President Donald Trump addressed the issue of anti-Semitism in America. In a speech delivered to both houses of Congress, he vehemently condemned anti-Semitic and racist actions. “While we may be a nation divided on policies,” he declared, “we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.” Prior to that speech, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer had announced that the president was “deeply disappointed and concerned” by the reports of vandalism targeting Jews. Spicer noted the desecration of Jewish graves in Philadelphia and added that the president continued to strongly condemn any acts of anti-Semitism. President Trump’s spokesman also added that no one in America should feel fear.
The Israeli media has reported on a long list of bomb threats, most of them delivered by telephone, against Jewish institutions. The threats were received by more than ten Jewish community centers and schools in North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Indiana, New York, New Jersey, Alabama, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. It sounds frightening, but is it truly as scary as it seems?
Fear from Afar
From our vantage point in Israel, things probably look much more dire than they seem to you. When we find a picture in the newspapers of a car in Crown Heights with a huge swastika scrawled on it, it looks bad. When we see a picture of headstones that have been smashed in a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia, it certainly looks bad. These things might have been the work of a youth who drank too much, or of a vandal who didn’t mean for his actions to have the frightening implications that they do, but from our perspective, it seems that the Jews of America are under assault from a wave of anti-Semitism. Shouldn’t we worry about you, then?
Our reactions now are similar to the way you felt when you read about terror attacks taking place in Eretz Yisroel. You certainly must have thought that our entire country was under attack, that people were afraid to leave their homes and schools were closed. But that was not at all the case. Even in the shadow of various terror attacks, and certainly with the attempted terror attacks that take place here every day, Israel goes on with its routine. We do not have the sense that we are under attack. Boruch Hashem, there is no fear in the streets. Apparently, things can sometimes seem more frightening from a distance.
Just so that you understand the widespread concern in Israel for the welfare of America’s Jews, allow me to share the following: Last Thursday, the Israeli Yated Ne’eman published an article occupying an entire page under the title, “America Despises Yaakov,” an adaptation of the Gemara’s dictum that “Eisav despises Yaakov.” The article reported on Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to the vandalized cemetery in Missouri and President Trump’s address to Congress, and it went on to cite statistics published by the Anti-Defamation League in America.
The article also quoted Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, vice president of Agudas Yisroel of America, who attempted to defuse some of the tension. Rabbi Zwiebel noted that many of the threats had been revealed to be prank calls. In terms of the reason for the rise in anti-Semitic incidents, he said, “The best answer I can think of is that Hashem wants to remind us that we are in golus.” As for a natural explanation for the incidents, Rabbi Zwiebel added that it is possible that a number of crazy extremists have felt more confident since the presidential elections, because the candidate they favored emerged victorious.
Another illustration of the Israeli concern for American Jewry, and the image of the situation as it appears from here, is the fact that this subject took up most of the front page of last Thursday’s edition of Yediot Acharonot, the most widely read newspaper in Israel, under the headline “Living in Fear.” The front-page article announced that the Jews of America are afraid and that they anticipate that the current situation will lead to bloodshed. The next day, in the paper’s Shabbos edition, several pages were dedicated to this subject, including interviews with several people in America. This time, the headline read, “Life Under a Wave of Anti-Semitism in America.”
Putting the Onus on Trump
Two weeks ago, members of the Knesset were already working to place the subject of anti-Semitism in America on the Knesset’s agenda, albeit without success. The Knesset speaker and his deputies felt that the issue was not urgent enough to justify giving it precedence over other topics that needed to be discussed. This past week, they realized that they had been mistaken, and it was indeed necessary for the matter to be addressed. Six members of the Knesset spoke about the subject, and the government’s response was delivered by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who also serves as the Minister of Diaspora Affairs. The members of the Knesset can say anything they want, but Bennett had to speak with more caution and restraint. After all, he was speaking on behalf of the government of Israel, which made it necessary for him to be more sensitive and cautious.
Parenthetically, it should be noted that the more a particular subject is discussed, the more it tends to awaken dormant drives in people who have certain inclinations in that area. That is true of anti-Semitism as well. Therefore, while we cannot allow ourselves to be silent, we must also recognize that the more the subject is discussed and publicized, the more it is likely that additional anti-Semites will be inspired to commit acts of hate, chas veshalom.
The first address was delivered by MK Nachman Shai of the Zionist Camp party, who served in the past as the spokesman of the IDF. Here is a portion of his remarks: “This morning, President Trump finally issued a clear and explicit statement about anti-Semitism in the United States. He condemned all forms of hate and evil. He condemned anti-Semitism and violence, and he even spoke about America’s alliance with Israel. Finally! But I would say that it was too little and too late. For months already, we have seen a dramatic increase in the scope of anti-Semitism in the United States. There have been acts of vandalism in cemeteries. In fact, there were two such incidents in recent weeks alone. There has been harassment by phone and there have been warnings of attacks on Jewish centers. There were five such attacks on dozens of Jewish centers throughout the United States. We can talk about physical attacks against Jews in various places. We can also talk about a campaign being waged against Jews on social media networks. In New York, in cities that have a large concentration of Jews, the police have reported a steady increase in attacks against Jews. Where did this come from? How did the genie get out of the bottle, and how can we get it back inside?
“The genie has come out as a part of a process of growth in extremism that is taking place in the United States. I do not blame the president for that, but there are people who see it as part of the same sentiment that led to the ban on immigration to the United States from Muslim countries. All of a sudden, people are starting to say that foreigners are taking all the money and all the jobs, and they are trying to identify who those foreigners are. The Jews are not foreigners in America, but the Jews have always fought for the rights of other groups, including the rights of immigrants, the rights of women, and the rights of minorities. Jews were always on the front lines of these battles, and now they feel that the animosity is directed against them.” Shai concluded his speech by demanding that Trump address the issue, since – in his view – it is the president’s responsibility.
“Anti-Semitism Is Alive and Kicking”
Anat Barko of the Likud party, who holds a doctorate, made the following comments: “Yesterday, I spoke with a good friend of mine in Philadelphia and he told me that he had to take his children home because there was a bomb threat at their school. He also told me that just one week earlier, while he was delivering a lecture at a university in Berlin, he saw a huge crowd of marchers wearing neo-Nazi symbols, equating the Mogen Dovid with swastikas, making catcalls and brandishing Palestinian flags. That tells us that things are becoming mixed up. We are witnessing an alliance between the extreme left and the Muslim Brotherhood. We are seeing the campaigns of BDS and the sanctions against Israel. There is no message here about being liberal or democratic. We are simply seeing anti-Israel, anti-Jewish sentiment on college campuses, with genuine threats against students. They try to argue that there is a difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, but the truth is that it is merely anti-Semitism hiding its true face.”
Aliza Lavie, a member of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, showed that she was familiar with the specifics of the recent incidents. “Last week,” she began, “hundreds of graves were desecrated and destroyed in the Chesed Shel Emes Cemetery in St. Louis and in the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia. In New York, cars and a school were vandalized with swastikas – a modern-day method of marking Jewish property. Throughout the United States, Jewish Community Centers have been receiving bomb threats for months. There have been regular evacuations of Jewish institutions in Florida, in New Jersey, in Maryland, and throughout the country. The Anti-Defamation League has reported a sharp increase in anti-Semitic incidents. In one case, vandals scrawled the words ‘Jews belong in the ovens.’ In another case, the graffiti read, ‘Make America White Again.’ The sights of broken headstones, swastikas, and elementary school children holding hands as they are evacuated out of fear of a bomb remind us of some of the darkest periods of our history. Certainly, these things should not happen in the United States of America, the country that is Israel’s closest and strongest ally. But if anyone thinks that anti-Semitism is a thing of the past or a marginal phenomenon among a handful of extremists, he should pay careful attention to this wake-up call. Anti-Semitism is alive and kicking, and it won’t go anywhere if we close our eyes and pretend that everything is all right.”
Lavie did not have much advice to offer on the subject. “We must put our heads together and try to figure out how to change this reality, which is becoming increasingly twisted before our eyes,” was all she said.
Khenin Blames Netanyahu
The Jewish approach to the subject was identified by Rabbi Yoav Ben-Tzur, an MK from the Shas party. “Mr. Speaker, honored ministers, and members of the Knesset,” he began, “we all know the teaching of Chazal that there is a halacha that Eisav despises Yaakov. Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin, the founder of Daf Yomi, famously explained that there is a concept of a halacha l’Moshe miSinai. There are some halachos whose reasons are completely unknown to us, and we must recognize that they are simply rules that we follow. The hatred of gentiles for Jews is one of those halachos, he explained. It has no rhyme or reason, and sometimes it can contradict itself. When the Jews keep to themselves, they are persecuted. Our enemy Haman, in his day, accused the Jews of being ‘scattered and dispersed among the nations.’ From his vantage point, that was a reason to attack the Jewish people. But when the Jews are too prominent in society, they are hated as well. When we are poor, they say that we are a cancer. That is what Hitler, yemach shemo, said. But when we are rich, they say that we are taking over the world. That is what Stalin said. It would be funny, if not for the fact that it is so sad. No matter what we do, they always persecute us. There is no other nation that has suffered through so much oppression and persecution, so many pogroms and torments.”
Ben-Tzur went on, “If we thought that the world has become more enlightened, and that anti-Semitic incidents would never occur again in the world, we have now learned that we were mistaken. We are constantly surprised anew. We are learning the lesson that Eisav always despises Yaakov. It is difficult to identify the cause of anti-Semitism, but it might be that a person who hates the Jews and plots against them is actually aware, deep within his heart, that we are the chosen people, and that knowledge drives him into a frenzy, bringing out his hatred for the Jews. One thing is clear: The more we try to be like the gentiles, the more the gentiles abhor us. The proper approach for a faithful Jew is for us to be a ‘nation alone’ among the nations. We must never draw attention to ourselves or antagonize the nations of the world.” At this point, Ben-Tzur quoted the same statistics that were publicized in last week’s Yated Ne’eman.
Dov Khenin, the next speaker, delivered a bizarre address. Khenin is a Jewish member of the Arab List party. Out of the 11 members of the Knesset on the party’s list, only one is a Jew. One of the Arab parties that comprises the list always made sure to include a Jew among its members. You will be amazed at what he said: “I would like to tell you that this evil drips down from the top. Let us see what Donald Trump, the president of the United States, said just yesterday at a conference of district attorneys from various states. He said that it is possible that the hatred against Jews in the United States does not stem from anti-Semitism. It is possible that the opposite is true and that someone is doing all these things to make others look bad. The purpose of it all is to create a bad reputation for the government and its supporters. The same statement was made in the past by the head of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke – who is, by the way, a sworn supporter of Trump. At the press conference that he held two weeks ago, President Trump already presented a conspiracy theory, claiming that his opponents are trying to ruin his presidency and to cast the current regime as racist and anti-Semitic. But do you know what? Let us look at the people who surround this president. Steve Bannon, President Trump’s senior advisor, once said that he wouldn’t want his daughters to attend a school with Jews, because a Jewish environment turns children into ‘whiners.’”
But if you thought that MK Khenin would blame only Trump and his advisors, I suggest that you hold on to your seat while you read what he said next. And no, this was not a Purim spoof. Khenin went on, “This brings me to a very important point. All of these people are being supported by the ruling party here in Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu is covering up for Trump; he has said publicly that the Jewish people never had a better friend. Nicolas Bay, the secretary general of the extreme right party in France, is visiting Israel as a guest of the Likud party. Strache, the leader of the Austrian extreme right, is also visiting as a guest of the Likud. You are friends of all the anti-Semites in the world. You are aligning yourselves with the admirers of Stepan Bandera in the Ukraine and the successors to Szalasi in Hungary, and with the neo-fascists of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are.” In other words, Khenin was laying the blame for anti-Semitism in America on our own right-wing government.
Bennett Advises Caution
Naftali Bennett represented the government. “Mr. Speaker and members of the Knesset,” he began, “first of all, I applaud the members of the Knesset who are concerned about the welfare of Diaspora Jewry. That should not be taken for granted. There are conflicts within Israel as to how much we should invest and exert ourselves to deal with Jewish issues outside this country. When we speak about the wave of anti-Semitism in America, we must be cautious. There are problems with the reporting, the definitions, and the collection of data, and we must identify the facts that have been verified. As of this writing, the FBI hasn’t yet released its statistics on incitement for the year 2016, and it is difficult to determine if there has been an increase and, if so, whether it was temporary or it represented a new trend.”
Nachman Shai interjected, “Your ministry released clear data!”
“That is true,” Bennett confirmed. “The only official information we have concerning the past few months came from the police department in New York. That, in fact, shows that from January 1, 2017, through February 12, 2017, the number of anti-Semitics incidents in New York was double the number in the same period last year. It increased from 13 incidents to 28. This was part of a trend of growth in hate crimes throughout New York. There were also some unusual incidents: the bomb threats at Jewish communal centers. At least ten Jewish community centers in six different states received bomb threats for the fourth time within less than two months – in New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas, and Alabama. In total, from January until today, 54 centers were affected. In addition, over 100 graves were desecrated at the Chesed Shel Emes Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, and dozens more in the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia. In a third case, a man who belongs to a white supremacist group was arrested in Myrtle Beach after buying a gun from an undercover FBI agent with the intent of carrying out a terror attack on the Conservative synagogue Temple Emanuel.”
Bennett’s words were carefully measured; he studiously avoided casting blame or sounding combative. “In conclusion,” he said as his speech drew to a close, “I certainly understand the concerns of the communities and the hardship experienced by anyone who has been through such an incident, and we send our support from here. We are in contact with Jewish communities abroad, but ultimately, the responsibility for protecting the citizens of any country rests with the government of that country, and we call upon them to capture the people responsible for these offenses and to bring them to justice.”