The New, Socially Acceptable Antisemitism

The October 7 terrorist attacks have led to a resurgence of antisemitism in America. Some of it is “good old-fashioned” antisemitism, the kind we have known about for a long time. A great example is Elon Musk’s endorsement of the antisemitic “great replacement” conspiracy theory, the theory that the Jews are trying to replace “real” (that is, white) Americans with racial minorities. That’s the familiar kind of antisemitism we saw in Charlottesville and the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. Everyone knows about it. Everyone condemns it. It’s not socially acceptable.

But there is a new kind of antisemitism we’re seeing, too. A great example happened at a high school in Queens, New York, after students found an online image of one of their teachers attending a rally with a sign that read, “I stand with Israel.” What did the students do? Here is what one of them said:

“The teacher was seen holding a sign of Israel, like supporting it. … A bunch of kids decided to make a group chat, expose her, talk about it, and then talk about starting a riot.

Which they did. According to the first article on the riot, the teacher had to be locked in a room for her own safety as the students rampaged through the building, causing property damage and demanding the teacher be fired:

“Everyone was yelling ‘Free Palestine!’” a senior said.

“Everyone was screaming ‘(The teacher) needs to go!’”

Then they posted the video of the riot on social media.

One viewer commented:

zionists shouldn’t be teaching anyone. they don’t need to be around children either they clearly like to bomb them

Another wrote:

As a teacher, I am proud of these kids but also terrified that the district allows teachers like that to continue to teach.

The Mayor of New York’s first response was, I thought, positive. He wrote:

The vile show of antisemitism at Hillcrest High School was motivated by ignorance-fueled hatred, plain and simple, and it will not be tolerated in any of our schools, let alone anywhere else in our city.

But what does it mean to say that antisemitism “will not be tolerated?” Apparently, not very much. According to the Mayor, “Project Pivot teams will begin outreach with students at Hillcrest to ensure they understand why this behavior was unacceptable.”

In other words, high school students can hold an antisemitic riot that forces a Jewish teacher into hiding and the main consequence is “outreach.”

The New York Times’s story, published yesterday, has some additional perspective from David C. Banks, the chancellor of the New York City schools. He said that the teacher was “never in direct danger” or barricaded in a room. She was simply moved to a different floor of the building. He also called for understanding for the rioters, because the war is a “very visceral and emotional issue” and they “felt a kindred spirit with the folks of the Palestinian community.” As Donovan Richards, the borough president of Queens, was quoted as saying, in light of the war, “you had this powder keg waiting to explode.” One student apparently warned a teacher that “the protests would continue as long as the [Jewish] teacher remained on staff.”

Of course students who riot in a school building should face some disciplinary consequences, and it seems that a few have. But I’m not really interested in punishments. The bigger point is the call for understanding the students’ grievances and for contextualizing the riot. It is only natural, after all, that people should want to take out their anger and frustration on Jews, given the situation in the world today. That attitude is what made antisemitism socially respectable throughout the world until recent times. “I’m not antisemitic, but it’s only natural that people should resent them, because they keep to themselves and won’t mix with society.” “I’m not antisemitic, but it’s only natural that people should resent them, because the rent is too high.” “I’m not antisemitic, but it’s only natural that people should resent them, because they are rapacious capitalists/committed Bolsheviks/elitist cosmopolitan intellectuals/impoverished peasants from Russia.” And today: “I’m not antisemitic, but it’s only natural that people should resent them, because they support the existence of a Jewish state.”

It is critical to Jewish life in America that this kind of antisemitism not become normalized or acceptable. Responding to blatant antisemitism with calls for understanding or context simply opens the door wider. People respond to social messages. The message needs to be that antisemitism is not welcome in our friend groups, in our clubs, schools, workplaces, churches, sports teams, or anywhere else. Antisemitism will probably always exist, but we need to restore the shame that people used to feel when expressing it to prevent it from spreading.

What I say about antisemitism goes for all forms of invidious hatred in America. I want especially to express shock and dismay at the shooting of three Palestinians in Vermont, apparently because they were visibly Palestinian. The kind of anti-Palestinian hatred that appears to have led to the shooting needs to be just as socially unacceptable as antisemitism or any other form of racism.

I think it is also important to give a shout-out to the one person quoted in the New York Times article who seemed to get things right, at least in part. Student government president Muhammad Ghazali said that “the entire Hillcrest community was hurt and broken” by how some of his schoolmates had behaved. “It was meant to be a peaceful protest from the very beginning. But some of these students lack maturity.”

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