Jews have always been fleeing, but America was the country from which Jews would never have to flee. They fled from Eastern Europe, Germany and the Soviet Union (as my family did in the 1980s). They settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and in West Philadelphia. They opened delis in Denver and Indianapolis. They went to Ivy League colleges and played in the NFL.
And now, suddenly, after all this time, after so many waves of assimilation and acceptance, after “Seinfeld” and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, many American Jews have come to feel like strangers in their own home.
“America was our promised land but we might not be safe here anymore,” the artist Deborah Kass recently wrote, expressing a sentiment that is increasingly voiced at synagogues, where armed guards are now commonplace, and at Shabbat tables, where younger American Jews are suddenly facing anxieties that had supposedly been expunged several generations ago.
Not so. One of America’s most successfully assimilated minorities is being yanked out of its hard-won comfort zone, astonishing Jewish scholars and religious leaders, as well as extremism experts who see the sharp spike in antisemitism as a symptom of deeper social malaise that could threaten other groups — and American democracy itself.
For many Jews, it adds up to the all-too-familiar feeling of being caught, in this case, between a progressive left with a growing antipathy to Israel and a hardening conservative movement whose xenophobic tendencies spell obvious trouble.
During a recent High Holidays sermon, a rabbi confronted congregants at his Washington, D.C., synagogue with a forthright question: “How many people in the last few years have been at a dining room conversation where the conversation has turned to where might we move? How many of us?”
Since then, the question has taken on even more urgency. Last week, having just announced his third run for president, former President Donald Trump hosted a Thanksgiving dinner at his South Florida estate with two of the most prominent antisemites in the United States: white nationalist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes and rapper-entrepreneur Kanye West.
Trump denied knowing Fuentes’s lurid background, though the 24-year-old would-be fascist is a verified user on Trump’s own Truth Social network and has long traveled in the same far-right circles from which the former president draws some of his support. As for West, there is no doubt that Trump knows of the rapper’s antisemitic tirades, which led to the severing of most of his professional relationships.
“Even a social visit from an antisemite like Kanye West and human scum like Nick Fuentes is unacceptable,” David Friedman, who served as Trump’s ambassador to Israel, wrote on Twitter. “Antisemites deserve no quarter among American leaders, right or left.”
As he faced mounting condemnation over the long weekend, Trump issued three separate statements attempting to explain how the dinner took place, but none of them condemned the antisemitic views of the men with whom he dined.
It was not Trump’s first flirtation with antisemitism or antisemites. Steve Bannon — his last campaign manager in 2016 and, afterward, his chief White House political strategist — was frequently denounced for use of classic antisemitic tropes (“globalists,” “international bankers,” etc.). Trump’s administration also harbored figures like Sebastian Gorka, proudly affiliated with a pro-Nazi outfit in his native Hungary, and Darren Beattie, who openly consorted with far-right extremists. Just days after taking office in 2017, Trump issued a Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that failed to include any mention of Jews, 6 million of whom were murdered by the Nazis.
Infamously, he praised the “very fine people on both sides” of a 2017 clash in Charlottesville, Va., between white supremacists and counterprotesters. Carrying torches, the racist demonstrators chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”
Fuentes, the future Mar-a-Lago guest, was there.
A sharp rise in anti-Jewish attacks
“Antisemitic and racist stickers were posted on the campus of the University of Albany by a neo-Nazi group.”
“A Jewish teenager [in Brooklyn] was punched in the back of the head by a man riding a bicycle.”
“Antisemitic fliers were distributed in a residential area [of Tempe, Ariz.].”
“The Holocaust Museum of Los Angeles was flooded with antisemitic messages.”
Those are just a very small sampling of the antisemitic incidents that took place in the second half of October across the United States.
“You’ve seen a normalization of antisemitism,” Anti-Defamation League president Jonathan Greenblatt told Yahoo News at a recent conversation at the organization’s offices in Manhattan. “We’ve watched the numbers increase dramatically.” In 2014, the storied anti-bias organization (which now fights racism, nativism and gender-based violence in addition to antisemitism) recorded 912 incidents targeting Jews across the United States; by 2021 the number had spiked to 2,717, a record number. (The ADL started keeping track of antisemitic incidents in 1979.)
