(December 31, 2018 / JNS) Woe to any “expert” ready to predict where the U.S. economy will be in December 2019. Not after the wild swings between the days before and after Christmas. Nonetheless, there is a question worth raising: In the event of another downturn, like 2008, what will be the impact on hate in America?
Historically, there has been a destructive synergy between economic meltdowns and the vortex of hate. The Great Depression of the 1930s spawned a growing crop of demagogues and haters. With a national following in the millions, Louisiana’s Huey Long promised to make “Every Man a King” by using dictatorial means. With a national broadcast audience, “Radio Priest” Father Charles Coughlin decided that the real problem was a conspiracy by international bankers and President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Jew Deal.”
This pattern of hard times fueling fear and hatred traces back to the 19th century. The panic of 1837 had plunged the economy into the doldrums while spawning America’s first organized anti-Catholic and nativist movements, aimed primarily at Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine. In the 1870s, a depression decade ignited Irish immigrant Dennis Kearney’s California Workingman’s Party demanding “The Chinese Must Go!” In the 1890s, anti-black lynchings grew into an epidemic, while America’s first organized anti-Semitic movement emerged.
Decades later, the 1973 Arab oil-embargo crisis, David Duke revitalized the Ku Klux Klan.
During the September 2008 financial crisis, Germany’s Interior Minister Wolfgang Schauble warned: “We learned from the worldwide economic crisis of the 1920s and 1930s that an economic crisis can result in an incredible threat for all of society. The consequences of that depression was Adolf Hitler and, indirectly, World War II and Auschwitz.”
In this century of dot.com bubbles, subprime mortgage scandals and 401(k) disappearing acts, extremists used the Internet to recycle old conspiracy theories. Not surprisingly, the 2008 conspiracy theory du jour was the libel that Lehman Brothers executives, just before their firm collapsed, offshored $400 billion with the intention of fleeing to Israel.
Yet, against historic precedent, during the last few years of robust economic growth, what has spiked has been prejudiced attitudes, anti-minority violence and hate crimes.
For the third year in a row, the number of hate crimes reported by the FBI has gone up. More than 7,000 hate crimes were reported in 2017—17 percent more than in 2016. African-Americans, who make up 13 percent of the country’s population, suffered 49 percent of reported race-based hate crimes. In 2016, despite constituting less than 2 percent of the American population, Jews were targets of more than double all other anti-religious attacks combined.
Why the Jews?
First, hatred seems to be spreading from the top down, as opposed to percolating from the bottom up. Bigotry’s onslaughts are increasingly reported on America’s top-tier campuses. Anti-Semitic incidents doubled between 2014 and 2015. Most incidents involve intimidation of Jewish students who support Israel from participating in campus politics (such as at UCLA); pressure to disinvite or silence pro-Israel speakers; and the delegitimization of the Jewish state by a double standard applied to no other nation by professors allied with vicious groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which uses the “anti-Zionist” BDS movement as a cover for thinly veiled anti-Semitism.
Secondly, sometimes powerful mainstream media prove to be part of the problem:
- TheNew York Times Book Review recently featured an interview with Pulitzer-Prize winning author Alice Walker recommending David Icke’s lurid anti-Semitic diatribe, And the Truth Shall Set You Free, ranking with Henry Ford-published Czarist screed, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, alleging that Jews are “the father of all wars.”
- The Washington Posthas front-paged an op-ed by regular columnist Paul Waldman, titled “How Democrats Are Helping the Right Stifle Debate on Israel,” that was nothing less than conspiratorial Israel-bashing with an anti-Semitic tinge.
- The Los Angeles Times, owned recently by Michael Ferro, chairman of parent company tronc, was revealed as fulminating longtime propaganda. A blockbuster National Public Radio exposé reported that former Times’ editor and publisher Davan Maharaj, whom Ferro ultimately dismissed, secretly recorded Ferro fulminating that Los Angeles was under the control of a “Jewish cabal,” including businessman-philanthropist Eli Broad. Maharaj was paid $2.5 million in hush money to suppress Ferro’s anti-Jewish slur.
Third, as the rallies in Charlottesville, Va., in the summer if 2017 proved, a new generation of far-right extremists are empowered by social media. They market their millennials-oriented campaigns through open-source platforms while plotting to expand their nefarious bigotry against Jews, blacks and other minorities on encrypted-protected social-media outlets.
Clearly, the battle for the hearts and minds of the critically important millennial generation is well under way. The cliché is that they are economically moderate but socially liberal. But there is no question that the first social-media generation is exposed to more bigotry and hate than any previous generation. How would they react to real economic distress when there are already voices calling for dismantling capitalism and considering authoritarian leadership as an alternative to America’s democratic traditions?
Sinclair Lewis’ Depression-era novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935) warned against the dangers of fascism. Whatever the ups and downs of our economy in the immediate future, we must better educate younger generations about the price we pay when society allows hate unchallenged entry into America’s marketplace of ideas.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean and director of global social action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Historian Harold Brackman is a longtime consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.