Hostility to Jews never entirely disappears, but there are times when it becomes relatively quiescent. We are not living in such a time. Since the turn of the millennium, Jew-hatred has returned to the public sphere with a new vigor and on a global scale. The good news is that in no Western country are we seeing state-sponsored or state-sanctioned anti-Semitism. The bad news is that the volume of anti-Semitic incidents recorded in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and other European countries continues to grow year by year and collectively now numbers in the thousands.
Nor is America immune. Almost 1,900 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in this country in 2019. New York City alone recorded 229 anti-Semitic hate crimes in 2019. Los Angeles and Chicago, cities with sizable Jewish populations, are seeing a similar escalation of assaults against Jews. So what do these attacks mean and where do they come from, and will the situation continue to worsen?
On Jan. 19, 2020, shortly before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Tara Rios, a 47-year-old woman from upstate New York, got it into her head to throw pork chops at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Greenport, New York. Like a criminal triumphantly returning to the scene of her crime, she went back to the synagogue in the early hours of the next morning to photograph what she had done. Rios has since been charged with a hate crime.
For all of its seeming strangeness, Rios’ behavior is part of a larger pattern of anti-Jewish aggression that dates back centuries.
On the personal level, anti-Semitism typically originates in negative feelings about Jews before it becomes formulated as an idea or ideology. Relatively dormant for a time following the end of World War II, it has revived energetically in recent years and manifests itself in various ways. At its worst, as in the brutal attacks on Jews in Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, and Monsey, it is lethal. In other instances, it takes no lives but nevertheless should not be ignored, for every public display of anti-Semitism, from the deadly to the seemingly trivial, reflects feelings of contempt which, if given free rein, inevitably lead to harm.
Rios may not be aware of it, but the particular form that her animus took—the weaponization of pork for use against Jews—has a history of its own. Traditionally, Jews have a deep revulsion to eating pork, a food banned to them by religious injunction. Knowing of this prohibition, their adversaries have sometimes used the flesh of pigs to taunt and test them. As far back as the Greek monarch Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Jews who refused orders to eat pork could be put to death. At the time of the Spanish Inquisition, Jews who had been forcibly converted were sometimes compelled to eat pork to demonstrate the sincerity of their embrace of Christianity. In fact, “Marranos,” one of the names given to these suspected or crypto Jews, means “swine” or “pork.” From the 13th century onwards, the outer facades of certain German churches were adorned with engraved images of the so-called “Judensau,” depicting Jews nursing from or fornicating with a female pig. Some of these pictures also show a figure of the devil standing near the Jews, supervising their obscene behavior or egging them on. One of these “Jew-pig” sculptures, dating back some 700 years, is still to be seen on a famous church in Wittenberg, where Martin Luther once preached; some of Luther’s words denigrating Jews and Judaism appear on an adjacent plaque.
While it is widely recognized that such images of Jews intimately consorting with pigs are anti-Semitic, petitions to have them removed from churches and other buildings have not been successful to date. Drawing on these popular images, Nazis frequently denounced Jews with the degrading terms “Judensau” (“female Jewish pig”) and “Judenschwein” (“Jew-pig”). Drawing on kindred images that date back to the medieval period, Jews have frequently been associated with the devil. Luther himself wrote that “Satan is at the right hand of the Jews” and that “the father of the Jews is the devil.” While not directly attributable to Luther, a large sign with the words “Wer den Juden kennt, kennt den Teufel” (“To know Jews is to know the devil”) was hung on buildings throughout Nazi Germany. And in another part of the world, Jews are commonly referred to as “the descendants of apes and pigs”—a demeaning image of them found in the Koran (5:60) and now a part of popular Arab discourse, often invoked by jihadist preachers in calling for retribution against Jews. At mass rallies in Iran, the Jewish state is excoriated as “the Little Satan”—a demonic image similarly meant to incite hatred.
Is it likely that any of this history was known to the woman who hurled pork chops at the synagogue in New York? Probably not. The same no doubt is true of those who sent packages containing pig heads to Rome’s Grand Synagogue, the Israeli Embassy in Rome, and to a museum in the city hosting an exhibition on the Holocaust at the same time. These packages were mailed in January 2014, just three days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and were accompanied by notes deriding the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and calling Anne Frank “a liar.” The point, however crudely made, was clear: Remembering the Jewish dead is of no more value than a severed and still-bloody pig’s head.