Jews are targets of about 60% of all religion-driven hate crimes across the United States, a fact that is especially surprising since Jews make up only 2.4% of the American population. “It’s a community that desperately needs our support because it’s getting hit from all sides,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in recent congressional testimony.
Wray delivered that message on Nov. 18, a Thursday. On Friday, two men were arrested at New York’s Penn Station, where they had arrived with weapons and an intent to carry out an act of violence in a local synagogue (Jews gather for Shabbat services on Friday nights). Similar threats against New Jersey synagogues had resulted in the arrest, several days before, of a high school senior who said there was “a really good reason” to attack Jews.
Then on Sunday, basketball player Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets was allowed back into the team’s lineup after having been suspended for sharing a link to a virulently antisemitic documentary film, “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America!”
Irving’s imminent return to Barclays Arena in downtown Brooklyn was accompanied by a march down Flatbush Avenue by the Black Hebrew Israelites, a group that often espouses an especially harsh brand of antisemitism. Their presence was endorsed by Jaylen Brown, a vice president of the union representing NBA players.
Brown later said he thought he was cheering on a historically Black fraternity, but he has consistently defended Irving in the face of his suspension. Most players have stayed silent, making some observers wonder if the league’s high-profile commitment to social justice was ever anything more than a marketing ploy.
Keeping Jews out of America
The proud product of a Northern European lineage, Madison Grant was born and raised in New York. He graduated from Yale and helped found the Bronx Zoo, as well as heading many other conservation efforts, at one point working closely with Theodore Roosevelt. He was a model American of the early 20th century: rugged and learned, philanthropic and patriotic.
Grant was also an ardent racist. In 1916 he published “The Passing of the Great Race: The Racial Basis of European History.” A pretentious jumble of undercooked pseudoscientific nonsense, Grant’s book celebrated Northern Europeans while warning that supposedly inferior races were gaining too much traction in the United States. “We shall save democracy only when democracy discovers its own aristocracy,” he wrote.
Grant’s argument, such as it is, hauntingly foreshadows the “great replacement” theory popular with white supremacists like Fuentes as well as more mainstream conservative figures like Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Republican politicians such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, co-founder of a congressional caucus to defend “Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”
At the time of its publication, “The Passing of the Great Race” found a fan in a failed Austrian painter who spent the 1920s formulating an outlandish ideology that blamed Jews for everything that had gone wrong, and was presently going wrong, in Germany: Adolf Hitler.
In fact, American antisemitism is older than America itself. In 1654, Peter Stuyvesant, the first governor of New York, wanted the “very repugnant” two dozen Jews who had arrived in Manhattan from Brazil to be expelled, worried that “they might become a charge in the coming winter.”
As immigration accelerated in the second half of the 19th century, racist and antisemitic sentiment became more deeply entrenched in official policy, thanks to men like Grant who thought their hatred of Jews served a civic function.
The links between American nativism of the early 20th century and the early 21st is painfully apparent in a new documentary by filmmakers Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” which argues that the United States could have done far more to stop the murder of European Jews by Hitler, but chose not to do so in part because of influential figures like Grant, who looked down on Jews and didn’t want more of them in the United States. They wanted to keep them from spoiling America.
The idea tracks to those espoused today. “History has shown that societal trust and political unity are threatened when foreign citizens are imported en-masse into a country,” reads an internal memorandum describing Greene’s new caucus.
Even more influential than Grant was the little-known Breckinridge Long. Like Grant, Long was a member of the WASP elite, raised in St. Louis to a storied Confederate family and educated at Princeton. Serving in the State Department, he wrote a 1940 memorandum to colleagues: “We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls, to put every obstacle in the way.”
There was a specific type of immigrant that Long was especially keen on blocking. He had praised Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” as “eloquent in opposition to Jewry and to Jews as exponents of Communism & chaos.” His views informed immigration policy until 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson made it much easier for immigrants to come to the United States, especially immigrants from Asia and Africa.
Some conservatives today want to undo the 1965 immigration reform — that is, to go back to an immigration system like the one envisioned and enacted by men like Breckinridge Long.
The filmmakers say they did not expect their work to comment as thoroughly as it does on the present. They thought they were working on history, not commentary. The shift was “sort of incomprehensible,” says Botstein, whose Jewish grandparents fled the Nazis.
