Anti-Semitic hate crimes are on the rise, up 57 percent in 2017 from 2016, the largest single-year jump on record, according to the Anti-Defamation League. That increase came on top of the rise in incidents in 2016 that coincided with a brutal presidential campaign.
I have personally seen the anti-Semitism, in online insults, threatening voice mail messages and the occasional email that makes it through my spam filter.
If not quite a crisis, it feels like a proto-crisis, something to head off, especially when the rise of anti-Semitism is combined with hate crimes against Muslims, blacks, Hispanics and immigrants. Yet American Jewish leaders — the heads of influential, established organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federations of North America — have been remarkably quiet, focused instead, as they have been for decades, on Israel, not the brewing storm in our own country.
But American Jews need to assert a voice in the public arena, to reshape our quiescent institutions and mold them in our image. And Jewish leadership must reflect its congregants, who are not sheep.
When the Anti-Defamation League, a century-old institution founded to combat anti-Semitism, released its guide to the “Alt Right and Alt Lite” last year, Ohio’s Republican state treasurer, Josh Mandel, who is Jewish, actually expressed support for two of the people on the list: Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec, conservative provocateurs who have found notoriety in the Trump era. “Sad to see @ADL_National become a partisan witch hunt group targeting people for political beliefs. I stand with @Cernovich & @JackPosobiec,” Mr. Mandel proclaimed on Twitter above a link to Mr. Cernovich’s screed charging that the league was trying to have him killed.
Mr. Cernovich advocates I.Q. tests for immigrants and “no white guilt,” and is an unapologetic misogynist. Last summer, he circulated a cartoon depicting H. R. McMaster, the White House national security adviser, as a dancing marionette with George Soros pulling his strings and a disembodied, wrinkled hand labeled “Rothschilds” controlling strings attached to Mr. Soros.
Mr. Posobiec has been one of the promulgators of fake news, including the “Pizzagate” story that claimed that Hillary Clinton helped run a child sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor and the claim that a young Democratic National Committee staff member, Seth Rich, was murdered by the Clinton campaign.
For drawing attention to these men, the Anti-Defamation League was tarred as a partisan organization by an elected Jewish Republican. I did not see any organized effort to rally around the institution, one of the few major Jewish groups in the United States that is still not predominantly engaged in debate over Israel.
Institutions matter, but they do not survive on their own. At the moment, the Anti-Defamation League is an institution under concerted attack — and it is not being defended. And so far, nothing else has arisen to forcefully take a stand in the Jewish fight against bigotry.
Truth must also be defended, which is what groups like the league and the Southern Poverty Law Center try to do as they expose hate. To most of us, at least for now, the notion that Mr. Rich, who was fatally shot on a Washington street in 2016, was murdered by Democrats because he was leaking emails to WikiLeaks is absurd. Mr. Rich’s family, on Tuesday, filed a lawsuit against Fox News for promoting the conspiracy story.
But in the alternative universe of the alt-right, that theory was taken as truth, not because the ranks of the alt-right have found logic in such stories but because those stories feed the larger narrative of a debauched world of liberalism that needs cleansing by fire. The lies are too valuable to the larger movement.
For Jews, this is personal. Had ordinary Germans and Poles and Ukrainians and Austrians and Frenchmen not played along, had they continued to shop in Jewish establishments and visit Jewish doctors, the Final Solution may, just may, not have been quite so final. To stand up to creeping totalitarianism, we needn’t throw ourselves under the tank treads. We just need to not play the game.
And refusal to play that game can be collective. If the vinyl banners proclaiming “Remember Darfur” that once graced the front of many American synagogues could give way in a wave to “We Stand With Israel,” why can’t they now give way en masse to “We Stand Against Hate”?
Why can’t the domestic apparatus of the American Jewish Committee reconstitute itself at the request of Jewish donors and members, and the Anti-Defamation League assert itself, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, in the arena of bigotry without fear of being charged with partisanship?
In the early 1930s, as Hitler came to power, consolidated control and blamed the Communists for the Reichstag fire, the Brown Shirts of the Nazi movement clashed furiously with German Communists.
The German people largely stayed silent, shunning both factions. That anarchic moment always comes to mind when I watch the black-clad, masked antifa protesters preparing for their showdowns with the khaki-wearing alt-right. Antifa cannot be allowed to represent the most vibrant form of resistance, not if the great mass of the American electorate is to join in.
When I was in high school in Georgia, I went to a small leadership retreat sponsored by Rotary International. Around a campfire, the other kids passed around a Bible and took turns reading — from the New Testament, of course. My dread grew as the Good Book drew nearer. Would I hide my Judaism, read a passage on the teachings of Jesus and pretend, or do something, anything, else? When the book was passed to me, I acted impulsively, slammed it shut and said, “This is a service organization, not a religious organization” and fled — to an empty cabin where I slept apart and alone.
The next day, one of the Rotarians took me aside and told me what I had done was brave, but suggested that I should have turned to my own part of the Bible — Psalms, Proverbs, Exodus or Genesis — and read something of personal significance.
Looking back, I believe he was right. What he suggested would mean embracing Judaism as a vital part of America pluralism — and finding the spiritual meaning in the religion. It’s what I should have done then and what I hope American Jews do now.