Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, recognizes that the massacre at the Tree of Life building last year was not just an attack on the three congregations that shared that space.
“It was attack on the entire Jewish community,” said Greenblatt, who was in town last weekend to stand with Jewish Pittsburgh in marking the one-year commemoration of the anti-Semitic shooting that left 11 dead and several others wounded.
“It’s been a year of mourning,” said Greenblatt. “And now it needs to be a time of mobilization.”
Anti-Semitism is on the rise in the United States and elsewhere throughout the world. In the year since the attack at the Tree of Life building, at least 12 white supremacists have been arrested in the U.S. for their alleged roles in terrorist plots, attacks or threats against the Jewish community, with many of the offenders inspired by prior white supremacist attacks, according to a new ADL report. Additionally, in the last year, there have been at least 50 attacks on the property of Jewish institutions by white supremacists.
Anti-Semitism is nothing new, Greenblatt noted. It has had a continual presence for thousands of years, but in the last 100 years, anti-Semitic attitudes in America have steadily decreased. Whereas in the early to mid-20th century, Jews often were restricted socially, professionally and in housing and educational opportunities, those barriers have been mostly overcome.
At the start of World War II, roughly 40% of the population harbored anti-Semitic sentiments, but by the 1960s, that had dropped to about 30%, according to Greenblatt.
“Today, the number is roughly 13%,” he said. “The anti-Semitic attitudes have dropped more than half.”
Paradoxically, though, anti-Semitic incidences — which the ADL has been tracking since the 1970s — have been on the rise in the last three years. Those incidences include criminal acts of violence and vandalism, and also “acts of harassment, intimidation, bullying, things that the police wouldn’t pay attention to but we do,” according to Greenblatt.
In 2016, anti-Semitic incidences in the U.S. spiked by 34%, and in 2017, the number jumped 57%.
“That’s the largest single year surge we’ve ever tracked in 40 years,” Greenblatt said.
In 2018, the incidences decreased 5% in overall number, but “acts of harassment were up and acts of violence more than doubled,” he explained. “And the number of victims almost tripled, and that of course includes the attack at Tree of Life.”
Greenblatt attributes the surge in anti-Semitic activity to several, interrelated factors, including an environment of anxiety fueled by a charged political climate exacerbated by economic insecurity.
“When people are on edge, they are more prone to conspiracy theories, they are more prone to believe conspiracy theories, they are more susceptible to stereotypes and they are more apt to believe in scapegoats,” said Greenblatt. “Like it or not, this set of circumstances is often that which creates a real space for anti-Semitism because Jews are the ultimate plotters in these conspiracy theories, the scapegoats, the easy to go to stereotypes.”
Xenophobic rhetoric in the public square fuels the climate.
“In this environment, extremists are feeling emboldened,” he said. “When their talking points are showing up on the Twitter feed of our president, when their rhetoric is being repeated by pundits on cable news shows, they feel emboldened. How do we know they’re feeling emboldened? Because the ADL’s Center on Extremism tracks extremists (including on both public and private internet platforms), and literally they are saying, ‘We feel emboldened.’ That’s what they write.”
The prevalence of opportunities for haters to congregate and encourage one another on social media is also largely to blame, said Greenblatt.
“There are 24/7 rallies online. With just a few clicks you can literally find what was previously unspeakable. Social media has become a breeding ground for bigotry. Some of these businesses, like Facebook have taken some steps. They have. YouTube has adopted some important measures, but they need to do much, much more.”
That’s why, in 2017, the ADL launched a Center for Technology and Society in Silicon Valley through which it collaborates with large social media companies, such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube and Reddit, which are on “the front line in fighting hate,” he said.
In addition to reforming social media, anti-Semitism can be allayed with the help of law enforcement, which Greenblatt urges to sharpen its focus on “identifying and interrupting extremists, whether they are white supremacists, whether they are left-wing radicals that do harm, whether they are political Islamists that want to murder Jews, all of it is trouble.”
While the ADL continues to be “deeply concerned about the delegitimization of Israel,” currently, the more deadly threats are coming from white supremacists, Greenblatt stressed.
“Last year there were 50 extremist-related murders, 49 of which were committed by what you would call right-wing extremists,” he said. “It isn’t to say that left-wing radicalism isn’t a problem; it is. It isn’t to say we aren’t deeply concerned about the delegitimization of Israel; we are. It’s just if we are trying to understand the size and scope of the problem, these aren’t the people who are literally shooting Jews in Germany and San Diego.”
Everyone, Greenblatt said, has a responsibility to stand up against bigotry and prejudice wherever it appears.
“Leaders need to lead,” he said. “Whether you are the president of the United States or the president of a university or the president of the local school board. I think people need to step up and speak out when they see prejudice in the public conversation or when you see it show up in a private place. When it happens across the Thanksgiving table or in the locker room or at the water cooler or in the quad on campus. People in positions of authority need to stamp out stereotypes, but I also think we as private citizens have a role to play, too.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at