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The New Anti-Semitism


"Crown Heights prompted the Jewish community to put things together," says Dr. Diane Steinman of the American Jewish Committee. "It was a watershed event. . . . It's almost like we've reached the mountaintop and it's a blizzard up there, and we'd better find a way to get down, because it's dangerous." Jews were now regularly giving voice to their disaffection and to their belief that the city didn't work for them anymore, just as blacks in Crown Heights claimed they weren't getting their fair share.

This sudden, sweeping identification with the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum was an astonishing development. "You know why?" asks Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, the chairman of Brooklyn Community Board Nine in Crown Heights. " 'Cause we ain't like them [mainstream Jews]. Somebody said to me in a meeting recently that he never thought he'd see the day when he'd be defending Lubavitcher Hasidim.

"Except for the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council, where were all the Jewish organizations up until now? Where were they during the riots? As far as I'm concerned, they're worthless. They struck out. They're only out here now because their membership wants to know what they're doing about Yankel Rosenbaum. This is no longer an issue of 'Oh, those Hasidic people, they're not like us.' This has now turned into an emotional Jewish issue because for the first time, Jews feel a threat."

In the middle of November, the Anti-Defamation League released a study of prejudice in America, yet the results were all but lost in the daily thicket of news related to Crown Heights. The first comprehensive, nationwide survey of its kind since 1981, it found that one in five American adults—nearly 40 million people—holds anti-Semitic beliefs. Numbers aside, the salient finding of the ADL study, like that of the Roper poll done in New York City, is that anti-Semitism has a new character and a new set of rules. In the past, American anti-Semitism was essentially a social disease, a prejudice that found its expression in predictable forms—not wanting to live next door to a Jew, work with a Jew, marry a Jew, and so on. But now, according to the studies, the number of people with these feelings is negligible. Anti-Jewish attitudes have instead become more insidious, resembling the anti-Semitism that was prevalent in Europe in the first part of this century. The charges: Jews have too much power and are more loyal to Israel than to America.

Norman Podhoretz, the editor-in-chief of Commentary and a leading neoconservative intellectual, points out that these feelings have been "percolating in the culture" for more than twenty years. "The idea that Jews in America have too much power first arose in the late sixties. It was associated with the idea that justice is a proportional distribution of the goods of this world, in accordance with the size of the group an individual belongs to. Quotas is what it came down to. It was then that this notion arose that Jews, who were 2.5 or 3 percent of the population, were getting more than their fair share."

What the recent studies really don't explain—perhaps because there is no cogent explanation—is the enduring nature of anti-Semitism. How does one make sense of the fact, for example, that the ADL study finds that contact with Jews does not affect the anti-Semitic beliefs of respondents? In his recently published book Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred, historian Robert Wistrich writes, "Free-floating antisemitism, for which the actual presence of Jews is almost immaterial, thrives on archetypal fears, anxieties and reflexes that seem to defy any rational analysis."

What also seems to defy rational analysis is the degree to which expressions of hate and intolerance have become acceptable. In Crown Heights, it took days before the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum was even called a crime of bias. In pop culture—rap music and heavy metal in particular—hostility toward Jews, blacks, gays, women, and virtually anyone who is not like "us" routinely goes unremarked upon. In the political season just past, appeals to the darker side of voters' primal instincts seemed almost as common as the basic stump speech.

What did Republican national chairman Rich Bond mean exactly when he said of the Democrats, "They are not America"? What was Democratic presidential candidate Jerry Brown thinking about when he stood outside the New York Stock Exchange last April and said in hauntingly familiar language—as reported in The New Republic—that he would "drive the moneylenders out of the temple"? Or former Secretary of State James Baker, who, when asked at a meeting of high-level administration officials about his hostility toward Israel, said, "F--- the Jews. They didn't vote for us anyway"?


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