Three perspectives on the 'high tide of American antisemitism'

Star of David
Protesters marched silently in front of the restaurant Gasthof zur Gemutlichkeit in north Minneapolis in response to a recent World War II reenactment dinner party at the restaurant that featured Nazi flags and men dressed in SS uniforms. This is just one example of an increase of antisemitism county wide and in Minnesota.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Last year, reports of violence, harassment and vandalism targeting Jewish people reached an all-time high. That is according to the Anti-Defamation League, which has tracked hate incidents since 1979. And they say they expect to see similar numbers this year.  

On Monday, the White House announced that President Joe Biden will create a task force to address antisemitism and other forms of religious bigotry.

This comes after several celebrities, politicians and other public figures have spread anti-Jewish rhetoric.

The rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, praised Adolf Hitler on the podcast InfoWars earlier this year. And he was recently banned from Twitter for inciting violence after he posted an image of the swastika over the Star of David.  

Former President Donald Trump also made headlines recently when he had dinner with Ye and Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist internet figure and Holocaust denier.  

MPR News host Angela Davis talked with three guests about what is behind the rise in antisemitism and how we can address it. 

Gain a Better Understanding of Today

MPR News is not just a listener supported source of information, it's a resource where listeners are supported. We take you beyond the headlines to the world we share in Minnesota. Become a sustainer today to fuel MPR News all year long.

Guests:  

  • Pamela Nadell is a professor of women’s and gender history and the director of the Jewish studies program at American University in Washington, D.C. She is currently working on a book about the history of antisemitism.  

  • Yair Rosenberg is a writer at The Atlantic. He writes the Deep Shtetl newsletter and covers the intersection of politics, culture, and religion. 

  • Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman has been senior rabbi at Temple Israel in Minneapolis for 20 years. 

Here are five key moments from the conversation.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

What do you think about the White House creating a task force to address antisemitism?

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman: I applaud the administration for addressing hate crimes and antisemitism in particular. There is a summit in the White House that was very crucial and important earlier this fall. I think it is very important because antisemitism has been built by people and used by people for specific purposes. And one who promotes antisemitism relies on division and fear for power, and that affects all of us.

Professor Pamela Nadell: Like Rabbi Zimmerman, I applauded the President's decision. As a historian, I was also struck, because I know of eras in the American past when there have been antisemitic people who have been part of the government in the United States. I think that this period is going to be called the high tide of American antisemitism. And that we will have to come up with a new name for the period between World War One and World War Two, because of the level of violence and the attacks that are happening daily around the world.

How are you processing the rise of antisemitism? What do people have to say?

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman: The Jewish community is very concerned and very afraid with the rise of antisemitism because, historically, we have actually seen this show before. There is also confusion among the interfaith community that I am a part of. Christians, Muslims, people who are a very diverse background, often ask question like: What is antisemitism? What does it mean to use that word versus anti-Jewish? There is a lot of questions and not a lot of places to turn. So I am often glad that I am at the table as a Jewish voice, to help answer the questions and help people navigate this increase in hate.

Professor Pamela Nadell: It is impossible to be a Jewish person in the United States today and not be deeply concerned about antisemitism. And what I am actually writing a book about is the history of antisemitism in the U.S. Because as Rabbi Zimmerman said, people do not know the long history over more than 350 years of how antisemitism has played out in America. It is not until we get to the modern period that Jews are let out of the ghettos, and that they become members of the society that they enter, they become full citizens of their states. But antisemitism, a word that was coined in 1879, explains a modern recent hatred of the Jews that was not based on the Christian ideas. Instead, it was based on the fact that the Jews are purportedly a different race.

Yari Rosenberg: When a lot of people think about antisemitism, they think about social prejudices, but it has a very different component that is less well understood, but extremely influential in the real world, which is the conspiratorial element. And the thing about a conspiracy theory is that you do not have to have a particular ideology or religion, you just have to have a conspiratorial mindset, the idea that there is sort of a simple solution to a lot of problems, and that there is basically one scapegoat upon which you can pin it.

And what is up with people in the entertainment industry getting caught up with these insensitive and awful remarks?

Professor Pamela Nadell: I think there are three factors that have caused the increase in antisemitism in our day. First, we are dealing with the political polarization in our country. Second, a significant portion of the population has embraced conspiracy theories. And third, social media has coalesced to allow dissemination of antisemitism in striking ways. Those public figures who are engaged in spreading antisemitism are doing it through the various forms of social media. And bottom line, antisemitism is a conspiracy theory with this idea that Jews somehow are behind the scenes, exercising extraordinary power over the entire world, to suit their particular purposes.

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman: I do not know whether hatred is misinformation, or ignorance. It feels like at least in this moment, in time, that there are leaders, politicians and famous people who are using this division to promote fear in order to gain power themselves. And that is not about ignorance. That is about something more.

