Anti-Semitism: Definition, History, and Status in the US

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the international Jewish non-governmental organization based in the United States and a racism watchdog, reports the largest number of anti-Semitic incidents in their 40 year long collection of data. In 2019, Jews in the United States have reportedly suffered 2,107 anti-Semitic incidents which marked a substantial 12% rise from 2008’s record of 1879 attacks. 

Even with this number, JTA’s Ben Sales reports that “almost all American Jews say anti-Semitism is a problem, according to a new poll. Half of Americans don’t know what it means” in a published article this October. 

In the news survey, it was found that 88% of American Jews consider anti-Semitism as a problem in the United States. Additionally, most see it as a problem on the right and in the Republican Party. These findings were supported by the survey data conducted and published by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) , a nonpartisan advocacy organization, in 2019. But the surprising yet equally interesting result of the survey is that 21% of Americans overall say they’ve never heard of the term “anti-Semitism — that is, more than one in five Americans. Moreover, 25% of Americans overall have heard of the term but they are unsure of what it means. 

According to a 2019 study by Pew Research Center, roughly two-thirds of Americans (65%) face at least “some” discrimination in the US. That is, the number has increased 20 percentage points from the last survey conducted in 2016. In addition to that, 34% of Americans expressed that Jews have experienced “a lot” of discrimination compared to the 13% recorded last 2016. 

The data suggest that Americans acknowledge the bigotry and discrimination against Jews but can be largely unfamiliar with the term “anti-Semitism.” AJC’s US director for combating anti-Semitism, Holly Huffnagle, believes that using the word anti-Semitism is important in these types of discussions. Mainly because “it covers a broad historical spectrum of how anti-Jewish discrimination manifests — from conspiracy theories to stereotypes to slurs.

In an interview with JTA, she says, “I think this is an opportunity for education on what anti-Semitism is. If someone would have said ‘Jew-hatred, do you know what that is,’ or some other term, I think we would have seen that number a little bit less, but we need the term anti-Semitism to be understood.”

Educating Ourselves: What is anti-Semitism?

Anti-Semitism, dubbed as history’s oldest hatred which sprung as early as the ancient empires of Babylonia, Greece, and Rome, is a term first popularized by German agitator and publicist Friedrich Wilhelm Adolph Marr in 1879. 

In his pamphlet Der Weg zum Siege des Germanentums über das Judenthum (The Way to Victory of Germanism over Judaism), Marr introduced the idea that German and Jews were locked in a longstanding conflict largely attributed to race. He argued that the socio-political liberation of the Jews championed by German liberalism had allowed the Jews to take control of Germany’s finance and industry. Pointing that this conflict was mainly due to race, it was unlikely that it could be resolved even by the total assimilation of the Jewish population. Thus, the solution only leads to “victory of one and ultimate death of the other”. To prevent the Jews from winning this war, Marr founded the “League of Antisemites (Antisemiten-Liga), the first German organization committed specifically to combating the alleged threat to Germany posed by the Jews and advocating their forced removal from the country” in 1879. 

Today, anti-Semitism is rather simply defined as hostility or prejudice against Jews. According to ADL, this hostility is masked through the form of religious teachings which proclaim the inferiority of Jews or in terms of policies and efforts intentionally made to isolate, oppress, or injure them. It also covers prejudiced or stereotyped views about Jews. 

History of Anti-Semitism

The history of anti-Semitism dates back to the beginning of Jewish history. Jews have been heavily criticized and persecuted for their efforts to remain a separate social and religious group that refused to adopt the way of life as well as values of the non-Jewish societies where they lived. During the time of the ancient Roman empire, different cultures had set in and each had brought their own gods and forms of worship. Thus, the religion of Rome was polytheistic. Additionally, they also worshipped spirits like rivers, trees, fields, and buildings. 

The Jews, on the other hand, are called Hebrew Yĕhūdhī or Yehudi and belong to the religion, Judaism. Judaism is the belief in one God who has established a covenant with them. This God communicates to his believers through prophets and rewards good deeds while punishing evil. 

The hatred against Jews increased with the rise of Christianity and anti-Semitism spread in the whole of Europe. The image of anti-Semitism during this time was gruesome as Jews were seen not only as outsiders but as people who rejected Jesus and crucified him despite the very fact that Roman authorities themeselves ordered and carried out the crucifixion. By the Middle Ages (11th to 14th centuries), the persecution against Jews became more widespread and they were called names like “Christ-killers” and “Devils”. They were denied citizenship and were forced to live in ghettos. 

