I don’t think of Delaware as a center of anti-Semitic hate. But on the night of Aug. 26, the University of Delaware’s Chabad house was burned to the ground, causing an estimated $75,000 worth of damage. According to the state fire marshal, the fire was intentionally set. While the university’s president acknowledged that the site was “an active part of UD’s religious, faith, and spiritual diversity” the fire marshal’s office found no indication that this was a hate crime. Gov. John Carney called the crime “upsetting.”
Only three years earlier, in 2017, Gov. Carney was showing his solidarity and support while visiting the Siegel Jewish Community Center and its Albert Einstein Academy primary school in Wilmington after the JCC received five bomb threats in the space of two months. In February of this year, the same JCC reported that it’s still receiving bomb threats. Delaware’s Jewish community is pushing for an expansion of the state’s hate crime laws.
The pathway from experiencing casual hatred to receiving bomb threats to living communal life under siege to suffering defaced and burned down buildings is all too wearyingly familiar for Jews in Delaware, as well as in the traditional urban centers of American Jewish life. Horrifying footage from Brooklyn on August 29 showed two Haredi men being rammed by a car—an incident that seems no more politically determinable than the regular anti-Semitic chanting or vandalizing of Jewish property at Black Lives Matter marches, or white supremacist bomb threats.
Two weekends ago, a sign reading “The Jews Want a Race War” appeared over the I-405 freeway in Los Angeles. It was dangled by a man named Jon Minadeo Jr. One sign turned into two, with the adjacent sign reading “Honk if you know.” According to witnesses many cars honked. The sign was eventually removed.
The following day, Minadeo was filmed outside the Chabad in Marina del Rey, exercising his free speech rights against America’s Jews once more as part of a tour he dubbed “Name the Nose.” “These Jewish terrorists are the people behind 9/11,” he shouted on the steps. The white van he drove was graffitied with slogans that offer some of his conspiracy theories: “The Jews are spawns of Satan,” “Trump is owned by Jews,” “Jews run Hollywood.” His group, the Goyim Defense League, posted anti-Semitic flyers last year in San Francisco and run a YouTube-style site called Goyim TV.
What do all these incidents have in common? Not that they are the unique province of “the right” or “the left”—but that they are happening in America on a daily basis and both the mainstream press and the organized Jewish community seem determined to ignore them. Last summer, Armin Rosen documented the “routine” attacks upon the city’s visible Jews. “The increase in the number of physical assaults against Orthodox Jews in New York City is a matter of empirical fact,” he stated, while detailing the steep rise in numbers from the NYPD hate crime unit. The question Rosen raised then was why the country’s biggest wave of hate crimes was apparently not worthy of notice by any of the city’s major newspapers, the mayor’s office, the Justice Department, or civil rights groups; six months after his article was published, it was still the only long piece on the subject.
What became clear to me from the I-405 incident is that America’s Jews don’t see anti-Semitism, even when it’s dangling over a freeway in one of its most liberal cities in broad daylight. But perhaps it isn’t odd that mainstream media haven’t reported on it when American Jews won’t admit that anti-Semitism is a real problem in this country, and when so few of our high-profile Jews speak out against such attacks. Why would the media consider it of public interest if the Jews don’t?
It seems that American Jews don’t see anti-Semitism in America because they don’t want to, not because it isn’t real. They choose not to see it because it makes them uncomfortable. Or they only see it when it comes from the other “side.”
Yet for an outsider, the normalizing of open anti-Semitism in this country on all “sides” is shocking. This past week, in addition to the Delaware Chabad, Nazi symbols were painted on a bus stop in Colorado Springs and Philadelphia’s NAACP President Rodney Muhammad was removed after posting an anti-Semitic meme to Facebook. In the past three months we’ve seen the California Board of Education go ahead with an ethnic studies curriculum that is openly anti-Semitic and anti-Israel as part of its efforts to promote diversity and understanding among cultures. Synagogues have been defaced in Pennsylvania, Boston, Florida, and Cleveland, among other places. And that’s a good week, because nobody was put in a hospital or killed.
While “anti-Zionism” provides a fig leaf for anti-Semitic bullying campaigns, especially on college campuses, the idea that there is some clear line between the new and the old types of blood libel is increasingly hard to credit in an age of hypersensitivity to every other kind of real or imagined slight. At USC, Jewish student Rose Ritch resigned from her position as vice president of the student government after being bullied for her “Zionism”—meaning her refusal to stridently condemn and disavow Israel, a subject that has zero to do with student government at the college.
At least a half dozen synagogues have been vandalized during BLM protests, including one in LA (“Fuck Israel” was sprayed on the side of the building). A BLM protest in Washington, D.C., featured the chant: “Israel, we know you, you murder children too.” There’s been a resurgence of the ugly rhetoric of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam via figures such as DeSean Jackson, P Diddy, and Jay Electronica, along with articles explaining why Louis Farrakhan is in fact a very important figure in the African American community whose minions provide young minority men with positive role models. Yikes.
