Anti-Semitism Is Horrible, But Not A Dominant Force In American Life

Earlier today I said something on the social media platform “Twitter” which engendered huge “pushback,” so I’ll just make a few additional points here. I’m going to post the thread in full.

To begin: occasionally, crimes do of course occur that are plainly anti-semitic in nature. In 2014, an avowed racist fanatic attacked a Jewish center in Overland Park, Kansas, killing three. Yet as deplorable of a deed that was, it would’ve been ridiculous at the time to characterize the deranged person’s actions as reflecting a society-wide surge in anti-semitic sentiment. The shooter belonged to a fringe cohort of neo-Nazi losers. Such people did not then, and do not now, represent a significant force in American political life. They ought to be dealt with rationally and whatever harm they might cause ought to be minimized, but presenting neo-Nazism as a dominant influence in the U.S. would’ve been the absolute wrong response to the 2014 shooting.

Likewise, the recent raft of hoax bomb threats called into Jewish centers around the country is cowardly and contemptible. It’s clearly disturbing for anyone subjected to that, and belonging to a religious minority can reasonably heighten one’s fears. However, it’s a huge stretch to portray those phone calls as indicative of a rising tide of anti-semitism in the U.S. Thankfully, anti-semitism remains a fringe, discredited prejudice, irrespective of whether some jerk or group of jerks decided to phone threats into Jewish centers. Whoever did that should obviously be held accountable for their actions, but the tendency to try to extrapolate some kind of overarching political trend — without even knowing a smidgen of detail about the perpetrators, as we currently don’t — ought to be resisted. That’s lazy, knee-jerk thinking, and is susceptible to all kinds of confirmation bias.

Meanwhile, there absolutely are tangible reasons to believe that anti-Muslim animus has manifested not just in some hoax phone calls, but in actual government policy. The U.S. has spent 15+ years bombing and occupying predominantly Muslim countries, killing untold numbers of Muslim people, and subjecting them to illegal surveillance and other depredations. U.S. politicians of high stature, including the current president, repeatedly invoke incendiary caricatures of Islam and have contributed to the demonization of Muslims domestically and abroad. Muslims’ civil liberties have been systematically curtailed. This all has occurred in tandem with events like the burning of mosques, which rationally can be viewed as an outgrowth of anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. — even if we can’t necessarily verify the motive which gave rise to any one event. Put another way: even though, for instance, the recent Victoria, TX mosque burning can’t be attributed specifically to the existence of anti-Muslim animus — we don’t yet know who the perpetrator is — it’s a reasonable inference given the wider anti-Muslim climate that has been stoked. Even if that one event could be shown to not be attributable to anti-Muslim sentiment, that wouldn’t negate the prevalence of anti-Muslim sentiment that exists elsewhere. And of course, Trump’s “travel ban” clearly disproportionately burdened innocent Muslims and Arabs. (I interviewed some impacted refugees for a TYT segment that came out today.)

But there’s just no good evidence that a wider anti-Jewish climate has been stoked. For instance: like his predecessors, the current president continues to express more-or-less unflinching support for the Jewish state. (Yes, it’s true that anti-Semitism and Zionism are not necessarily incompatible beliefs — a number of European demagogues have demonstrated that fusing the two together is politically tenable. However, there’s scant reason to believe Trump has thought deeply enough about the subject that he should be considered anything less than what he publicly and repeatedly claims he is: stridently pro-Israel, and stridently pro-Jew.) American Jews are generally not disproportionately subjected to state policy that curtails their civil liberties. Prominent U.S. politicians are not going around demonizing Judaism. That’s simply not a reasonable depiction of the present state of affairs. And yet, much of the media has settled on a new, alarmist narrative which gives the impression that Jews are under siege, instilling fear without good empirical basis. That’s fundamentally what I was objecting to in my tweet thread, and that is in no sense a denial of the harm that can be caused by individual anti-semitic acts.

In 2002, the socialist journalist Alexander Cockburn — who was dogged by groundless anti-semitism accusations throughout much of his career, wrote:

15 years later, there’s little reason to think the political circumstances have materially changed very much. Yes, there are newly-visible anti-semitic Twitter trolls who have been stupidly given a platform by journalists desperate for something to report on, but in general, anti-semitism remains a highly marginal force in American life. Where it does exist, it should no doubt be combatted. But inflating the threat doesn’t do anyone any good. If it turns out, and is empirically demonstrated, that anti-semitism really is on the rise in the U.S. — is that cause for concern? Of course. But no such thing has been demonstrated, notwithstanding a handful of (contemptible and wrong) bomb threats.