2021 Annual Assessment

The Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People

PROJECT HEAD: Shmuel Rosner

Dan Feferman, Shlomo Fischer, Shuki Friedman, Avi Gil, Inbal Hakman, Michael Herzog, Gitit Levy-Paz, Dov Maimon, Steven Popper, Uzi Rebhun, John Ruskay, Noah Slepkov, Adar Schieber, Yedidia Stern, Shalom Salomon Wald

Barry Geltman

2021 Annual Assessment

With the Second Intifada at the dawn of the 21st century, a wave of antisemitism – a phenomenon that had largely disappeared from public discourse following the Second World War – reached Western Europe. Since then, antisemitism has once again resumed its place on the old continent albeit in new guises and with a different malignancy. In response, European Jews have initiated, to varying degrees, a process of self-segregation, morphing into an archipelago of ostensibly protected synagogues, hiding yarmulkes and other Jewish identifiers from sight. In 2019, most (around 90%) European Jews reported having witnessed antisemitic incidents.

Some of this antisemitism derives from traditional nationalist, far-right sources, notably in Eastern Europe, but it also stems from other sources in Western European political and social life. Antisemitic views are now embraced by the more mainstream left. Green parties, likely the future of Europe’s left, tend to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement whose leadership aims to anathematize, delegitimize, and eliminate the Jewish state. German Greens regularly label Israel an ‘apartheid’ regime. Progressive Jews are singled out and asked to condemn Israel and Zionism to demonstrate their allegiance as part of the left. A poll of European Jews found that most incidents witnessed or experienced and considered to be antisemitic by them now emanate from either Muslims or the political left – barely 13% of incidents were attributed to right-wing extremists.32

This social marginalization has affected Jewish communal life. In France and Britain, those who identify primarily as Jews have left the progressive camp and moved to the right. Research shows that in 2021, young European Jews are closer to communal life than their parents are, and that altogether, European Jews are more observant today than 20 years ago.33 Young Jews avoid entering political and public service careers. Orthodox Jews, historically a small sub-group, are projected to become the majority in Britain’s Jewish community.34

With antisemitism appearing increasingly violent, persistent, and pervasive, more and more Jews are investigating relocation. Over the last two decades, 100,000 Jews – more than 20% of the community – have left France, half of them for Israel and a similar number for other destinations. Among the remaining Jews in France – following past examples of other threatened diasporas – those who could afford it have moved to protected neighborhoods, distancing themselves from antisemitic, mostly Muslim, street violence.35 The main single determinant factor of the sustainability of a European Jewish community appears to be the percentage of Muslims in the population.36

Is America different?

In Europe, antisemitism pervades the public sphere, disseminating and inculcating negative stereotypes about Jews.37 For 85% of European Jews, antisemitism is seen as the most pressing social and political problem in their country. Many Jews do not live free of worry for their own and their family’s safety due to a risk of becoming targets of harassment and attacks. The very fact that special security measures are required to ensure the safety of Jewish communities points to a persistent, deep societal malaise.38

Of course, America is different: the new continent has no history of state antisemitism. There is greater acceptance of Jews in America due to the nature of its culture (as an immigrant society both unity and identity derive from adherence to a set of ideas, moral norms, and civic values, not ethnic or linguistic adherences), its laws (greater respect for religious freedom), and its political system (the two-party federal system means Jews retain an important role in politics nationally and locally in a manner not common in Europe). Moreover, the Jewish cultural contribution to society is incomparably more significant in America than in Europe and is widely recognized as so. These factors provide American Jews with capacities to oppose and mitigate negative trends more effectively than their overseas brethren.

Yet today, American Jews perceive a rise in antisemitism with half saying they have observed antisemitic incidents over the past year. Most synagogues have considerably upgraded security systems, a fact that was unimaginable a few years ago, and most US Jews worry about a possible return of anti-Jewish hatred. The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has launched an unprecedented, coordinated effort to enhance the safety and security of the communal institutions. During the May 2021 Middle East conflict, antisemitic slogans were heard and Jewish individuals were beaten in the streets of New York City during an otherwise peaceful, pro-Palestinian demonstration. Neither the organizers nor the other demonstrators intervened to stop the attack. In July 2021, a young Chabad rabbi was stabbed in broad daylight in Greater Boston. Anti-Jewish sentiment is being expressed publicly in the United States. Is America becoming Europe? Not yet, but the sentence “America is different” is increasingly expressed with a question mark at the end.

