Anti-Semitism Is in Decline. But That Hasn’t Stopped People From Hyping and Exploiting It.

How you look at things.
April 23 2014 2:05 PM

The Bigot Card

Anti-Semitism, like other kinds of prejudice, is real. But it can be hyped or fabricated as a political weapon.

Ron Prosor, Israel's Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
Ron Prosor, Israel's U.N. ambassador, addressing the General Assembly on Nov. 29, 2012.

Photo by Henny Ray Abrams/AFP/Getty Images

Anti-Semitism is back in the news. In Kansas, a lunatic shot three people to death outside a Jewish Community Center and a Jewish senior center, declaring, “Heil Hitler.” In Italy, a paranoid activist posted a blog item with coarse Holocaust jokes. In England, a teacher threatened to send a student “to one of your gas chambers.” In Ukraine, masked men handed out flyers instructing Jews to register with separatist authorities. At the United Nations, Israel is demanding the suspension of a U.N. official for anti-Jewish bias.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

These incidents remind us that anti-Semitism persists. But they also illustrate how we often misconstrue, exaggerate, or exploit the reality or the appearance of prejudice. Our progress in rolling back bigotry seems not to have tempered the frequency with which we perceive or allege it. We’re losing perspective on what bigotry is. And the charge of bigotry has itself become a political weapon.

Let’s look at three of the most recent incidents.

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1. The Kansas shooting. This is a straightforward, hate-inspired atrocity. But does it signify a larger trend? The Jerusalem Post says it shows that “anti-Semitism flourishes” and that the Internet “makes the most virulent anti-Semitic invective easier to disseminate and more incendiary than ever.” The European Jewish Congress says it “demonstrates that neo-Nazis and anti-Semites are becoming emboldened” and that “we are witnessing an intolerable rise in neo-Nazi violence on a global scale.” A Chicago Sun-Times op-ed says the shooter

is just one of thousands of people who belong to more than 1,000 anti-Semitic, white supremacist, neo-Nazi hate groups in the United States. … [A]nti-Semitism is a bigger problem in America than is commonly acknowledged. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 62 percent of 1,340 religiously motivated hate crimes recorded in 2012 were directed at Jews.

You’d think, from reading these articles, that the problem is getting worse. But it isn’t. The FBI’s hate-crime statistics show a steady decline in anti-Jewish incidents and victims in recent years. The latest annual totals, from 2012, are the lowest ever reported in the 17-year period covered by the published data. In fact, the number of incidents is down 30 percent from the previous 16-year average. And the number of victims is down 25 percent.

The Anti-Defamation League’s latest annual report, published earlier this month, shows the same pattern:

The total number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States fell by 19 percent in 2013, continuing a decade-long downward slide and marking one of the lowest levels of incidents reported by the Anti-Defamation League since it started keeping records in 1979.

Summarizing the report, the ADL’s national director, Abe Foxman, concluded:

The falling number of incidents targeting Jews is another indication of just how far we have come in finding full acceptance in society, and it is a reflection of how much progress our country has made in shunning bigotry and hatred.

2. The U.N. uproar. On Feb. 25, the U.N.’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia issued a report on “Arab Integration.” The commission’s executive secretary, Rima Khalaf, introduced the report with a speech. The report and the speech were almost entirely about Arab problems. But Khalaf also criticized Israel. First, she said,

Foreign interference comes in various forms, such as violations of Arab rights and dignity, but its worst manifestation is the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the Syrian Golan Heights and Lebanese territories, in flagrant breach of international conventions and resolutions.

Khalaf also cited

Israel's adamancy that it is a Jewish State, which violates the rights of both the Muslim and Christian indigenous populations and revives the concept of state ethnic and religious purity, which caused egregious human suffering during the 20th century.

