The Jewish community is in crisis. For decades, we viewed the specter of antisemitism as a ghost of the past, a hatred from another time and another place. We still saw it in the Middle East and parts of Eastern Europe, even in occasional glimpses from our Western allies. But when antisemitism appeared here in the U.S., it used to be on the margins, on the fringe—a speck of dust on the otherwise clear vision of Jewish life in America.
We had become comfortable here in America over the last three quarters of a century. Gone were the restricted neighborhoods and their country clubs of yesteryear. America’s centers of higher education abandoned their quotas and fully opened their doors to us.
We took the reprieve that this acceptance granted us and used our energy in the pursuit of noble goals. We fought antisemitism abroad. We picketed Soviet consulates, smuggled in prayer books, and rallied in Washington.
We brought relief to areas struck by natural disaster, saved refugees fleeing war and persecution, and fought for the civil rights of all Americans. For decades, we focused our energies here in the United States on defending Israel and Israel’s right to exist. We accomplished these activities secure in the knowledge that the “American Experience” was a cure to the disease of antisemitism.
But that sense of security may have been an unfortunate mirage.
In 2014, there were 609 anti-Jewish incidents recorded by the FBI (link is external). Just five years later, in 2019, it was 953. In the Anti-Defamation League’s review of antisemitic incidents, the number nearly tripled between 2012 and 2021.
Still, those numbers alone do not capture the nature of the threat. Too many names of too many communities have become ghastly markers of the threats that we face: Pittsburgh. Poway. Jersey City. Monsey. Colleyville.
Every generation of Jews has experienced in one way or another the same swelling of antisemitism, with very real and even devastating consequences.
Exactly one year ago, as Israel was engaged in Operation Guardian of the Wall, American Jews were facing a battle of their own 5,000 miles away, directly related to the violence coming from Gaza. That week, in midtown Manhattan, a roving gang of anti-Israel thugs marched through the heavily Jewish Diamond District, harassing and beating passersby and weaponizing fireworks to cause damage and intimidate Jews.
Blocks away, Jewish diners were attacked by another mob, and a young man coming out of the subway wearing a kippah was assaulted by anti-Israel protestors in Times Square.
A few weeks later in Boston, a rabbi was stabbed after resisting an attempted kidnapping. In Tucson, Arizona, and Skokie, Illinois, synagogue windows were smashed. And in Miami, a Jewish family was showered with trash.
What we experienced may have been a paradigm shift, the culmination of a confluence of movements and events that nurtured, encouraged, and legitimized anti-Zionism and provided a license to discriminate against and target Jews for their mere possible association with the Jewish State.
In the past few years, Zionism has become falsely equated by its opponents with fascism, white supremacy, and racism. Ironically, all three of these specifically target Jews, and Jews have historically and currently been at the forefront of combatting them. Long-used antisemitic tropes are again being used by Jew haters, but this time, they are replacing the terms Jew and Judaism with Zionist and Zionism. While it is impolitic to refer to someone as a dirty Jew, you can now get away with calling someone a dirty Zionist in some circles.
Anti-Israel sentiment is antisemitism. The events of last May must be a wakeup call to those who bury their heads in the sand.
The broadly accepted definition of antisemitism developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has been adopted by the U.S. and over 30 other countries around the world. It states that “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel” constitutes antisemitism. This definition is critical because it distinguishes between antisemitism and certain extreme criticisms of the state of Israel.
Over the last few months, Democratic and Republican governors in 26 states have adopted the IHRA definition, demonstrating its overwhelming bipartisan support. This should not be a surprise; the definition was supported by the administrations of Presidents Obama and Trump, and now by President Biden.
But we cannot rely on the good relationships we have with government and law enforcement to protect ourselves and our children from antisemitic bigotry. We must collectively do more and understand when ignorance, not hate, is responsible.
Our American Jewish community, along with our neighbors and allies in broader American life, must work together to find creative ways to work together to build and implement a positive agenda to shine a light on the scourge of antisemitism and to ensure that we, and future generations, are safe to live our lives as proud Jews.
William Daroff became the Chief Executive Officer of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on February 1, 2020. In that capacity, he is the senior professional guiding the Conference’s agenda on behalf of the 53 national member organizations, which represent the wide mosaic of American Jewish life. Follow him at @Daroff.
This piece was originally published in Newsweek