Europeanization trends

While not yet comparable to the extent in Europe, in the US, too, Jewish groups are kicked out of LGBTQ pride and women’s marches, progressive Jews are singled out and asked to distance themselves from Zionism to remain part of the left, and individual Jews are associated with Israel in a mental glide path undergirded with antisemitic tropes. In today’s America, Jews are identified as white, wealthy, and privileged and so their requests for protection from discrimination often go unheard and building coalitions with other vexed minorities becomes increasingly difficult.

To mitigate a possible “Europeanization” of Jewish life in America, we delineate a series of negative trends – observed in recent decades in Europe – that we recommend American Jewish institutions monitor and frame potential mitigation measures. At this stage, these trends and indicators are presented solely as suggestions for further discussion. There is a need to assess their relevance as indices of deterioration in communal life, to calibrate them to the American context, and to set a baseline for examining trends. The intention is to work toward a set of metrics to assess how similar or dissimilar the American experience is to Europe’s in 2021 and going forward.

  1. The broad consensus against antisemitism has cracked. The traditional broad political and public consensus in combating antisemitism has begun to break down. Behind this growing rift is a distortion and rewriting of historical facts relating to World War II and the memory of the Holocaust promulgated by political leaders on the right in the context of the anti-globalist discourse. In addition, antisemitism is manifested in the anti-Israeli and anti-colonialist discourse of political leaders on the left.39 A methodology has already been successfully tested in five European countries to assess the rise of antisemitism in the mainstream public and political discourse, taking into account the number of occurrences of identified expressions.40
  2. Demonization. Caricatures of Israel and Jews in the media and academic circles has clearly contributed to an ideological justification for turning European Jews into near pariahs for those who wish to do so. Drawing on unconscious religious prejudices, Jews are singled out for blame and presented by far-left, far-right, and Muslim activists as part of the “oppression camp.” A quantitative study of caricatured expressions can be used to assess this negative trend.
  3. Double standards. Drawing on Natan Sharansky’s famous conceptualization, a quantitative survey has already been successfully tested to address this phenomenon.41 Researchers drafted two versions of the same question, one asking respondents to apply a principle to a Jewish example and another to a non-Jewish example. If it turned out that, reacting to identical facts, respondents applied the principle more harshly to the Jewish example, the researchers inferred that the difference is evidence of antipathy toward Jews.42
  4. Supporters of Israel are slammed as reactionary racists. In Europe, media, academics, and politicians avoid expressing pro-Israel support to avert criticism. Because Zionism is perceived as a form of racist nationalism and anachronistic colonialism, people of goodwill who dare to advocate for Israel become, ipso facto, illegitimate and lose their credibility as serious and respectable observers. Therefore, few public intellectuals are ready to endanger their careers in support of Israel.43 It is worth systematic examination of whether a similar phenomenon also exists in the US, and to what extent.
  5. Jews are removed from civil society participation. Gay pride parade organizers oust Jewish participants for displaying pride flags containing the Star of David. Women’s marches have also sparked controversy with some organizers asserting that there is no room in feminism for those who support Israel. Moreover, Jews are held accountable for the actions and policies of the Israeli government. This is an example of a trend that is not currently tracked but could easily be incorporated in a system of indicators.
  6. Difficulty building coalitions. As Jews are perceived by social justice activists as privileged and white, by definition outside of intersectional discourse, their requests for protection against discrimination and social exclusion encounter difficulties in being viewed as legitimate or even in being heard. Consequently, attempts to build coalitions with other minorities are coming up against intersectionality arguments.44
  7. Jews move toward the conservative camp. As Muslim minorities became more numerous in Europe, Jews who traditionally had identified with progressive values found they had no other choice than to move toward the conservative camp. In France in the 80s and in Britain more recently, a large share of the Jewish vote shifted from left to right. Unlike the previously enumerated trends, this is relatively easy to measure.
  8. Downplaying the gravity of violent incidents. To avoid igniting public unrest by violent elements within underprivileged minorities, politicians ask that Jews avoid publicizing acts of aggression. The more numerous these violent antisemitic elements are, the more politicians may be tempted to downplay their antisemitic violence. It must be ascertained whether such a trend is also increasing in the United States.

Directions for action

Reviewing the last great upwelling of antisemitic expressions and incidents in the United States, which followed the First World War, Jonathan Sarna noted US Jews employed three strategies that not only proved successful but laid some of the foundations for future community success: supporting each other; fighting back with the truth; and forming coalitions outside the community.45 To perform as well a century later requires better awareness of the currents flowing in a considerably more complex environment.

Recognizing the interconnected trends in Europe that have contributed to social marginalization of the Jewish communities should be part of the process of developing a systematic and integrated monitoring instrument. This effort will include technical components (monitoring, data mining, etc.), but first and foremost it requires agreement on definitions, which will allow extensive measurements in different places to be compared.46