In response, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, demanded Khalaf’s suspension. Two weeks ago, in a letter to the U.N. secretary-general, Prosor protested that Khalaf’s report

alleges that Israel is reviving “the concept of state ethnic and religious purity, which caused egregious human suffering during the 20th century.” Ms. Khalaf also preposterously claims that Hitler, who was responsible for the murder of six million Jews, sought to create a safe haven for the Jewish people in the Middle East. These accusations represent the epitome of modern day anti-Semitism and cannot be condoned under any circumstances.

Actually, neither Khalaf nor the report claimed that Hitler sought a “safe haven” for Jews. The report merely said (on Page 58) that “Arab unity was incompatible with the Transfer Agreement [Hitler] had concluded with the Zionist movement to facilitate the emigration of German Jews to Palestine.” You can read all about the Transfer Agreement at Yadvashem.org and the Jewish Virtual Library. As for Khalaf’s statement that Israel insists on being certified by Palestinians as a “Jewish state,” that’s a fact. You can quarrel with her description of this policy as “religious purity.” But to call her remarks classic anti-Semitism is a gross abuse of the term.

Last week, the American Jewish Committee piled on, demanding that Khalaf be fired. AJC’s executive director, David Harris, endorsed Prosor’s description of Khalaf’s remarks as “the epitome of modern day anti-Semitism.” Noting Khalaf’s objection to the “Jewish state” idea, Harris scoffed: “It's painfully ironic, isn't it, that Khalaf has no problem with Arab states that self-define as both Arab and Muslim.”

Again, not true. Khalaf’s report criticized “the crisis of the Arab Islamic culture” that has led to “exclusionary doctrines that limit public rights and freedoms—especially those of women and non-Muslims (Page 144). The report concluded that under any solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict, “no discrimination against Christians and Muslims in Israel or against Jews in Arab countries can be permitted” (Page 192).

Protesting Israeli policy doesn’t make you an anti-Semite. Nor does criticism of Israel’s demand to be officially addressed as a Jewish state. As Amira Hass warned last week in Ha’aretz, such “excessive use … of the ‘anti-Semitism’ charge” only cheapens the term.

3. The Ukraine hoax. On April 16, a Ukrainian website reported that masked men were handing fliers to people outside a synagogue in Donestsk. The fliers told Jews to register with local pro-Russian separatists. Across the world, politicians and news media pounced on the story. Ukraine’s prime minister said Russia was exporting the “practice of pogroms.” U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the fliers “show the kind of neo-Nazi thugs with whom Vladimir Putin is willing to associate.” Sen. Charles Schumer said Putin “has accused the Ukrainians recently of being anti-Semitic, but now it is pro-Russian forces that are engaged in these grotesque acts.”

Within a few days, however, Donetsk’s chief rabbi, Pinchas Vishedski, dismissed the fliers as a hoax. The pseudo-official order they depicted was unsigned. The stamp on it looked fishy. The fliers also misidentified the leader of the separatist group. A pro-Ukrainian, anti-separatist organizer called it “a brilliant piece of disinformation” against the separatists.

In Ukraine, as in Russia, the history of persecuting Jews is all too real. But Vishedski claims that in comparison with western Ukraine, anti-Semitic incidents in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine are rare. Another local rabbi says the fliers appear to be “someone trying to use the Jewish community in Donetsk as an instrument in this conflict.” Foxman, the ADL director, notes “a series of cynical and politically manipulative uses and accusations of anti-Semitism in Ukraine over the past year.”

That doesn’t make threats of persecution less painful to Jews. But it does show that anti-Semitism, like other kinds of bigotry, can be hyped, misrepresented, or even fabricated for political gain.

Prejudice is a persistent affliction. It deserves constant vigilance. But we’re making progress against it. That’s true of every kind of prejudice, including race, sex, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. As prejudice becomes anathema, the power of bigotry declines, and the power of charging people with bigotry increases. The two problems aren’t equivalent. But their trajectories are headed in opposite directions.

Racist, sexist, homophobe, anti-Semite—these, too, are slurs. They, too, deserve constant vigilance.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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