July 8, 1999
Once Again, Anti-Semitism
How worried should we be? The question refers, of course, to the rapid succession of hate crimes that have hit the front pages of newspapers across America. First, there were the arson attacks on three Sacramento-area synagogues, with total damage estimated at close to $1 million. Then, two weeks later, a weekend shooting spree in Illinois and Indiana left two men (an African-American ex-basketball coach and a Korean student) dead, and twelve wounded, including six Jews. Do you have your bags packed yet?
I don't mean to be flippant; the incidents are cause for alarm. But I believe that they have wider meaning for us than "once again, they're making victims of the Jews."
You should know, for example, that according to the most recent American Jewish Committee study, incidents of anti-Semitism in America have declined steadily over the last decade. They could now come under the heading of "not very serious forums or actions directed against Jews."
A reality check by any reader will also confirm that Jews who compete for admission to universities and for positions in law firms and hospitals and government are rejected or accepted on the basis of merit. Discrimination rarely applies. The society is open to us and to our children; the media, in general, are philo-Semitic. And our 2.5 percent of the population is disproportionately represented throughout the influential centers of the United States: at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, Caltech, Stanford and Berkeley; in Congress and the Supreme Court; in the State Department and the White House; in films and television and such national magazines as Time, U.S. News and World Report and the New Yorker. You could say, without exaggeration, that we have arrived.
But then there are the disturbing incidents: synagogues torched; Jewish cemeteries defaced; graffiti spray-painted on the walls of Jewish schools; black and Muslim and radical students campaigning against Israel; Orthodox Jews shot; and the burgeoning messages that revile Jews on the Internet. Indeed, if messages on the Web are the sole measurement (as opposed to action), then it is possible to raise the cry that anti-Semitism is flourishing. A reporter with The New York Times writes that the World Church of the Creator "promulgating an anti-Jewish, anti-black and anti-Christian doctrine, has increased its chapters from 13 to 41 in the last year." The reporter suggests that the rise is largely a function of success in marketing the organization on the Internet.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Ben Smith, the young 21-year-old who killed two men and wounded 12, and who took his own life, was an active, stellar member of the Church. Troubling; and a cause for anxiety.
A closer look at the anti-Semitism, however, reveals a more complex story. The white supremacists and the perpetrators of hate crimes tend to be men and women who reside on the margins of society. They do not have effective support in the government or the national media. To transpose the terms of the students in Littleton, Colo., describing their classmates' killers, these anti-Semites are "losers." It is we, American Jews, who are insiders and at the center of influence in the United States. This was not so only 50 years ago.
Until recently, these hate activists were primarily older white men, with little education and low-paying jobs, living in rural pockets of the nation. Their numbers were increased by collaborative support from neo-Nazi skinheads and teen-age vandals, who were themselves failed outsiders. As a type, you might find similarities between them and Timothy J. McVeigh, who bombed the federal office building in Oklahoma City (in a protest against the federal government); or the Texans who dragged James Byrd Jr., a black man, to his death; or the two young men and the woman involved in the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young homosexual, in Wyoming last autumn.
I could go on and on, alas, but the point seems clear: The men of violence are enraged at the changes that have occurred in this modern world of ours, and at their own powerlessness. We who make the rules and define society's values are all targets. Not just Jews.
And now we have the Internet, a source of genuine concern. It is a truism to say that television has played a major role in advancing the cause of openness, tolerance and social justice in America. Its producers and writers have served as the advance guard for urban modernism. In their documentaries, news programs, sitcoms and soap operas, the television networks have re-enforced what might be described as liberal attitudes toward integration, even interracialism; understanding and tolerance of homosexuality and abortion; widespread acceptance of Jews, etc. Those in control have legitimized a whole set of values, even though a large minority is made uncomfortable by these views.
Now we have the internet, an unedited, populist medium with instant, anonymous communication. No responsibility, no peer pressure or group norms to act as an inhibitor. Just pure feelings, like a shot of energy into the system. It is a technological innovation custom made for the marginal and the isolated, some of whom now are emerging, educated members of the middle class.
The comforting thought is that we Jews are no longer alone. Instead, it is the barbarians at the gate who feel threatened and see themselves as outsiders. -- Gene Lichtenstein