President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 inspired a growth of anti-Semitism, said American Defamation League National Director Emeritus and Holocaust survivor Abraham Foxman at an event Oct. 10 in the Mortara Center for International Studies.
Foxman heads the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. He was joined by Rabbi David Saperstein, who served as the director and chief legal counsel at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center for nearly four decades. Saperstein also worked at the Department of State as the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom until January 2017.
The event, hosted by the Center for Jewish Civilization, sought to explore the status of anti-Semitism today.
The number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States rose by 57 percent in 2017, the largest single-year increase on record since 1979, according to the ADL. Incidents of anti-Semitism on college campuses and in schools nearly doubled in 2017, for the second year in a row.
Foxman blamed Trump’s influence in part for the rise of anti-Semitic behavior in the United States in the past few years; he cited the “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va., as evidence of a rise in anti-Semitism in recent years.
“Trump is not an anti-Semite. He did not create Charlottesville, nor did he create the 200 anti-Semites in the angry, disgusting march,” Foxman said. “But he has legitimized uncivil behavior and disrespect. He does this every day. He empowers and gives chutzpah to the Charlottesville 200, who believe that it’s OK to act out their hate.”
Norms against anti-Semitism in the United States have protected Jews since the end of World War II, according to Foxman, but recently, anti-Semitic rhetoric has been on the rise, he said.
“[Anti-Semitism] has been in the sewers, with the covers on. Now, there is nothing you cannot say. There is no one you cannot criticize or attack or denigrate, etc.,” Foxman said. “This has now become part of our environment — an environment where lies are tolerated.”
The Internet has provided a new platform for anti-Semitic thought by allowing individuals to conceal themselves, according to Foxman.
“The Internet puts the mask back on the bigot. It provides the bigot the anonymity of expressing, promoting and advocating their bigotry under the guise of a mask,” Foxman said. “And here are serious issues. How do you balance freedom of speech and security? It’s a constant balance. But the Internet gives them a lot of cover.”
The anti-Semitic trends in the United States reflect a global rise of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
“We’ve seen the removal of established taboos in the political and civil establishment and legitimizing the singling out and denigrating [of] ethnic, religious, color, gender minorities,” Foxman said.
Media outlets have historically offered a method to combat anti-Semitism, according to Foxman.
“The media has been a very important vehicle and instrument in fighting lies. Anti-Semitic beliefs are lies. They are conspiracy theories,” Foxman said. “To a large extent, in civil society, in democratic society, in the last 50 to 70 years, one of the areas where we could expose, where we can challenge, where we can educate, was the media.”
Yet Trump’s consistent critique of the media — such as calling media outlets “fake news” — weakened the media’s ability to combat anti-Semitic ideas, Foxman said.
“The media is under attack. It’s under attack here and around the world,” Foxman said. “Here it’s fake news, here it’s the enemy of the people, etc., and [this] has a very specific impact on Jews and anti-Semitism.”
The recent rise in anti-Semitism threatens Jews around the world, even in places traditionally welcoming to Jews, like the United States, according to Foxman.
“I worry about democracy. Democracy is fragile,” Foxman said. “I worry today more for the safety of my children and grandchildren as Jews even in this country.”