The numbers are startling.
According to the Anti-Defamation League’s annual “Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents,” the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States rose by 57 percent in the past year. That’s “the largest single-year increase on record,” the ADL notes.
In 2017, Jewish cemeteries were vandalized — their headstones toppled, their monuments spray-painted with slurs and swastikas. Jewish high school students were bullied and beaten. Synagogue windows were broken. A school bus from a Jewish day school was set ablaze. And it’s getting worse.
For years, anti-Semitic incidents declined in this country. Starting in 2016, though, they began to rise again — and rise precipitously.
“It had been trending in the right direction for a long time,” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, chief executive of the ADL, said in an interview with The New York Times.
“And then something changed.”
A few possibilities should be immediately dismissed: In his interview with the Times, Greenblatt suggests the influence of social media may have something to do with the spike, but this seems unlikely. From 2010 to 2013 — Twitter’s halcyon days — anti-Semitic incidents dropped to their lowest rate in years.
This spike also can’t be blamed on external events such as economic insecurity: Nothing, in other words, is driving people to hate Jews more than they have before. During the Great Recession of 2008, anti-Semitic incidents didn’t occur with anything like the frequency they do now. Anti-Semitism, of course, is nothing new. But this is.
So what’s going on?
The dates are telling: 2016 and 2017 are the years of Donald Trump’s ascendancy.
Growing up, in chemistry class, we all learned that a gas will expand or contract to occupy the space of whatever container it’s in. The same thing is, essentially, true of anti-Semitism. The causes of anti-Semitism — fear, ignorance, resentment, callousness — have always existed, just as anti-Semitism has always existed. It isn’t going anywhere. But, sometimes, as a society, we allow it to occupy greater space. Goaded by opportunistic leaders, a society is encouraged to indulge these base, cruel impulses.
President Trump has proved himself an unusually capable goader.
From the earliest days of his campaign, Trump surrounded himself with nationalists and conspiracy theorists like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, and allowed them to dictate his policy. He only reluctantly disavowed the support of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke. He tweeted anti-Semitic imagery. And he has refused to speak out against anti-Semitism, time and time again. His embrace of nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism won him the presidency by galvanizing a base that has, in the past, mostly avoided mainstream elections. This victory has come with tremendous costs felt down the ballot.
Witness the case of Paul Nehlen, a Wisconsin Republican challenging House Speaker Paul Ryan for his seat in Congress. In 2012, he ran a more conventional, Tea Party-oriented campaign for Congress, and lost, capturing only 18 percent of the vote. This year is different. Nehlen is now running on a platform of open anti-Semitism, regularly inveighing against the “Jewish media” and tweeting things like, “Poop, incest, and pedophilia. Why are those common themes repeated so often with Jews?”
It’s unlikely Nehlen, at some point in the past six years, discovered anti-Semitism and decided it would be prudent to run a congressional campaign in which it played a salient role. Instead, he felt emboldened by the environment Trump’s election created, and decided to pursue his anti-Semitic agenda openly. The space has been created for Nehlen, and others like him, to be openly anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism is expanding to fill it.
Fortunately, we aren’t helpless. In 2018, we can elect candidates who know anti-Semitism and all other forms of racism and bigotry are an outrage, and will use their positions to fight against them. This election cycle is one of the most important in recent memory. We need to do everything we can to elect candidates who will stand up for our communities and our values. We need to send a clear message to Washington: This must end.
Steve Grossman, a former Massachusetts state treasurer and chair of the Democratic National Committee, is a board member of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.