A Historian of Judaism Explains What's So Troubling About the Latest Wave of Anti-Semitism

What swastikas, cemetery vandalism, and bomb threats say about the state of American hate.

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Mar 6 2017, 5:00am

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One of the many unexpected wrinkles in this new political epoch we're living in is that Nazis and anti-Semitism are a seemingly permanent new fixture of the news cycle. Alongside the rise of white nationalists like Richard Spencer has come a rising tide of threats and hate symbols targeting Jews. There have been at least 100 bomb threats against Jewish community centers so far in 2017, and just in the past two weeks, people have knocked over headstones at Jewish cemeteries in New York, Pennsylvania, and St. Louis.

According to the book Antisemitism in America by historian Leonard Dinnerstein, these sorts of acts are just something that afflicts American Jewish groups from time to time. Vandalism can be seen "waxing and waning periodically without any particular rhyme or reason, serves as a constant reminder of the unpredictability of aggressive antisemitic incidents," Dinnerstein writes.

Dinnerstein's overall thesis is that though America undergoes occasional anti-Semitic spasms, it's never followed up by some American version of the Third Reich. He documents a "particularly ugly period" beginning in 1959 during which Jewish groups became alarmed after "more than 30 Jewish institutions in the New York area had been daubed with swastikas and racist slogans, where telephones threats had been made, and where the windows of Jewish businesses had been broken." Those actions, however, "did not lead to a growth in antisemitic fervor throughout the United States."

To find out if this recent rise in anti-Semitism is a break in the usual pattern or just more of the same, I talked to Rebecca Kobrin, a Columbia University professor of American Jewish history. She said the American Nazi playbook seems to have changed, and today's era of antisemitism seems genuinely new.

VICE: In general, how does this wave of hate fit into America's history with anti-Semitism?
Rebecca Kobrin: There have always been forms of anti-Semitism on a personal level, particularly in the 20th century and closer to the beginning of the 21st century. But what is happening now in the public sphere is a threat to communal institutions. It appears as though there's not a lot of teeth in the threats. People are just calling in bomb threats. I would say that is unprecedented.

Are the responses different than they were in the past?
The world Jewish picture shifted after the 1994 AMIA bombing in Argentina, which killed 85 people. So no bomb threat is going to be ignored. The response of institutions [to threats] reflects the world post 1994. No Jewish institution can take a bomb threat and not evacuate everyone. We need to think of how these events not only scare children, but waste the time and resources of the police who must investigate them.

How has the way people use the swastika changed over time?
I think it has to be seen in a larger picture and the picture of Nazism as a movement. I would say it was quite unpopular in the 80s and 90s, particularly as Germany was trying to reunify itself. So the notion is that [using the symbol] would celebrate the ideology that destroyed Europe in the 20th century.

It seems to me like cemetery desecration is an idea imported directly from the Third Reich. Do I have that about right?
The hallmark of European anti-Semitism is cemetery desecration. That's what it is in Europe. When you would have outbursts, they would desecrate the cemetery, because it's the holiest of places. It's all about metaphor, everyone is helpless there, no one would fight back. It's the last resting place. So that is a long notion that Nazis destroyed. European anti-Semitism in the early 20th century involved cemetery desecration.

Is desecrating cemeteries an entirely new hate behavior for America?
We have not seen cemetery desecration as widespread as this at any previous point in the 20th century.

What's happening culturally to provoke these incidents?
I think we're seeing how nationalism and race overlap and coincide in certain movements. We're not only seeing it here—Brexit was that. It's all about understanding who is in and out of the nations, and who belongs. What are the boundaries of the nation? America has always been the model, the melting pot. Anyone who believes in the ideals of America can join the nation. And that's what this is rejecting.

Would you say these acts are connected—either directly or indirectly—to Donald Trump and his policies?
What has happened since Trump's ascendence is that religion and race overlap in new ways. That's what the whole Muslim ban is. The notion that they are a group that should be kept out or they're not good for the nation is raising all these whole issues again about how race and religion overlap. It racializes a religious group. That's what's happening to Jews. Immigration law often embeds into law racial hierarchies already present in American culture. But now we're seeing for the first time groups that are here and trying to redefine who's "within" the nation and "without."

Do you see something different or unique about the alt-right that could be triggering these threats and acts of vandalism?
I'm not sure, but I wouldn't say it's different. I'd say the alt-right is empowered by this president and his election. So they might have harbored these views for a long time, and now they feel they can say them in the open. They have not felt as empowered to express their views in the past couple of decades. I don't think they didn't exist before. I think what is new, but not brand new—at least new as of the past 30 years—is this notion that Jews don't belong. That is what I think we haven't seen for decades.

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