Those are the subtle cases. In Nevada, a Jewish man was stabbed in the head while the perpetrator cried “Heil Hitler.” Anyone who is identifiably Jewish and spends a significant portion of their time online must contend with trending hashtags such as #jewishprivilege, #holocaust, and #naziger, as well as with the perverse new trend on TikTok in which teenagers reenact concentration camp scenarios for entertainment, and then read articles about why that’s OK.
Yet American Jews and the organizations that purport to represent them continue by and large to be curiously quiet about this ever-widening river of cultural sewage. America’s superlative example of successful assimilation has spawned a unique antidote to intergenerational trauma; an internalization of the false assumption that Jews are fine, or that Ashkenazi Jews are in fact too privileged to be targeted. When we enable this perception that Jews are safe, we are conveniently complicit with the gatekeepers who prefer that narrative; both those on the left who see Jews as the agents of white supremacy, and those on the right who see Jews as betrayers of it. And you wonder how much of America’s anti-Semitism—the vandalism, the arson, the assaults—we never see.
In 2014, London was becoming an eyebrow-raising place to be Jewish (swastikas graffitied in the city, kosher food boycotted from major supermarket chains, etc.), and Los Angeles was still allegedly the golden Medina. So I jumped ship. Arriving in Los Angeles felt akin to making aliyah. The superficial sense of comfort that came with a great degree of visible representation of Jewish identity both in Jewish and non-Jewish quarters (I remember being struck by a menorah in a CVS!) made me feel less like a stranger in a strange land.
America may be the most successful integration the Jews of the diaspora have ever experienced. But at what cost? America’s bigger Jewish population doesn’t mean safety in numbers. In fact, the frequency of attacks here is highly disproportionate, and rightfully alarming. Yet the reckoning taking place in Britain seems light years away from this side of the pond.
This summer, the British rapper Wiley went on a 48-hour rampage via Twitter and Instagram, spouting conspiracy theories about the Jewish people and Israel; in one tweet, he said Jews should “hold some corn” (slang for “receive some bullets”). The non-Jewish world in Britain reacted in disbelief. How could such geriatric and cartoonish anti-Semitic tropes still exist in progressive spaces? Wiley’s actions were the catalyst for a 48-hour social media walkout led by prominent British figures who protested for better online safeguards against hate speech, but the stunt didn’t gain traction in America. Perhaps had Wiley been a bigger export here there would have been a desire to participate. Then again, that’s doubtful.
Anti-Semitism always brought me closer to my Jewish identity, fighting harder to align my multitudes. But in America, anti-Semitism seems to render American Jews further from their Jewish identity, and closer to a desire to blend in—as leftists, as allies, as Americans. But when Jews don’t confront anti-Semitism, there’s zero public outcry. That’s the cycle that the American Jewish community appears to be trapped in.
Why and how did this happen? In The Price of Whiteness, Eric L. Goldstein discusses how upon Jews’ arrival in America, confronted with a divisive binary that favored religious freedom over racial equality, the Ashkenazi Jews chose religion over ethnicity, which secured their pass into society but also erased something of their Jewish identities. An Ashkenazi Jew who identifies as white often overlooks that Ashkenazim were never afforded protection because of racial privilege; in fact, the opposite was true. It also ignores those Jews who are not white, including the majority who live in Israel.
Assimilation hasn’t safeguarded any Jew from the prevalence of anti-Semitism on either the left or the right in America. On the left, we see it on college campuses with the ostracizing of “bad” Zionist Jews from student government and the routine demonization of Zionism and Zionists in classrooms and educational programming. When I recently said that BLM protesters vandalizing synagogues was not the equivalent of smashing the windows of an Urban Outfitters, I was treated as a pariah. Had an LGBTQ center been graffitied with slurs, there would have been reasonable condemnation. The American left is a place where we don’t ask people to compromise their queerness or their feminism, but where we shun Jewish pride and slander a Jew’s right to self-determination as “racist” and “fascist.”
What’s worse: Many Jews collude in this self-mutilation, only calling out anti-Semitism when it comes from the right—which, after all, is where hatred exclusively comes from. And of course, there are plenty of examples of anti-Semitism on Trump’s side of the divide, like when the president himself praised Henry Ford, one of America’s biggest anti-Semites ever, for his “good bloodlines.” The individuals behind deadly assaults on American synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway were right-wing extremists spouting the replacement theory (the same as that of the I-405 perpetrators: Jews are seeking to colonize white people by colluding to increase nonwhite immigrants).
