View From New York Antisemitism Rally: ‘No Fear’ Theme Resonates, From Soviet Era To US Today
Journalists usually report on marches and rallies rather than participate in them. I made a rare exception to that rule for last Sunday’s “No Hate, No Fear” demonstration in New York City against antisemitism, getting up at my home in Boston early enough to board, at 4:50 a.m., a chartered bus that left a Jewish Community Center in Newton, Mass. amid a swirling snow squall.
I explained to my daughters, who came with me, that on a Sunday in December 1987 I had gotten up early in the morning with my own parents, who had taken me with them to Washington, DC, from Massachusetts for the national march and rally for Soviet Jewry. That had been a formative experience, a chance for me to learn from my parents that when other Jews are in trouble, sometimes you can help them out by waking up early in the morning, traveling a considerable distance and standing outside in the cold with a lot of other Jews.
The 1987 event was a national march that drew a crowd estimated at 250,000 people; the “No Hate, No Fear” rally, organized with a much shorter lead time, was a New York event that attracted at most 25,000. There are other differences and parallels, too. Thinking them through may be of some help in assessing the current situation with clear eyes.
In 1987, the Soviet Union still existed as a superpower, with 1.5 million Jews trapped behind the borders of a nuclear-armed Communist dictatorship that was, as a matter of official policy, hostile to religion and to Zionism.
Today’s situation is quite different. It is true that some European and Islamic governments do fund some of the anti-Israel advocacy movements that fuel antisemitism. And it is certainly conceivable that the government of Iran or its proxies would target American Jews as it did those in Argentina, and as it has those in Israel, including American Jews traveling there. The main antisemitic threat in America today, though, does not come from a powerful government.
For the moment, at least, the violent attacks on synagogues, on individual Jews, and on identifiably Jewish sites in America appear to be coming primarily not from any sovereign power but from a motley assortment of individual sickos. The New York Times described Robert Bowers, the white supremacist accused of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018, as “an isolated, awkward man who lived alone and struggled with basic human interactions.” Grafton Thomas, the black man charged with a machete attack on a Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York, is mentally ill, his lawyers say. David Anderson and Francine Graham, who shot up a Jersey City kosher supermarket, reportedly lived in a van and were associated with the Black Hebrew Israelite movement. John Timothy Earnest, a 19-year-old nursing student who in 2019 attacked a Chabad house in Poway, California, appears to have been inspired in part by video games and by an attack on mosques in New Zealand.
Should that be any consolation? Or is it a distinction without a difference? After all, a Jewish victim of an antisemitic attack is just as dead, regardless of whether he was shot by an American loner-loser or by a Kremlin-directed uniformed official in some Soviet gulag.
This line of argument, too, runs into resistance from those who insist that the surge of American antisemitism is, if not state-ordered, at least somehow state-encouraged or state-enabled, by, the argument goes, a President Donald Trump who vilifies Mexican immigrants and who failed, the argument goes, to immediately and unequivocally denounce white supremacists in Charlottesville. Or by, a variant of the same the argument goes, a Democratic Party that tolerates the presence of boycott-Israel, “all about the Benjamins” advocates such as Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.
I do not agree with that analysis. Democrats and Republicans would like, for their own partisan political purposes, to paint their opponents as tolerating or fomenting antisemitism. Actually, though, Trump has been forceful in denouncing and countering antisemitism, as have mainstream Democratic leaders. It’s possible I’m in denial about this; I predict that the previous sentence will draw angry comments from friends on both the right and the left. If you are tempted to be one of those commenters, though, take a cue from my own willingness to consider that I am in denial and instead please consider yourself the possibility that the antisemitism problem in America, while serious, may not be quite as bad as you think it is.
Jewish defense organizations and even news organizations have an interest in overstating the scale of the antisemitism problem, but it’s not clear that American Jewry does. It may be true, as the old saying goes, that “a little antisemitism is good for the Jews,” because it reinforces group identity and deters assimilation. But a lot of antisemitism is definitely not good for the Jews.
I initially thought that a key distinction between state-sponsored antisemitism and “motley assortment of individual sickos” antisemitism was the scale. A Soviet policy that prevented all 1.5 million Jews there from learning Hebrew or emigrating to Israel affected everyone. Yet the scale in America is not so small, if one considers the numbers indirectly as well as directly impacted. By creating a climate of fear and insecurity in the entire American Jewish population, the “motley assortment of individual sickos,” magnified by media attention, has achieved an outsized effect. The “domestic terrorism” label is apt. Overcoming the terror, the fear, is therefore a priority along with physical security.
There we have some experience and examples. The American movement to free Soviet Jewry deserves credit for helping to defeat the Soviet Union, but the Americans were emboldened by heroes like Natan Sharansky, whose faith was strong enough to withstand the cruelty of his captors in the gulag. One of the most moving moments for me at the 1987 rally was when Sharansky, who had been released in 1986, spoke.
On this front, Sunday’s “No Hate, No Fear” march was constructive, inspiring and, literally, encouraging. Not that marching in New York City with thousands of other Jews under robust New York Police Department protection is comparable at all to the bravery Sharansky displayed while isolated in Soviet prison. But think about it according to what in rabbinic logic is called a “kal v’chomer,” deriving a simpler case from a stronger case. If Sharansky was strong enough to take on the entire nuclear-armed Soviet Union, American Jews should have no problem handling a handful of violent extremists. In both cases the principle is that an individual whose identity and faith are secure enough has the power not to be intimidated.
An 80-year-old grandmother a few steps ahead of me raised a “No Hate, No Fear” sign high on Sunday as she reached the Brooklyn side of the bridge after three hours of waiting and marching in the cold. I’ve got plenty of doubts, based on history, about our ability to control whether people hate us. In the “no fear” department, though, Sunday was an unmistakable step in the right direction.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.