Similar desecrations have occurred elsewhere: In December 2013, a pig’s head was sent to a synagogue in the Russian city of Krasnodar; in August 2010, a pig’s head decorated with a Hasidic hat and a Star of David carved into its forehead was placed outside a synagogue in Kaunas, Lithuania. The list of such pork-specific, anti-Jewish incidents could be extended for quite a while.
Given the gravity of physical assaults against Jews that have taken place in Europe and, more recently, in America, what is the point of recalling these vile associations of Jews and pigs? At first glance, they may appear trivial and merely symbolic. Yet what they symbolize is no small matter. The anti-Semitic imagination is not very inventive but typically draws on an inherited repertoire of tropes that associate Jews with all things base and evil; hence the frequent connection between Jews and pigs, and Jews and Satan or the devil.
Incited by these images, some desecrate synagogues with pork chops and pig heads, while others strike out against Jews and Jewish institutions using rocks, clubs, machetes, and bullets. It’s all of a piece, expressive of a fear of Jews, suspicion of Jews, resentment of Jews, and an escalating hatred directed against Jews.
Kobili Traoré, who tortured and murdered Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Jewish woman in Paris on April 4, 2017, shouted “Allahu Akbar” and “I killed the Shaitan” (Arabic for Satan) during the murder. Robert Bowers, who murdered 11 Jews at prayer in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, referred to the Jews he killed as “the children of Satan.” John Earnest, who entered the Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, with a semi-automatic rifle on April 27, 2019, claimed in a personal manifesto that Jews were “inspired by demons and Satan and will attempt to corrupt your soul with sin and perversion.” He shot four Jews, killing one, and later declared, “I feel no remorse. I only wish I killed more.”
Where does such aggressive behavior come from, and what can be done about it? These questions have no easy answers, but this much we know: There is no gene for Jew-hatred; it is a learned animus—taught, modeled, and transmitted through a range of social, political, religious, and cultural media, using symbols repeated over and over again. What is learned presumably can be unlearned, but that is a long-term and systematic process, and its success is by no means certain. Meanwhile, Jewish synagogues, schools, and community centers in this country and Europe, even though protected as never before, are likely to see more pork chops, pig heads, and worse coming their way.
Anti-Jewish hostility has been occurring with such frequency and in such a variety of places—at the street level, on college campuses, in political discourse, on the internet, and in certain religious circles—that it now seems clear that we have entered a new and troubling moment. Especially in a volatile and bitterly fought election year, the troubles may increase, particularly as Jews become more visible in the political contests underway.
In some circles, meanness is already showing up as Jews become high-profile figures in our nation’s public life. Pastor Rick Wiles, founder of the website TruNews, is particularly adept at conveying conspiracy theories about what the Jews are allegedly up to. As an example, noting the number of Jews involved in the impeachment trial of President Trump, Wiles set out to convince his audiences that seditious Jews are orchestrating a “Jew coup” against the president: “That’s the way the Jews work. They are deceivers. They plot, they lie, they do whatever they have to do to accomplish their political agenda.” Wiles adds, “It’s beyond removing Donald Trump, it’s removing you and me ... the church of Jesus Christ is next. They’re coming for you ... It’s the Synagogue of Satan against the holy church of God.”
Equally wild are messages circulating on extremist websites that attribute the coronavirus to Jews, and on top of that, word has also gone out that the debacle in counting the results of the Iowa Democratic Party caucuses is likewise attributable to Jews, this time Israelis.
None of these crazy notions is based in fact, but at a time when some believe that Jews are conspiratorially organized to seize and control political power, there no doubt are people on the fringes of the far right who are susceptible to these charges about Jewish connivery and are likely to see the emergence of Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg as confirmation of it.
It is doubtful that “Jew coup” talk will enter mainstream discourse, but as we move closer to the vote in November, political rhetoric, already overheated, is bound to get even more strident. With respect to Bloomberg, who is reportedly the 11th-wealthiest person in the world, classic stereotypes of Jewish money buying power were already in play before the suspension of his campaign. Bloomberg spent around half a billion dollars of his own money to gain the top prize of all, and had he become the nominee, anti-Semites would not have had to work overtime to mock and deride his role in the primary: He would have been depicted over and over again as Mr. Jewish Moneybags.