Yet while the radical right propagates the classical loony conspiracy theories that are fundamental to Jew-hatred, the radical left infuriatingly claims to combat anti-Semitism and all other forms of bigotry while upholding a definition of Jews and Jewishness that in fact erases us. The left defines anti-Semitism as a product of capitalism, as if to suggest that without capitalism there’d be no anti-Semitism. They define anti-Semitism as a construct of Judeo-Christianity, as if to suggest that there’s no anti-Semitism in the Muslim world.
The left promulgates the lie that Jews didn’t have a homeland before 1948, and promotes the myth that the land of Judea had no historic or cultural or lived emotional connection to Jews worldwide. The left compares Israel soldiers to Nazis—a comparison that is both ridiculously false and purposefully obscene, and which trivializes history’s bloodiest genocide, whose victims still walk among us. It charges Israelis with bloody crimes, such as “massacring” children or “harvesting organs,” which are in fact no different than the crudest medieval blood libels. The left denies Jews the human right to seek refuge in their own land, while advocating for these same rights for others at their expense. The left does all these things not on fringe websites or in meetings in someone’s basement like the right does, but in classrooms at some of America’s finest universities, and in impeccably edited reviews and journals aimed at people with graduate degrees.
In doing so, the left seeks not only to make the crudest kinds of anti-Semitic libels respectable, but to establish them as proofs of virtue—and make them part of the price of admission to the American elite. They seek to raise the price of Jewish identification with our own culture and history and ancestors to the point where many people of Jewish descent will feel themselves forced to choose between our own lived identities and inheritance as Jews, or social and professional suicide. They want to reduce us to an inferior, subhuman status, using the rainbow-flag-waving Trojan horse of human rights speak.
This is a two-pronged nightmare, worsened by the reality that American Jews seem more prepared to fight all other fights apart from their own. In fact, they seem eager to choose the other fights first. Are they that deeply gaslit? Are they scared, and in denial? Are they so desperate for acceptance? Is the emotional disconnect so severe that it doesn’t even hurt to be under attack?
In the U.K., I didn’t grow up with the same foundational constructs of racism that exist in the United States (although of course the colonial legacy of racism is still a real problem there), and so I wasn’t predisposed to check my own ethnic minority status against a hierarchy of oppression any time I personally felt threatened as a Jew, or a woman, or for any other reason. You have to put on your life jacket before you help the person next to you. Hate is hate.
But to stand up to anti-Semitism in America today is to inspire an emotional backlash from those who are quick to remind of your privilege as a person with light skin. To argue that a light-skinned Jew’s privileges are conditional and disappear upon an anti-Semitic attack—go tell Hitler’s victims about their white-skin privilege—is met with fury. It appears that for many American Jews, the idea that they have “white privilege” is actually a shield against the knowledge of who they actually are, and the real threats that they face.
It cannot be understated that this American Jewish cultural disaster has an impact far beyond the borders of the United States. American Jewish culture is so widely exported throughout the world it’s no wonder that the deceitful trope that Jews are wealthy and largely white reinforces the lack of empathy for our plight, and the lack of concern when we are targeted. An American generation that has only ever known a powerful Israel can’t understand why American Jews deem Israel under threat from anti-Zionist politics, or why the false portrayal of Israel as a bloodthirsty racist colonialist enterprise should threaten them. They don’t know that the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa who sought refuge in Israel from oppression are a majority of the country’s population. Rather than see anti-Semitism as a real phenomenon, they view it as a chess piece to be played.
To try to manipulate anti-Semitism instead of fighting it wherever it arises is fatal. The willingness to erase one’s Jewish identity in order to become a “normal” American is also fatal. If America is a melting pot of individuals, then this abdication from Jewish identity makes no sense. Why should a people be forced to reject themselves in order to fit into a whole, when the whole demands that we be ourselves in all our individuality? Becoming part of the new American social hierarchy will not protect Jews no matter how far they ascend. It hasn’t protected Jews in any other nation. In the eyes of an anti-Semite, you’ll always be a Jew first and an American second, if at all. But that is a message that American Jews of both the left and the right seem supremely uninterested in hearing.
In Britain, we don’t deny that anti-Semitism exists. We have community structures that exist to protect Jewish life, and they serve neither the government nor its leading opposition. British Jews are scrappier and unafraid to get our hands dirty in the face of anti-Semitism, even if we’re publicly shamed for it. We’re Jews, after all, and neither our friends nor our foes expect us to be otherwise. By contrast, American Jews are eerily silent; sleepwalking through a rising tide of Jew-hatred. How can you expect to have your places of worship respected, your history understood, and your identity recognized and validated if you won’t stand up for yourselves, and admit your real vulnerability?
“The Jews Want a Race War” was a disturbing sign on a freeway. The vagueness of the communal response to that sign, and hundreds of other incidents like it, is a disturbing sign of a much bigger problem.
Eve Dov Ber is an LA-based, Scottish freelance music journalist, and former Deputy Editor of the NME. She currently contributes to New York Magazine, The Guardian, the LA Times, Pitchfork, and GQ, among other publications.