Rediscovering American Antisemitism
Recently, an opinion writer in The Washington Post told readers that preoccupation with the Holocaust has blinded us to the prevalence of antisemitism in American history. In other words, Holocaust museums somehow distract from the reality of antisemitism.
The truth is somewhat different. In the 1980s and 1990s, American Jewish intellectuals began to doubt that antisemitism had a future in the US. Jerome Chanes’ book, Antisemitism in America Today: Outspoken Experts Explode the Myths, even offered a premature obituary. Jewish intellectuals felt at home in Reagan’s and Clinton’s America, despite a lunatic fringe, and pointed to public opinion polls showing that anti-Jewish sentiment in the US peaked before and during World War II and started to decline thereafter. Even earlier, during the 1950s, conservative-minded Jewish historians like Daniel Boorstin argued that antisemitism had never been much of a force in an America where the New England Puritans from the start wanted to build “a new Israel.”
Boorstin began his career as a young communist before he discovered the virtues of America’s democratic capitalism. He also became a supporter of Zionism, like many Jewish intellectuals who, after 1948, came to believe that Israel would create a haven for Holocaust survivors and a miniature American democracy in the Holy Land.
The 21st century is shaping up differently for two reasons. First, according to a new Harris poll, Generation Z (born around 2000 and including young Jews) no longer view “socialism” as a bad word and, in fact, prefer it to capitalism. To explain, I would emphasis the traumatic impact — which is still felt — of the 2008 financial crash on Generation Z’s families even more than left-wing indoctrination in high schools or college campuses.
Second, political traumas, starting with the 9/11 attacks and continuing with the ugly partisan divide along both ideological and racial lines under President Obama and now President Trump, have stopped the decline in American antisemitism according to FBI “hate crimes” statistics.
The debate now among Jewish politicians and intellectuals is not over whether antisemitism is a clear and present danger in the 21st century, but whether “the right” or “the left” is primarily responsible for it.
According to legend, an Orthodox rabbi with a long beard sat on the left side of the Frankfurt Assembly in 1848. Asked why, he answered, “because we have no enemies on the Left.” The tunnel vision of Jews who believe that they have only enemies on “the right” created the Old Left’s blind spot to Stalin’s antisemitism as well as the New Left’s silence on black nationalist Stokely Carmichael’s hatred of Jews and Israel.
The favorite of the “woke generation” is 76 year-old Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a Jew who still maintains his Brooklyn-nurtured sympathies with Stalin’s Soviet Union as well as an aversion to Zionism. Sanders’ current campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, the first Muslim American to run a presidential campaign, is unfriendly to Israel.
Sanders and the “progressive” Democrats in Congress believe that antisemitism may pose a threat in 21st century America, but that it emanates only from “self-identified neo-Confederates, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klansmen … engaged in racist and anti-Semitic demonstrations,” and from President Donald Trump, as they put it in a recent resolution that failed to condemn Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s antisemitic statements.
Young Jews’ mantra today may be both “no enemies on the Left” and “socialism is the cure.” History — from young Marx’s communist manifesto in 1848 to the young American Jewish radicals during the 1930s who dreamed about a socialist revolution while often being oblivious to the brewing Holocaust — could be repeating itself, again with unhappy results. To quote James Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).