Witnessing the growing rise of antisemitism in the US as a non Jew

Lela Gilbert is FRC's Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom. This article appeared in The Jerusalem Post on May 23, 2020.

During the wonderful decade I lived in Jerusalem I received an education that no university could have possibly provided. To this day, I’m still amazed by the many living lessons of Israel’s remarkable history, its worldclass accomplishments, and its vibrant joie de vivre.

I also learned about something not-so-wonderful – antisemitism. Since I’m not Jewish myself, and grew up in a philosemitic family, I was woefully ignorant and frankly horrified when I began to grasp the lies and hateful legends about Jews that never seem to stop. It was equally alarming to find that antisemitism is widespread not only in the surrounding Arab countries, but well beyond.

I attended lectures and seminars, followed global news with dismay and engaged in lengthy conversations with friends on the subject. And for me personally, it was particularly heartbreaking to learn that for two millennia, anti-Jewish abuses had bloodied the hands of innumerable Christians.

Also notable was something I discovered while writing my book Saturday People Sunday People: the recent history of nearly a million Jews expelled from some dozen Muslim Arab countries in the 20th century. This under-reported story became a theme of my efforts.

Since then, I’ve written about antisemitism with some frequency. And although I learned much about the subject during my years in Jerusalem, after I returned to the US in 2017 the encroachment of Jew-hatred has at times seemed too close for comfort.

For example, The New York Times reported that the Anti Defamation League recorded more than 2,100 antisemitic incidents in the US during 2019 – a 12% increase since 2018.

The Times went on to cite several recent violent incidents.

“A 72-year-old Hasidic rabbi was one of five people who were injured in a machete attack during a Hanukkah celebration at a home in Monsey in December. He died from his injuries in March. Other attacks included a shootout in December in which five people were killed inside a kosher market in Jersey City. [And] an Orthodox Jewish man was stabbed outside a synagogue in Ramapo, N.Y., in November.”

All of this took place before the Covid-19 pandemic began to overwhelm the world in 2020.

Overseas, it didn’t take long for Iran’s mullahs to accuse Jews of creating the virus and mercilessly spreading that accusation around the planet.

And on May 14, they happily celebrated the torching of Esther and Mordechai’s tomb – an ancient Jewish holy site.

In the meantime, a Ukranian police chief – in an act eerily reminiscent of Nazi activities and supposedly to protect his community – demanded that he be provided with a list of all Jews, including addresses and phone numbers.

Closer to home, there was other troubling news.

In late April, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio tweeted, “My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period.”

De Blasio’s outburst ignited a firestorm among New York’s Jewish community leaders.

The funeral of a respected rabbi had attracted a large gathering in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Permits for the funeral had been granted.

Although New Yorkers of every description had also packed themselves in, shoulder to shoulder, to watch a flyover by the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, the Jewish funeral attendees were easily identified by their traditional religious attire. And that seemed to have triggered the mayor’s outrage.

On May 12, an NPR article was headlined, “Jewish Americans Say They Are Scapegoated for The Coronavirus Spread.”

It responded to de Blasio’s remark: “There is no data indicating religious Jews are violating social distancing rules at a greater rate than other demographic groups… but there’s a pattern of specifically highlighting Jewish offenders.

The article went on to say, “… A New Jersey man was arrested for using Facebook to threaten to assault Lakewood’s Jews for spreading the virus.

He was charged with making terrorist threats during a state of emergency. A county deputy fire marshal in New Jersey was investigated for similar Facebook comments. And in Queens, a couple was charged… after attacking a group of Orthodox Jews – ripping their masks off and punching them in the face – for supposedly not social distancing.

“’You Jews are all getting us sick,’ the couple allegedly yelled.”

Thankfully, another recent account offers some solace.

It appeared in my own suburban Washington DC neighborhood, on a popular online “Nextdoor” blogsite.

“Hateful Flyers Left on my Doorstep” read the headline.

The writer explained, “I just found a racist and antisemitic flyer left on my walkway. I see the flyer has been left for my neighbors as well. It’s a disturbing thing to find. If anyone received one of these and has a security camera, please see if you caught the perpetrator and maybe forward the video to the police.

I called them but I don’t have any actionable info. It’s so sad to encounter this at a time when we should all be pulling together…” This was followed by an extraordinary thread that, at last count, amounted to more than 230 comments – every one of them infuriated about the flyer. No one called for violence, but many demanded that the city police, or the FBI, the city council, or the mayor should be notified immediately of this “antisemitic outrage.”

Some, who had found the hateful handout on their property, had security camera photos of the man who passed them out. Several insisted that he should be arrested.

Needless to say, America’s 1st Amendment, which protects free speech, would prohibit any legal recourse to the leaflet’s vile declarations. But, at least for me, such heartfelt expressions of outright disgust at blatant antisemitism are heartening. Perhaps it’s only a small, local incident. But it speaks well of more than a few good-hearted, decent citizens who know evil when they see it. And, thank God, they clearly want to do everything they can to stop it.