It’s been a bad 2017 for Jews. During the month of January, 48 bomb threats were called in to Jewish community centers across the country. Also last month, a neo-Nazi made national news by promising to hold a march in Whitefish, Mont., to intimidate the town’s small Jewish population.
It was thus unsurprising that two reporters were moved to ask President Donald Trump at Thursday’s news conference about a rise in anti-Semitism — and that many of us were aghast at Trump’s rude dismissal of the first reporter, an Orthodox Jew, and Trump’s unwillingness to take the question seriously.
But here’s the thing: As bad as 2017 has been for anti-Semitic incidents, 2016 wasn’t great, either. Nor was 2015, when the Anti-Defamation League reported 90 anti-Semitic incidents on campuses, twice as many as the year before — a slow drip that has continued into this school year.
A journalist could stay very busy writing about anti-Semitic graffiti in higher ed — and not at right-wing Christian schools, but at ostensibly liberal ones. Last August, students at Swarthmore College, the progressive Quaker college outside Philadelphia, found two swastikas painted on a stall in a bathroom of the main library. A week later, they found another swastika on a tree in the school’s woods. There have been reports of anti-Semitic incidents at Oberlin College, the University of California at Los Angeles, Brown University and Northwestern University.
You may not have heard about any of this or, for that matter, about the multiple cases of anti-Muslim vandalism on campuses last year. Indeed, given how frequently students come across hateful graffiti, to merit widespread media attention the provocations have to be particularly crass, or committed by fraternities or soccer teams.
Some assume that since Nov. 9, the Trump administration has ushered in a new, shocking rise in anti-Semitism. It’s an assumption that shows up not just at presidential news conferences but in numerous articles in the mainstream media. They rely on reports from the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center and numerous liberal commentators, Jewish and not. Similar narratives have taken hold about anti-Muslim violence, anti-immigrant violence and misogyny. In each case, there are real anecdotes to back up these concerns — as I know too well, because one of the Jewish community centers that received a bomb threat was the one where my daughters go to summer camp.
But it is not clear that we can accuse the president of ushering in a new era of heightened anti-Semitism. While there is real anti-Semitism, we have no government data available to show there’s been a rise in anti-Semitism since Trump’s election. And while it’s easy for some to blame Trump for all acts of bigotry, we should discern what’s new from what we’re simply noticing for the first time. For those who believe that Trump poses a threat — to Jews, all other minorities and all Americans — it’s important that we get our facts right. If danger is on the rise, we have to be looking in the right direction.
Anti-Semitism is a complicated phenomenon, and it can’t be reduced to some high-profile incidents. Those 48 phone calls could have been the product of one thrill-seeking sicko, or one plus a couple copycats. It’s noteworthy, of course, that there were no actual attacks. And that march in Montana, which was supposed to terrify Jews throughout the land, never actually happened. What did happen was the nearby town of Great Falls, Mont., issued a moving declaration of support for the Jews of Whitefish, a resolution “denouncing hate, bigotry, and intolerance, which today masquerade under euphemisms such as ‘white nationalism’ and the ‘alt-right.’”
In any case, there is no good statistical evidence (yet, anyway) that Americans have grown more anti-Semitic in recent months. There is, however, good evidence about the affection that most Americans feel toward Jews.
Recently, the Pew Research Center released a survey designed to gauge Americans’ “feeling thermometer” toward various religions. Pew asked more than 4,000 adults to say which religious groups they felt “warm” toward. The poll showed that Jews elicit the “warmest” feelings of any religious group. The finding was fairly consistent across all groups — Catholics like Jews; mainline Protestants like Jews; atheists like Jews; and members of all age groups within those religions like Jews (although among those touchy-feely millennials, Buddhists garnered warmer feelings than Jews did).
Poll results that ask about warm feelings are, in their way, as inadequate a gauge of a people’s safety as a few dozen empty bomb threats in a country of more than 300 million people. And Jews’ sense of well-being ultimately doesn’t come down to cold numbers, anyway. In Europe, what’s chilling about the position of Jews is not so much the recent murders of Jews and attacks on synagogues and Jewish businesses but the widespread public indifference. Here in the United States, anti-Semitism is very much with us, and always has been: According to FBI statistics for 2014, of religiously motivated hate crimes, Jews were targeted 57 percent of the time. Muslims were the victims 16 percent of the time, followed by Catholics, Protestants and atheists/agnostics.
And Jews have to keep an eye out in all directions. On campuses, the perpetrators are often left-wing students whose hatred of Israel has led them into, or in some cases was always inextricable from, a hatred of Jews. Away from campuses, the anti-Semites are a motley mix of nativists, conspiracy theorists, twisted populists and the paranoid and delusional.
In the White House, the threat comes from those like Stephen K. Bannon who admire nativist strongmen. The blood-and-soil nationalism of men like Russian President Vladimir Putin, or women like France’s Marine Le Pen, is never good for Jews; even when they don’t specifically target Jews, they attract strong support from more vigorous anti-Semites. On social media, we see anti-Semitism from anonymous trolls, and while we can’t say anything about the sincerity or strength of their intentions, they are terrifying (to Jewish reporters, among others).
Overall, however, we won’t know for many more months, when the FBI and the Anti-Defamation League have better data to work with, if Nov. 9, 2016, was the start of something new or just a continuation of a regrettable but enduring legacy. My best guess is that we are facing a continued march of the low-level, but ineradicable, Jew hatred that we always live with.
But for now, we Jews should worry less about whether attacks against us are “on the rise,” because it’s not clear whether they are. That’s not the most important question, because to any student of history it’s no comfort if anti-Semitic attacks aren’t on the rise. In many times and places, Jews have been the canary in the coal mine; when racist authoritarianism arrives, we Jews are among the first to sniff it in the air. But that’s not true in this time and place. This isn’t Germany in 1933. In the United States in 2017, the first to be targeted are Muslims or Mexicans — after which they will probably come for Jews, gays, blacks and all the other apparent undesirables who irk Trump’s angriest followers. The real question a reporter who cares about Jewish safety should ask Trump is about the health and safety of other minority groups.
Consider the right-wing parties in Poland, Hungary, Russia, France and elsewhere in Europe: None of them takes anti-Semitism as its central organizing principle. They all have other boogeymen, in many cases Muslims. But Hungary’s Jobbik, the third-largest party in the country, is clearly anti-Semitic, and Poland’s nationalist government, with its revisionist World War II history, is worrisome. All of them attract the support of anti-Semites, and all of them could be expected, like Francisco Franco during World War II, to comfortably make common cause with anti-Semites.
Right-wing and nativist violence does not always begin with Jews. But by fixating on attacks against Jews, we are forgetting the cardinal rule of Jewish self-survival: It may not start with us, but it always ends with us.
Mark Oppenheimer hosts the podcast “Unorthodox,” Tablet Magazine’s weekly talk show and roundup of “the news of the Jews.”