Except that the documentary she, Burns and Novick would spend the next several years making would show just how perfectly comprehensible the recrudescence of antisemitism was. One of the messages of the documentary seems to be that unless history is fully addressed, neither antisemitism nor other hatreds will go away on their own.
Antisemitism has been called “the oldest hatred” for its durability and persistence. In the second century A.D., the Roman historian Tacitus denounced Judaism as “base and abominable.” For many centuries, the Catholic Church persisted in the conviction that Jews had killed Christ, which the Vatican did not renounce until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Jews were killed by the thousands in the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century; during the 19th century they were murdered by roving bands of czarist troops in pogroms across the Russian Empire.
But the United States was supposed to represent a break from Europe’s ancient prejudices and animosities. In the second half of the 20th century, Jews assimilated readily into the higher rungs of American society. They gained entry to the very same Ivy League colleges from which they had been excluded only decades before. Jews joined country clubs and corporate boards. They moved into the “good buildings” of New York’s Upper East Side once reserved for Protestants who could trace their lineage back to 17th century English or Dutch colonists. They settled in the tony suburbs outside Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and New York, where racial “covenants” had once explicitly kept them out.
The 1970s saw the first Jewish secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, and the first Jewish U.S. attorney general, Edward Levi.
“The Triumph of the Jews,” read a 1985 headline in the New York Review of Books.
For decades, there was no need for urgency or alarm.
Trump and the Jews
In the summer of 2016, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shared an antisemitic meme that used a Star of David to highlight Hillary Clinton’s supposed corruption. “That was a turning point for many,” a Jewish Republican told the Washington Post of the incident.
In his final television advertisement of the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump denounced the “corrupt machine” he charged with eviscerating the American working class. Images of powerful men and women flashed across the screen: his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, naturally enough, but also philanthropist George Soros, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and Goldman Sachs chairman Lloyd Blankfein.
Soros, Yellen and Blankfein may all have enormous influence, but so do plenty of other figures who routinely show up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Something else bound the trio and made them such an appealing target for Trump’s populist appeal: They are all Jewish.
Deborah Lipstadt, the Biden administration’s special envoy to combat antisemitism, describes Trump’s suspicion of elites as textbook antisemitism. “Globalist powerful interests conspiring behind the scenes — the antisemite uses that talk,” she told Yahoo News in an interview. “Someone else may also use that talk, but then you get to the antisemitism.”
Trump was a paradox, frequently expressing a deep friendship with American Jews, but sometimes doing so in ways that bordered on the antisemitic. His administration included not only fringe figures on the far right but also his son-in-law Jared Kushner, an observant Jew who was among the president’s closest counselors. Kushner’s wife, Ivanka Trump, converted to Judaism and was also a senior White House adviser.
“Trump’s complicated,” Greenblatt of the ADL says. “He has Jewish grandchildren. His daughter is probably the most prominent convert in the United States. But the reality is that he emboldened extremists.”
Donald Trump does not exactly fit the mold of a traditional antisemite. A native of Queens, N.Y., he tends to espouse the kind of crude mishmash of ethnic animosities one might have encountered in the 1970s at a slightly seedy Queens Boulevard pub. “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” Trump told a room full of Republican Jews while initially campaigning for president. Last year he wondered if a documentarian who had come to film him was a “good Jewish character,” according to a recording that the filmmaker provided to the New York Times.
More committed antisemites tend to obsessively invent signs of Jewish influence. Trump may not be in their ranks, but he isn’t exactly opposed to them either, as last week’s dinner with Fuentes and West made clear. If anything, he is disconcertingly devoted to courting unabashed antisemites, even at the risk of offending Jewish members of his own family, not to mention millions of voters.
“There’s always been a lunatic fringe,” Greenblatt told Yahoo News. “It just used to be on the fringe. Now it feels like they’re in the middle.”
Trump’s supporters will point to the fact that Kushner, his son-in-law, was among the most high-profile Jews to serve in a presidential administration. And, they have argued, his policies consistently benefited Israel. Trump moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, legitimizing Jewish claims on the contested holy city. And he helped broker the Abraham Accords, which normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab nations.
How, those supporters wonder, could a figure who has done so much for Israel withstand such relentless accusations of antisemitism?
Yet the support for Israel, Burns argues, “conveniently whitewashes” the history of antisemitism. It also shuts down any possibility of Republican introspection; faced with charges of antisemitism, Republican leaders will argue that their party supports Israel far more stridently than the Democrats do.
