.

The danger of Ye’s rhetoric was that, in short order, it moved antisemitism from the fringes into the mainstream. As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg put it in a column in November: “For most of my adult life, antisemites, with exceptions like Pat Buchanan and Mel Gibson, have lacked status in America. The most virulent antisemites tended to hate Jews from below, blaming them for their own failures and disappointments. Now, however, anti-Jewish bigotry, or at least tacit approval of anti-Jewish bigotry, is coming from people with serious power: the leader of a major political party, a famous pop star, and the world’s richest man.”

Acts of antisemitism that might have once been dismissed as random outbursts from disturbed or hateful individuals no longer feel disconnected from the broader culture. It’s something Jewish people are grappling with, individually and as a community. “The past several months have been one of the most challenging times for our people,” says Gil Preuss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. “The fear that people have, when they see swastikas or other things put up in their neighborhoods or see it online, has arisen in a way that it shouldn’t. Each time that we see one of these antisemitic acts, it feels like the culture around antisemitism has been changing. It’s affecting every part of Jewish communal engagement.”

Over the last several years, a part of Preuss’s work has involved amping up security at Jewish schools and temples in response to the rising tide of attacks. He thinks about what the next organized attack on Jewish people will look like, and he thinks it will feel different. “It’s not going to feel random and isolated. The reaction is going to be much different because it’s going to feel as though it’s coming out of the rise of public antisemitism in American society,” he says. “I think that’s what we’re feeling, there’s this undercurrent that seems to be shifting because of the legitimation of antisemitism by these public actors.”

That legitimation comes with some uncomfortable truths about the status of antisemitism in the United States. Last month, Eitan Hersh, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University, and Laura Royden, a PhD candidate at Harvard, published a paper examining the results of a survey of 3,500 Americans, including an oversample of people ages 18 to 30. What they found was that survey respondents who identified as Black or Hispanic were more likely to agree with antisemitic statements than white respondents, regardless of their political ideology.

“When you ask explicit questions, like do Jews in the United States have too much power, or should Jewish businesses be boycotted to protest Israel, are Jews more loyal to Israel than the US — Black and Latino young people answer these questions at rates similar to the alt-right,” Hersh says. “This is really one of the only forms of prejudice that is higher among younger people than older people.”

Hersh and Royden considered a number of hypotheses that could offer a reason for the higher rates of antisemitic feeling among Black- and Hispanic-identifying young people: that it was correlated to education, that it was an expression of anti-white sentiment, that it was because of Israel. None of them stood up as compelling explanations. “People who say they’re concerned about antisemitism or prejudice against Jews often have pet theories about where it is, and they’re conveniently aligned with their own partisan inclinations,” Hersh says. The data defies convenient explanations, and Hersh and Royden say more research needs to be done.

Beyond fighting back against individual antisemitic acts by calling them out and condemning them when they happen, it’s difficult for any one person to say what an effective response to rising antisemitic attitudes could look like. For all of the narratives of Jewish conspiracy and control, Jews are a diverse group of people with a wide range of experiences and a proud tradition of never agreeing on anything. If you’re Jewish, you likely grew up with the old saying “two Jews, three opinions” — a playful nod to a longstanding tradition of argumentativeness, stretching back centuries to the days of the Talmud Part of that diversity is racial: Jews are not all white. For Jews of color, this moment may feel much less new.

“The white privileged Jews in our society could learn a lot from Black and Indigenous people who have continued to function in a world and society understanding racism,” says Rabbi Sandra Lawson, the inaugural director of racial diversity, equity, and inclusion at Reconstructing Judaism, an organization of the Reconstructionist Judaism movement.

Part of this means confronting “the history of Jews and whiteness in this country,” says Jared Jackson, founder and executive director of Jews in All Hues. We are generations removed from the immigration quotas that kept European Jews out of America, as well as the assimilation that white Jews who were able to move to the US went through. While white Jews benefit from white privilege, that whiteness is often seen as conditional, and all Jews are endangered by white supremacy.

This is a moment, Rabbi Lawson says, when Jews should lean into the parts of the tradition that involve building bridges and treating different bigotries as interconnected. “It’s a mistake to not work with other marginalized groups,” Lawson says, especially considering that white supremacists often “want to keep marginalized groups fighting.” Earlier this year, for example, a commission formed by Reconstructing Judaism approved a resolution on reparations for Black and Indigenous Americans that draws on the Jewish values of “teshuvah, the Jewish process of public accountability, apology, mending, and returning to right relationship, and tzedek, the ethical demands of material and legal justice.”

The fight against antisemitism is intrinsically connected to the fight against anti-Black racism, against anti-Asian hatred, and against all other forms of bigotry. “White supremacy does not just impact one group of people. It’s complex, it evolves, and it tries to look nicer with each generation. We have to become our own system that defeats it,” Jackson says.

People can reasonably disagree about whether it’s the job of a victim to try to educate those who hold prejudice against them, or whether education is even the antidote to hate. But engaging in society and fighting for a more equal world? That is at the heart of tikkun olam, or repair of the world: the notion that Jews have an obligation to work toward justice. It’s a deeply held conviction in the Jewish tradition, and one of our best.

Marin Cogan is a senior correspondent at Vox. She writes features on a wide range of subjects, including traffic safetygun violence, and the legal system. Prior to Vox, she worked as a writer for New York magazine, ESPN the Magazine, GQ, National Journal, Politico, and the New Republic. She has also contributed to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and several other publications. She is the winner of a National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Excellence Award and is the co-director of the Princeton Summer Journalism Program for aspiring student journalists from low-income backgrounds.

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