The surprising thing that grows out of the past several weeks is not only the precariousness of Jewish life in Israel – it also is how unsettled Jewish life has become in the United States.
That sentence likely would not have been written at any time in the last three-quarters of a century. Indeed, since the broadly condemned Des Moines speech by Charles Lindbergh in 1941, when the famous aviator blamed Jews for the drift toward World War II, it likely would not have been written at all.
There is, of course, no comparison between the daily peril of Israeli life – a peril, real enough before Oct. 7, and far more intense since then – and the intermittent, and largely theoretical, discomfort that U.S. Jews feel in America as October creaks to an uncomfortable end.
And yet, since the opening of the Hamas-Israel war, the fusillade of verbal and written attacks on Israel, with barely audible but still discernible overtones of antisemitism, has created a subtle but perceptible transformation here at home. It has produced a chill among Jews, and it has added a dash of fear to Jewish life in America – nothing compared to that felt in Israel, to be sure, but real enough.
Support for the Palestinian cause has been present in the United States for more than a decade, with significant numbers of Jews feeling that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians was harsh and ill-befitting the democratic inclinations of the founders of the Jewish state. For years it has been unremarkable to hear Jews speak of the right of the Palestinians to have a state of their own; the phrase “two-state solution” was on the lips of some of Israel’s most loyal and fervent Jewish supporters – and of mainline secular figures including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
But there now is an angry bite to some of the pleas for the cause of the Palestinians. It is evident on campuses, on the streets, in the American conversation. And it is especially sharp – especially hurtful, even heartbreaking, in the view of many Jews – because it comes from the very quarters of the American scene that have been the most congenial to Jews and that also have been widely populated by Jews: the progressive side of the American political divide, which only weeks earlier had seemed the natural, historical home of the Jewish social, political and cultural consensus.
In short, many of American Jews’ customary allies – causes like feminism, queer allyship, abortion access and broader civil rights – have taken positions that make Jews uneasy. The corners of American political life that have given Jews so much comfort over the years have been producing substantial discomfort in the past three weeks.
The reasons are manifold. Among them is the notion The Atlantic’s Yair Rosenberg expressed in a bracing essay last week, the view that, as he put it, “Israel exists to stop the next pogrom.”
None of this is to suggest that the plight of Palestinians is not a moral outrage nor that this conflict hasn’t now morphed into a tragedy in 360 degrees; American Jews, still reeling in a fresh horror married to disbelief from the sneak attack on Israel by Hamas warriors, are deeply discomfited by – it is not too much to say sickened by – what they have seen in recent weeks of life in Gaza, and by what they feel and fear may occur to civilians there.
But the ferocity of the anti-Israel language at home still is jarring.
Harvard student groups argued that Israel was “entirely responsible” for Hamas’ violence. A Stanford instructor, later removed from the classroom, called Jewish students “colonizers.” Across the border in Canada came a statement from students at Toronto Metropolitan University who said, “We, the undersigned, recognize that the apartheid state referred to as ‘Israel’ is a product of settler colonialism. We stand in solidarity with Palestine and support all forms of Palestinian resistance and efforts toward liberation.” And across the Atlantic, at Oxford – where American Jews have walked easily among the ancient colleges, established more for contemplation than confrontation – a group of scholars this week called for “intifada until victory.”
Then came the jolt of the news that Samantha Woll, the president of Detroit’s Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, was brutally murdered, her body left amid pools of blood on the sidewalk. She was a leading figure in the city’s efforts to sow understanding among Jews and Muslims. The first reaction among many: this was a hate crime.
It wasn’t, according to the preliminary conclusion of Detroit police chief James White, who said that “no evidence has surfaced suggesting that this crime was motivated by antisemitism,” and at press time, there was no reason to believe otherwise. Still, beyond the shock and grief of the family and of civic leaders throughout Detroit, the episode was unnerving.
It must be added that there continue to be broad condemnations of the overtones, subtle and otherwise, emitting from the most incendiary high-profile expressions of support for the Palestinian people. They were not absent from the airwaves, the public prints, social media and pulpits across the demonizations. And a remarkable gesture of compassion issued forth from an unlikely source, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. The Catholic institution announced a program to welcome Jewish students disturbed by the political climate on campus.
“With too many universities preaching tolerance but practicing prejudice,” said the Reverend Dave Pivonka, the university president, “we feel compelled to do more.” Θ
David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.