For many Republicans, that support has less to do with an appreciation of historical Jewish land claims than on cultural and political calculations: Israel figures significantly into evangelical millenarian prophecies. And since evangelicals are deeply influential in the GOP, their views on supporting Israel have become central to the Republican platform.
Over the summer, Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor Doug Mastriano faced accusations of antisemitism. Those accusations, his wife Rebecca explained, could simply not be true.
“As a family, we so much love Israel,” she said. “In fact, I’m going to say we probably love Israel more than a lot of Jews do.”
Divorced from the left
Returning to his alma mater Dartmouth in 1934, Ford H. Whelden did not like what he saw. “The campus seems more Jewish each time I arrive in Hanover. And unfortunately many of them (on quick judgment) seem to be the ‘kike’ type,” Whelden complained to the school’s director of admissions.
Similar views were commonplace at Yale, Harvard and elsewhere. Most prestigious universities maintained anti-Jewish quotas well into the 20th century. Most have since acknowledged the practice and apologized: Dartmouth did so in 1997, under the leadership of its first Jewish president; Stanford admitted earlier this year to having kept out Jews.
Today, of course, no such quotas exist. But for many Jewish students, recent years have made campus life increasingly untenable, in large part because of burgeoning pressures from the left.
“I’ve heard reports that it is just getting difficult to be openly Jewish on some campuses,” says Lipstadt, the antisemitism envoy, who has taught at Emory University in Atlanta for nearly three decades.
Earlier this fall, law students at the University of California, Berkeley, passed a new bylaw under whose provisions no campus group that supported the measure could host a speaker supporting “Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.”
The move was decried by detractors as the creation of “Jewish-free zones,” a description that some Jewish law students said was hyperbolic. But, those same students said, that didn’t make the new bylaw any more ominous. “Student leaders now accept the exclusion of Jews because of an aspect of their identity. There is tolerance to marginalize us because of our faith. Thus, their widespread approval of the silencing of Jewish voices,” four of them wrote.
As the possibility of a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict receded, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement gained traction across the United States. Supporters of BDS try to isolate Israeli corporations, as well as corporations that do business with Israel. They maintain they are not targeting Jews, but a state acting outside the bounds of international law — a state that only happens to be Jewish.
“I think it’s such a simplistic way of looking at it,” says Lipstadt, arguing that the distance between anti-Zionism and antisemitism is much shorter than BDS proponents might want to admit. She and others point out that the inordinate energies devoted to singling out every offense — and there are plenty of them — committed by Israel, while ignoring the myriad offenses committed by much more powerful nations, suggests that something darker than a concern for human rights is at work.
“If you say to me that Israel shouldn’t exist because it doesn’t have a right to exist,” Lipstadt says, “I have to ask, well, what about China and the Uyghurs, Myanmar and the Rohingya, the United States and Native Americans, Canada and the First Nations, Australia and the Aborigines, New Zealand and the Maori?”
Anti-Israeli sentiment also became increasingly incorporated into the racial justice movement that powered a cultural resistance to the Trump administration. Once, Jewish leaders like theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel had walked arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr. Now that bond was rapidly severing, isolating American Jews from their long-standing allies on the left.
In 2018, Women’s March co-founder Tamika Mallory said that “white Jews, as white people, uphold white supremacy,” setting off a furious debate that seemed to further alienate Jews from a progressive movement they once helped create (as the far right likes to remind people, many Jews were prominent socialists and leaders in the civil rights movement).
In the summer of 2020, “Palestinian Lives Matter” became a rallying cry during the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd. “BLM has found an ally in pro-Palestinian activists, including the BDS movement,” Arab News columnist Osama Al-Sharif wrote that June, referring to Black Lives Matter.
Even if most institutions that supported Black Lives Matter — either rhetorically or in practice — did not also address the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, a linkage was made between Jews and oppression. And if many Jews, in both the United States and elsewhere, had come to reject the post-Holocaust narrative of victimhood, they also did not want the Jewish experience maligned or erased.
But that is exactly what has taken place. The new preamble to New York City’s charter, passed by an increasingly progressive City Council, describes the “grave injustices” that the city’s founding visited on “Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, and other People of Color, women, religious minorities, immigrants, people who are LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities.”