Ghettos were often enclosed districts that isolated Jews from the rest of the non-Jewish population and from other Jewish communities. Recorded living conditions inside these districts were often described as miserable. Some countries also required identification of Jews through a yellow badge or a special hat called the Judenhut. This cone-shaped pointed hat either in yellow or white were initially worn by choice but after the 1215 Fourth Council of the Lateran, adult male Jews were required to wear a Judenhut while outside a ghetto to identify them from the others. 

Not only were they forced to live in ghettos, Jews were also accused of poisoning rivers and wells during the times of disease. Some were even tortured then executed under accusations of abducting and killing Christian children to either drink their blood or to use in baking matzoh (unleavened flatbread part of Jewish cuisine and integral element of the Passover festival and as recounted in the Torah, God commanded the Jews to create this bread) which is a charge known as “blood libel”. A large number of Jews were forced to convert to Christianity to escape the persecution. 

The 1800s through the 1900s marked the period of anti-Jewish riots called “pogroms” (aimed at massacre or explusion of an ethnic or religious group) were then prevalent in the Russian Empire. The Russian Revolution which was a period of socio-political revolution across the empire which started with the abolition of the monarchy in 1917 until the Bolshevik establishment of the Soviet Union in 1923 had recorded thousands of pogroms. In Ukraine alone, 1,326 pogroms were recorded which left half a million Jews homeless. Also, in the span of four years from 1918-1921, there were an estimated 30,000 to 70,000 killed. 

The storm of the anti-Semitic violence happened under the leadership of Adolf Hitler of Nazi Germany from 1933-1945. The narrative of Jews under Hitler’s supremacy was a reflection of the story of Marr (as mentioned above) although on an inexplicable level and terrifying intensity. Jews were converted to Christians, expelled from Spain to England, and regarded by the Nazis as members of a subhuman race and a dangerous cancer that would destroy all of Germany. They were certain that the final solution to the Jewish question was to murder each and every Jew – men, women, and children – to eradicate their existence and population here on Earth. In Nazi ideology, Jewishness was perceived as biological and it was essential for Jews to be eliminated for the purification and salvation of the German people. 

During this time, anti-Semitism became government official policy. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, anti-Semitism was “taught in the schools, elaborated in “scientific” journals and research institutes, and promoted by a huge, highly effective organization for international propaganda.” The World War II marked the now known “Holocaust” which exterminated 5.7 million Jews, the largest anti-Semitic violence recorded in history. Jews were killed by mobile killing units, death camps such as Auschwitz, Chelmno, Belzec, Majdanek, and Treblinka, or by working to death or starvation. 

This anti-Semitic violence had not only erupted in Nazi Germany but had also inspired and influenced anti Jewish movements elsewhere like in France by the Cagoulards (French: “Hooded Men”), in Hungary by the Arrow Cross, in England by the British Union of Fascists, and in the United States by the German-American Bund and the Silver Shirts.

After the Nazi defeat in 1945, the anti-Semitism movement gradually lost favour in western Europe and the United States. American Jews became an important part of culture and society in postwar US and anti-Semitism soon become what is now called a “fringe phenomenon” with occasional lethal manifestations in hate crimes. 

Although they were better tolerated in American society and numbers have dramatically dropped, anti-Semitism still persisted in many countries. Under Soviet leadership of Joseph Stalin, Jews were purged and were only halted with his death in 1953. There were also notable Jewish purged in Poland from 1956-1957 and in 1968. 

Anti-Semitism in the US: Statistics from 1980 to Present

According to the Jewish Virtual Library which has a record since 1899, Jewish population accounted for 1,043,800 in 1899 in the US and has now grown to 7,153,065 in 2020. Although Americans are  largely unaware of the size of Jewish population in the US, according to studies conducted by Pew Research Center. That is, Jews in the US account for around 2% of the total population. 

In a study, one in every five US adults (19%) had correctly answered that Jews make up less than 5% of the population while 25% think that Jews constitute more than just 5% while there is a clear majority of 56% who are unsure. 