Yari Rosenberg: These sorts of views are not new. If you look at FBI hate crime statistics in the U.S. ever since they started keeping track, Jews have always been the number one target of anti-religious bias crimes more than all other religious groups combined. I think social media in some senses has allowed us to see it and to hear it from people who otherwise would not have. We have this window into a lot of people's heads in a way that perhaps back then we would not have.

Only one percent of Minnesota’s population is Jewish. How does that affect what antisemitism looks like in Minnesota in comparison to the east coast?

Professor Pamela Nadell: In the 1920s and 1930s, Detroit was a hotbed of antisemitism. First in the 1920s, Henry Ford starts publishing some of the conspiracy theories that I was talking about before, but he disseminates it through his newspaper. It reaches over 700,000 which makes it one of the largest circulation newspapers in the U.S. at that time. And then when we move to the 1930s we have the radio preacher, Father Charles Coughlin, also from Detroit. And he is broadcasting all sorts of forms of hate on his radio show, tuned in to by millions of Americans. And he actually argues that the Jews deserved the persecution they were undergoing in Germany. The Midwest has long had hotspots of antisemitism.

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman: My congregation in Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, is a place where the matriarchs and patriarchs express some pride of their courage in 1928, creating a front of this synagogue that looks like the Lincoln Memorial. There is a belief in religious freedom, and so they expressed it loudly, clearly, with great respect. We are over 140 years old, and have always understood our role being a Jewish voice in the city of Minneapolis. Personally, I cannot be afraid. Because if I am, then I am giving much power to those who promote antisemitism. The machine of antisemitism is not just about Jews, it only begins there. But Black, brown and LBGTQ communities get swept into this and we get divided, which is the most dangerous outcome of hatred. We need to stand together.

Yari Rosenberg: It has been mentioned that one percent of Minnesotans are Jewish. I think it was two percent of the entire United States, which is 0.2 percent of the world. So there is just so few Jews around and there is a reason why there are so few Jews, and it means it is very hard for people to meet a Jewish person and the most they usually learn about them from the internet or television are the stereotypes they receive culturally. That can lead to a lot of misunderstandings and myths, apprehensions about who Jews are.

What is this relationship with prominent Black folks and antisemitism?

Rosenberg: Jews are extremely diverse. This is one of the things that antisemitism takes away from Jews, because it is all one thing, usually all one bad thing. And we often do this to minorities, we collapse them into mendacious monoliths. And the fact is, there are many elements in the Jewish community, and they are not always in agreement on things. There is a lot of shared experience between the Jewish community and the Black community, and a lot to learn from each other. When you have disconnects, it often has to do with the fact that people have not had those conversations. And both communities have not really heard the other stories.

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman: Twenty percent of the Jewish community is of color and I think it is really important for us to recognize what Mr. Rosenberg just said, that antisemitism robs us of that diversity.

Your stories

Listeners who called into the show shared stories. Here are some of their answers.

Alyssa from St. Paul

I am a Jewish author that was raised out in a suburb here. I just came out with a book that explores antisemitism in the Twin Cities and it took me doing research to figure out that Minnesota in particular, Minneapolis, was the most antisemitic city in the country in the 1940s. There is something about the fear that Jewish people have about telling their story too loudly. In my opinion, to tell our story a little too loudly means bad attention. But unless we tell our story, we will not feel seen. And this is quite a dilemma for Jewish people.

Elizabeth from Mankato

I used to live in the cities and I actually had an opportunity to work at Temple Israel with Rabbi Zimmerman. And even though I am a Christian, I was so welcomed by that community. I just think those who live and operate in spaces of power need to stand up against religious intolerance and hate. It is so important to recognize that there are vibrant, lovely worship traditions and people who follow them and religious experiences out there that differ from our own. And that does not need to be scary, and we need to support everyone in their own religious experience.

Danny from Duluth

I think over the last generation, we have become a lot more removed from the Holocaust. When we grew up, most of my friends, including myself, had grandparents who came here to escape Nazi persecution. And we often had Holocaust survivors speak in our synagogues. And there was very much an aspect of living history in that story. When Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker was held hostage in a synagogue in Texas, and when the Pittsburgh shooting happened, it sort of hit home again that this is not that far away from me as a Jewish person. Antisemitism is alive, real, and something that we still face.

Rebecca from Bloomington

I grew up in a predominantly Jewish city and both my parents and grandparents escaped religious persecution. I think just understanding the sort of ubiquitousness of antisemitism and having that be an ever present force is hard. Right now, it seems like there is an uptick. It is hard to watch people give a lot of excuses for why someone is spouting antisemitic rhetoric. How do you how do you combat that when nobody is willing to stand up? It is incredibly disheartening and very hurtful.