It makes no mention of Jews, neither the ones Stuyvesant tried to remove from Manhattan in 1654 nor the millions who would spend subsequent generations trying to overcome bigotry.
If the culture dictates the bounds of the acceptable, then contemporary culture appears to be sanctioning animosity toward the Jews. “The physical violence is a right-wing phenomenon,” says Mark Oppenheimer, senior editor at the Jewish affairs magazine Tablet and the author of a book about the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. But, he adds, “the scary thing happening in the cultural left is that the institutions that would rally to our defense do not pay sufficient attention.”
The antisemitism among some on the left has been especially galling to progressive Jews because of how thoroughly they were involved in the the civil rights movement and other forms of social justice activism. Antisemitism in the Black community is not a new phenomenon; Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has been one of the nation’s most unrepentant haters of Jews.
What appears to have changed is the sanction those views are receiving from the broader culture. Without necessarily legitimating their views, cultural elites appear to have, at least in part, cast American Jews as oppressors deserving disapproval.
“A sacred circle is drawn around those whom the progressive modern left are prepared to go into battle for,” the British author David Baddiel has written, “and it seems as if the Jews aren’t in it.”
A warning sign of decay
In 1922, a reporter for the New York Times filed a report on a rising firebrand who was harnessing German discontent with furious diatribes against the “November criminals” who, in his view, had caused Germany’s defeat in World War I. The primary culprits of this dolchstosslegende, or stab-in-the-back myth, were the Jews, but the Times reporter assured his readers that Adolf Hitler was not a real antisemite.
Yes, the rhetoric was a little rough, and so were some of Hitler’s followers. “But several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic, and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes,” the now infamous article counseled readers.
A century later, Germany has reckoned with the Holocaust perhaps more thoroughly than any country has ever reckoned with its sins. But that is only because the sins of Nazism are so deep — and so lasting. And those sins should serve as a reminder of what antisemitism can bring, what the crackpot ideas of Nick Fuentes and Kanye West can do to a nation willing to accept them.
“You should be against antisemitism, because it’s wrong,” says Lipstadt. But it is also a warning sign, she argues. “Antisemitism is at the root of the decay of most societies.”
Jews tend to thrive in open, democratic societies for the simple reason that those societies tend to value civic participation over ethnic identification. And if those societies accept Jews, who make up at most a small percentage of almost every country, other minority groups are more likely to be accepted as well.
“If you’re a true dyed-in-the-wool antisemite, you believe your courts are controlled by Jews, your banks are controlled by Jews, your media is controlled by Jews, your leaders are controlled by Jews,” Lipstadt says. “You have no faith in your democracy. And that’s the beginning of the end of democracy.”
Popular discontent with political and corporate elites surfaces regularly in American politics, with Jews predictably invoked as the antagonists of ordinary people. In 1896, President Grover Cleveland was subject to antisemitic conspiracy theories after he engineered a rescue of the gold standard that involved the banker John Pierpont Morgan — backed by the Rothschild family, who were Jewish.
For the populist “silverites” (so called because they supported a monetary policy backed by silver and gold, not just gold), “the Jew was an organic part of the conspiracy theory of history,” the historian Richard Hofstadter would later write.
The gold standard may be a curiosity safely relegated to the past, but alleged Jewish manipulation of finance and politics remains very much an issue of the present, one that motivates people of all political persuasions.
After the mortgage crisis of 2007-08, it exploded into the open. The right increasingly embraced immigration restrictions and tariffs on trade, while the left — powered by the Occupy Wall Street movement — trained its ire on corporations and the politicians who abetted them.
And once again, the Jews were trapped. During the rise of Nazism in Germany, they had been blamed for both socialism and high finance, an obvious contradiction nobody bothered to resolve. Those same contradictions reappeared in the second decade of the 21st century, with Jews once again pummeled by the populist wave.
“Populism is one of those ideologies that never spares the Jews,” explains Tablet editor Oppenheimer.
The very notion of populism marshals the frustrations of ordinary people against powerful elites. And whether those elites are invoked by the name of Rothschild or Soros, Jews inevitably find themselves blamed for society’s most intractable ills.
“Jews are the go-to scapegoat,” Greenblatt says, conceding an all-too-real reality for which neither he nor anyone else has an easy solution. “They just are, right?”