Anti-semitism in the US can be rooted from the 1980s which is attributed to apparent envy, jealousy, and fear of the Jews rather than the more common inferior characteristics that Jews are usually associated with in the past. In history, Jews have become prominent and moneylending and this characteristic may have led to an increase in anti-Semitism in the US after economic crises such as the financial meltdowns in 2007 and 2009. 

In an article published in The New Republic by Zubin Jelveh in 2009, it discussed the disturbing news from the Boston Review which blamed Jews for the Financial Crisis. 

“In order to assess explicit prejudice toward Jews, we directly asked respondents “How much to blame were the Jews for the financial crisis?” with responses falling under five categories: a great deal, a lot, a moderate amount, a little, not at all. Among non-Jewish respondents, a strikingly high 24.6 percent of Americans blamed “the Jews” a moderate amount or more, and 38.4 percent attributed at least some level of blame to the group.”

The Boston Review also pointed out that antisemitism is very apparent during financial crises as evidenced in the famous Panama Scandal which is often described as the biggest case of monetary corruption of the nineteenth century. As much as it was the downfall of Clemenencaeu’s government and involved a number of cabinet members and hundred of parliament members, the blame and fury had been centered on two Jewish men who were in charge of distributing corporate bribe money to the politicians. 

In a 1992 survey conducted by the ADL, 20% of Americans aged 30-40 years old held anti-semitic views which is a considerable drop from the 29% recorded in 1964. After six years in 1998, the number dropped to 12%. Although there is a significant drop in terms of assessment in the prevalence of anti-Semitic views, there was a steady increase in anti-Semitic incidences in the US since 1986. 

In the 2005 American Survey of American Attitudes Toward Jews, a national poll of 1,600 American Adults found that 14% of American Adults or an estimated 35 million are unquestionably anti-Semitic. This has decreased 3 percentage points from the 2002 record of 17%. Additionally, survey among foreign born Hispanics and African Americans discovered that 35% and 36% respectively held strong anti-Semitic beliefs but the numbers have already been down from the 40 percentage point range in 2002. 

Then again, as much as there is improvement in how Americans view Jews, the anti-Semitic incidence is another story. In 2003, there were 1,557 hate crimes committed against Jews which increased by 17% in 2004 at 1,821 incidents. By 2014, there were a total of 1,140 anti-religious hate crimes and 56.8% were against Jews. 

2019 marked the unprecedented heights in anti-Semitism in the US says the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) since 1979 when they started tracking these incidents. In 2019 alone, there were more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism, and harassment. 

“This was a year of unprecedented antisemitic activity, a time when many Jewish communities across the country had direct encounters with hate,” said ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt. “We are committed to fighting back against this rising tide of hate and will double down on our work with elected leaders, schools, and communities to end the cycle of hatred.”

In an Audit of Anti-Semitic incidents issued during that time showed a 12% increase in incidents while assaults increased by 56%. In the US, there were also more than 230 incidents targeted at Jewish synagogues and community centers. Three major attacks include a shooting at a Chabad center in Poway, California which killed a 60 year old woman and injured three others. Another was a shooting in Jersey City, New Jersey of two suspects who were accused of killing a police detective and storming a nearby kosher market. Authourities tagged this as acts of domestic terrorism “fueled by both anti-Semitism and anti-law enforcement beliefs.” Last major attack occurred in Monsey, New York where five Orthodox Jews including 72 year old Josef Neumann were stabbed during a Hanukkah celebration. 

There were an average six anti-Semitic incidents per day in the US with the highest numbers recorded in New York, New Jersey, California, Massachussetts, and Pennsylvania. More than half of the assault cases happened in New York City with 25 in Brooklyn alone during that time. 

Just this year, there were already three major cases of anti-Semitism. First was during the Black Lives Protest on May 30, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. 

Beginning Saturday night May 30, 2020, hundreds of protesters and rioters looted and vandalized synagogues and Jewish stores in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles. Aside from the general complaints against police brutality that ignited the nationwide riots, synagogues were spray-painted with the words, “F*ck Israel” and “Free Palestine,” linking Jewish religious institutions with political hatred of the state of Israel. 400 protesters were arrested.”

Another was just last August 25, 2020 in an arson case at the Chabad center of the University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware. Lastly, two days later, amidst the chaos in the Jake Blake riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the driveway of the Beth Hillel Temple was spray-painted with the words, “Free Palestine.”

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