As Jews, we are living with risk. | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

As Jews, we are living with risk.

We’re entering a more dangerous time for the Jewish people in America, but there are strategies that could make a difference.

This is one key message from a new series interviews with Wisconsin experts on antisemitism and related disciplines. The interviews are a follow-up, after our article 18 months ago, when the Chronicle first interviewed experts and asked what was in our collective future.

18 months ago, the Chronicle interviewed experts and asked what was in our collective future as Jews. Here’s an update.

At the time, the experts said — to a person — that antisemitism could get worse before it gets better. This, in the aftermath of the shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018. We published the report in December 2018.

Since then, though there has been no domestic incident at the scale of Tree of Life, it’s probably fair to say things have gotten worse, as predicted.

In April 2019, a gunman opened fire in a Poway, California synagogue. This was followed by a mass shooting at a kosher grocer in New Jersey in December 2019.

Beyond such high-profile incidents, the problem has grown in a less evident, more everyday way. Antisemitic incidents are on the rise, according to the audits of both the national Anti-Defamation League and the local Jewish Community Relations Council, which is a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

Professor Eric Pullin, chair of the Department of History at Carthage College, said he’d never encountered antisemitism at the Kenosha school until recently. Perhaps it says something about Before America, that he can say this after teaching there for 15 years – wearing a yarmulke.

But in October 2019, he was mailed a package filled with 40 sheets offering antisemitic stereotypes and encouraging him to teach Holocaust denial. He reported it to the JCRC. Then, in February 2020, he asked a fellow professor if “We The Future” posters around campus could represent Jews.

“That’s highly unlikely,” he recalled her saying, with some un-welcoming social cues.

“We The Future” is a national, diversity-oriented public art campaign. When the Chronicle reached out to its sponsor, the Seattle-based nonprofit Amplifier, its executive Director Cleo Barnett said she operates a small, over-worked group that can’t always include everybody. And one of the model “icons” for the artwork was actually Jewish, she pointed out. That person, Lindsay Amer, who runs the Queer Kid Stuff website, is not visibly Jewish in the Amplifier art campaign. But Amer has written about being attacked for her Jewishness online: “I was un- pleasantly surprised by the ram- pant anti-semitism.”

A dangerous moment?

Our current panel of experts, interviewed separately and with some changes in the roster from last time, repeatedly predicted increased risk for the Jewish people.

“If you had asked this question three months ago you might have gotten a totally different answer,” said Rachel N. Baum, Ph.D., deputy director of the Sam & Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. “We know crises will always raise antisemitisim.”

There are two unfolding processes that are now combining to make this an especially dangerous time, said political science professor Lowell W. Barrington, from Marquette University.

“The first is the rise of populism and xenophobia in the United States and around the world. Even when Jews are not specifically named by populist leaders, the encouragement of a culture of intolerance and blaming those who are perceived as ‘others’ is bad for any racial, ethnic or religious minority,” he said. “The second process is the COVID-19 crisis, which has made people especially unsettled and fearful. Populism and xenophobia feed on people’s fears and desires to assign blame, and unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic is providing fuel for those who are pushing a populist and xenophobic message.”

Baum and University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Professor Michael Jasinski both said that as the economy worsens, we may expect Americans to feel a sense of “fight or flight.” Professor Tony Michels, director of the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, specializes in Jewish American history. He, too, cited the economy as a spur for increased antisemitism.

Michels said the history of antisemitism in America is cyclical, but this modern spike raises new concerns.

“The larger political climate in this country is conducive to antisemitism,” Michels said. “Distrust of the media is extensive. And distrust of experts. So, this contributes to conspiratorial thinking; a view that you can’t trust what
you read in the newspapers. You can’t trust expert knowledge.”

Michels said antisemitism is more pervasive on the right, but it exists both on the left and the right, which is worrisome. Antisemitism from both sides of the spectrum holds that Jews control things, for their benefit or for the benefit of Israel, he said.

Both right and left antisemitism take the view that Jews use the Holocaust to silence their critics or advance their interests. “This is also particularly worrisome,” Michels said.

“We may move past this particular period of xenophobic populism in the near future, but it has still shown an underlying willingness to embrace intolerance – passionately – by a large part of the population. That should concern Jews in the United States and elsewhere. Even in instances when a leader’s acceptance of attacks on ‘others’ does not currently include Jews, the public approval of intolerance from the top can quickly expand outward from below,” Barrington said.

“On the positive side, since the Pittsburgh shooting, there’s been a greater awareness and sensitivity; a greater awareness that antisemitism is a problem,” Michels said. “What I’m saying shouldn’t be taken to mean we are headed toward a catastrophe. I can’t predict the future either way.”

Strategies for the Jewish people

Jasinski authored “Examining Genocides: Means, Motive, and Opportunity,” published in 2017. He’s a political scientist, not Jewish, and more history-driven than data-driven — he looks for patterns, for historical analogies.

Eighteen months ago, he told us of strong potential for a severe economic downturn, followed by the potential for wedding state power with antisemitism in America. To him, this is not science fiction. It’s a real possibility.

Now, with a downturn in progress, the Polish-born academic predicts that one of three things must happen. Either the nation will “steal” from the poor, “steal” from the rich or “steal” from the foreigner.

“Stealing” from the rich would be something akin to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s redistribution of wealth under the New Deal. Stealing from the poor can happen as fascism. Stealing from foreigners includes taking from any “Other” in society, and that often means Jews.

Jasinski said he is not expecting a New Deal-type legislative agenda, regardless of which of the expected 2020 presidential candidates wins. He said he’s concerned the economy will continue to worsen and the 2024 presidential election will be about deciding what gets “stolen” from which people. He recommends thinking about a New Deal for the next major election, in 2024.

“This is 1929 right now,” he said. “In the 1930s, society collapses, and people have no idea of how to rebuild it.”

In a sense, Nazism and invading other countries was Germany’s New Deal – “stealing” from foreign nations. America’s New Deal was better for all concerned and Jasinski recommends it as the best possible option.

Jasinski has said he has “a healthy Eastern European paranoia.” He hails from Poland, a country with a history of war coming from powerful and dysfunctional neighbors. While Jasinski took a birds-eye view, calling for a new American New Deal in 2024, Baum talked of a more granular approach.

“We’re living in a moment in which it’s really easy to dehumanize people,” she said. Seeing the humanity in others was always a problem; now, in this era of Zoom meetings and social distancing, the issue may loom larger.

“It happens really subtly,” Baum said. “It becomes easier to dehumanize people … when you are not in the same space with them.”

“I think Jews showing up as Jews in social media is going to be really important,” Baum said. She brought up the Milwaukee-born #ChallahFromHome movement as an example.

World history is stained with spikes of dangerous antisemitism, but never before have Jews been able to post themselves smiling with loaves of challah on Facebook.

“This sounds cliché; I think the most important reminder is to be vigilant. Support groups that work to end bigotry and intolerance, whether that intolerance is targeting Jews or not,” said Barrington, of Marquette University.

Baum also called for finding “common cause” with other groups. Michels, the UW–Madison professor, said: “I think Jews are going to have to continue to cultivate allies and relations of members of other vulnerable groups.”

Which brings us back to Barnett, that Seattle nonprofit director behind the “We The Future” art campaign. Given a very brief overview of these issues, she said she’s open to visually including Jews in their future art and educational campaigns – perhaps making her one of many allies waiting to be cultivated.