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Antisemitism is on the rise, and it's not just about Ye

Protesters at a Jewish solidarity march in New York City on January 5, 2020. The Anti-Defamation League reports that antisemitic incidents, including violence, have been rising for the past five years.
Jeenah Moon
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Protesters at a Jewish solidarity march in New York City on January 5, 2020. The Anti-Defamation League reports that antisemitic incidents, including violence, have been rising for the past five years.

Updated December 1, 2022 at 1:51 PM ET

An old kind of hate has been very visible lately. High-profile entertainers and athletes have openly spouted antisemitic tropes. Former president Donald Trump dined recently with an outspoken Holocaust denier. Beyond these headlines, there's also been a steady rise in the number of hateful incidents directed at Jewish people over the past several years.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, 2021 was the highest year on record for documented reports of harassment, vandalism and violence directed against Jews. The watchdog group has tracked these incidents since 1979, and it says 2022 will look a lot like last year.

These record breaking numbers present as part of a consistent, five year upswing in the number of antisemitic incidents, unprecedented in the ADL's three plus decades of data collection. The organization says it's more commonly tracked isolated spikes in a given year, as seen in 1994 and 1981.

The current streak includes the 2018 attack on the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue - where a gunman killed 11 Jewish worshippers, as well as the deadly "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va. two years earlier where extremist demonstrators chanted "Jews will not replace us" during a torchlit march, but also thousands of smaller incidents like vandalizing Jewish schools and community centers, or extremist flyering campaigns.

At the ADL, it's Emily Snider's job to document and try to categorize these reports, and one example from 2021 haunts her.

"Two young Orthodox boys were playing in their yard in California and were shot with paintballs — red paintballs. And we saw pictures of them. And I mean, it was heartbreaking. Absolutely heartbreaking," said Snider.

Hate crimes more broadly have also been on the rise over the past few years. Experts sometimes refer to antisemitism as a "canary in the coal mine" for hate generally. Whenever a minority group is blamed for some real or perceived harm, such narratives almost always find ways to also attack Jews based on centuries-old myths about Jewish control and disloyalty.

For those who are upset about Black people demonstrating against racism, or blame a pandemic on anyone who looks Asian, or are angry about the visibility of transgender people or queer culture, Snider says it's a short leap to conspiracist thinking.

"Jews are centered in a lot of conspiracy theories, especially around economy or power or greed or whatever. Those are core antisemitic tropes. So when we start to see unrest, we tend to see antisemitic incidents climb," said Snider.

Antisemitism returns to politics

Trump's dinner with the musician Ye, who's made a number of antisemitic remarks, and a notorious Holocaust-denying internet streamer is just the latest example of antisemitism's increasing visibility in electoral politics.

Snider says whenever celebrities or politicians flirt publicly with antisemitic tropes, increased extremist and neo-Nazi harrassment and recruiting tends to follow. These moments are opportunities for hateful highway banner drops, flyering and online radicalization.

As for Nick Fuentes, the white nationalist internet streamer who had dinner with Ye and the former president, Trump is not the first Republican candidate or official to spend time with him and later claim not to know about his very outspoken, antisemitic beliefs. Earlier this year Georgia U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was a speaker at a fundraising event hosted by Fuentes. Arizona U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar addressed that same event. Both were re-elected last month.

As Republicans take over the house in January, Greene is expected to regain committee assignments that Democrats stripped her of based, in part, on her promotion of antisemitic conspiracy theories. Among the most prominent examples was Greene's claim that California wildfires may have been caused by the Rothschilds, a prominent Jewish banking family and mainstay in antisemitic conspiracy theories.

"That's old-school, classic modern antisemitism coming from the 1870s and eighties and nineties into the 20th century," said Joshua Shanes, a Jewish Studies professor at the College of Charleston.

"There's rhetoric that's accepted today that simply never would have possibly been accepted a generation ago, not since the 1930s, really," said Shanes. "People call it [political correctness], but there's a benefit to saying it is unacceptable to be openly racist, to be openly antisemitic. And if you are, you will not win political office. But that has gone away."

Shanes sometimes sees that normalization in his own classes, where students are not always familiar with the often coded language and imagery of antisemitism. It's made him change the way he teaches the history of the Nazi party's use of anti-Jewish propaganda films.

"And I used to show it to my students. I'd say, okay, let's dissect it. What antisemitic myths do you see in here? Let's find them all. I don't do it anymore because I'm actually concerned they'll be persuaded by it," said Shanes.

Growing up, Shanes said he also learned very few details about the role of racist violence in American history.

"So there's a lot of suppression of knowledge, I think. I don't want to blame these students for it. They're very open, but they need to be taught, no doubt about it," he said.

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Lisa Hagen