Sanders, who railed against billionaires like Bloomberg, was beginning to be targeted on other grounds. An angry and irascible anti-capitalist, Sanders was determined to blow up the present American system by fostering nothing less than “a political revolution.” Born in Brooklyn, he appeared not to like the country of his birth and denounced it as “racist from top to bottom.” Most Americans believed otherwise, and did not appreciate their country being described in these rough terms. His strongest critics were quick to remind us that, in the 1980s, Sanders spent his honeymoon in the Soviet Union, and his fiercest opponents urged him to go back there. English doesn’t have a term quite like the Polish anti-Jewish slur “Żydokomuna,” but “Jewish Bolshevism” or “Jewish Communism” comes close. If Sanders had been the Democratic nominee facing off against President Trump, anti-Semites would have eagerly taken recourse to this language. Indeed, commentators on The Sean Hannity Show referred to him as “Bolshevik Bernie.”
Whatever verbal pork chops were thrown at Michael Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders, none of what has been said above is meant to discourage American Jews from entering political life and at the highest levels. American Jews, after all, are American citizens on an equal footing with all other Americans and have an equal right to participate in the governance of our nation’s affairs.
One hopes that people like Bloomberg and Sanders will be judged on their merits alone and not belittled by those who may employ anti-Jewish stereotypes. That, at least, is the ideal. But Jews who previously held high political office in other countries did not always fare well. Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), Great Britain’s first, and thus far only, Jewish prime minister, was born into a Jewish family but baptized as a young boy into the Church of England. A favorite of Queen Victoria, he was respected by many as a novelist and statesman and for years was a powerful leader of his country’s Conservative Party. None of that, however, spared him the verbal abuse of his adversaries, who labeled him a “haughty Jew,” “hellish Jew,” “traitorous Jew,” and “abominable Jew”; compared him to Shylock, Fagin, and Judas; questioned his national loyalty and allegiances to Great Britain; and accused him of being “un-English” and favoring a “Hebrew policy” and “a Jew government.” Repeatedly portrayed as a vulgar Jew in popular cartoons and caricatures, he was depicted in association with the devil and denounced as “an instrument of Satan.” There were times when he was confronted by malicious people in public who put bacon on poles and waved it in front of his face.
Disraeli endured this pork chop anti-Semitism, sometimes replied to it in witty ways, and had a long and powerful career as a British statesman. But while he remained a lifelong member of the Anglican Church and never practiced Judaism, he was not spared the hatred sometimes levelled against Jews in public life.
Léon Blum (1872-1950), the leader of the left-wing Popular Front coalition in France, was the first openly declared Jew to serve as French prime minster, a position he held on three different occasions beginning in 1936. Praised by some for important labor reforms he saw through, he was vulnerable to others who attacked him as a Jew and a socialist. The criticism he sometimes faced could be savage. In the words of respected French historian Pierre Gaxotte, Blum was excoriated as “the incarnation of everything which turns our blood cold. He gives us goose pimples, he is Evil itself, he is Death itself.” Seized by Vichy authorities, he was held in captivity for a time in France and later sent with his wife to a Nazi camp near Buchenwald. Liberated by American soldiers, Blum and his wife returned to France in May 1945. He died five years later.
One also recalls Walther Rathenau (1867-1922), a wealthy German Jewish industrialist, banker, author, and the most prominent Jew in German political life in his day, becoming the Weimar Republic’s foreign minister in 1922. Unlike Blum, who was open about his attachment to both Judaism and Zionism, Rathenau was an assimilationist, not a participant in Jewish religious practice, and cool to Zionism. For all of his distance from Judaism, though, he was repeatedly denounced in Germany’s anti-Semitic press as one of the Elders of Zion; a Jew bent on covertly seeking to control power in Germany and elsewhere. A popular German drinking song in his day included the words “Knallt ab den Walter Rathenau/Die gottverfluchte Judensau” (“Down with Walther Rathenau/the goddamned Jewish swine”).
Pigs again. Jews and pigs—a vulgar, primitive, mean-spirited association, full of ill will and aggressive intent. And yet it hangs on and retains an inherently punishing force.
As to where such pork chop anti-Semitism may ultimately lead: On June 24, 1922, after leaving his home for work, Rathenau (“the goddamned Jewish swine”) was gunned down in cold blood by a group of young German nationalists and anti-Semites.
But all of those awful things happened “over there,” and, as we have long told ourselves, America is not Europe. Let’s hope we are right, for if ever there were a time that the idea of American exceptionalism needed to hold true, now is such a time.
Alvin H. Rosenfeld is the director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Irving M. Glazer Chair in Jewish Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the editor, most recently, of Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives.