(February 27, 2018 / JNS) The numbers are pretty scary.
The Anti-Defamation League’s annual audit of anti-Semitism in America shows a whopping 57 percent increase in incidents from 2016 to 2017. That’s a big number, and it’s likely to generate alarm in the Jewish community and nationwide as news outlets seize on the figure to ponder what’s going wrong.
That also means that everyone should get set for a barrage of think pieces about the rise of hate in President Donald Trump’s America, debating whether the White House Twitter account and supposed rising influence of the alt right are shaking the foundations of tolerance to the point where we all should be very worried.
But a closer look at the numbers, including the raw totals rather than just the percentages, tells a slightly different story than the screaming headlines. Incidents of reported anti-Semitism did increase in the United States in 2017, and any such rise is lamentable. Even a single incident is one too many.
As it turns out, a big slice of the uptick stems from the bomb threats made against Jewish community centers last year by a disturbed Israeli teenager. Take those out of the totals—and arguably, that is something the ADL should have done even before the report was released—and the percentage drops to 43 percent. That’s still distressing. But before everyone starts setting their hair on fire about the likelihood of pogroms in America, it’s also important to put the numbers in context. Does anyone really think that 1,825 incidents in a country of 326 million people constitute an epidemic of anti-Semitism?
Equally important, it’s vital to see what has happened in America and measure that with global trends because to be sure, a genuine rising tide of hate is calling into question the future of Jewish life in Europe. Moreover, before we return—as the ADL, and a host of liberal organizations and pundits did a year ago at the time of the fake bomb threats—to blaming anti-Semitism on Trump and his administration, we should also be pressing for the real sources of anti-Semitism and the most potent threats to Jews.
One fact is incontrovertible: The number of reported incidents of anti-Semitism in this country has nearly doubled in the last two years.
Fortunately, most of it is confined to vandalism, which accounts for more than half of the total. The fact that the number of assaults related to anti-Semitism actually went down—a 47 percent decrease from 2016—is also encouraging.
Yet even if all we were discussing were cases of cemetery desecration or swastikas drawn on synagogues or schools, it would still be worth asking why it is that these sorts of crimes are increasing. Is it, as the ADL implies in its summary of the audit, because perpetrators felt more emboldened to break the law in 2017 than before?
At the same time, the amplified number of incidents represents a marginal phenomenon in a country where Jews are readily accepted in virtually every sector of society. According to the ADL’s own global audit of anti-Semitism, the United States has among the lowest levels of anti-Semitism in the world.
Whatever levels do exist in America, they are nothing compared to those in Europe, where hatred for Israel comes from both liberal elites and Muslim immigrants—two very different sectors that have combined to create a wave of prejudice leading to violence and intimidation.
When it comes to the United States, however, who’s driving the increase of what is still a low level of Jew hatred? The popular answer remains Trump.
The president’s tone-deaf response to incidents like the racist rally last summer in Charlottesville, Va., has lent credence to efforts to credit the bump in hate incidents to his Twitter account, as well as to the general lowering of the level of discourse that makes extremism seem more acceptable.
But it would be a mistake to fall into the same trap that the ADL fell into last year when they jumped to the false conclusion that the wave of bomb threats at JCCs was inspired by Trump. He is, after all, the same man who has implemented the most pro-Israel foreign-policy agenda in history. Trump is also the one with observant Jewish children and grandchildren, all of which would be considered milestones of acceptance and ecumenical harmony were they associated with any other president.
Just as, if not far more, alarming than the possibility that some extremists got the wrong message from Trump’s tweets is the fact that incidents of anti-Semitism on college campuses nearly doubled in 2017 with an astonishing 89 percent increase. This goes hand in hand with the virus of hate sweeping through Europe that focuses on delegitimizing Israel and its friends via the BDS (boycott, divest and sanctions) movement. Though it masquerades as concern for human rights, BDS is, like anti-Zionism, a form of Jew-hatred. And it is far more of a threat than stray graffiti incidents because it seeks to make life intolerable for Jewish students.
It is to this problem, which is gaining ground and legitimacy on the left, rather than the isolated and despised hate of the alt-right or the Ku Klux Klan that we should be devoting the most energy.
Even as we rededicate ourselves to dealing with these threats, let’s not forget where we live. The United States is not the hellhole of hate that the headlines about the ADL audit seem to indicate. American exceptionalism is the main reason why official hatred of the Jews never quite caught on in the United States. For all of its problems, America is still the land where anti-Semitism continues to fail. Anyone who forgets that understands nothing about this country or anti-Semitism itself.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — The Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.