The Squirrel Hill massacre was the deadliest terrorist attack targeting Jews in American history. The shooter, Robert Bowers, clearly and explicitly emerged out of a far-right cesspool where antisemitism, xenophobia, and paranoia meet, and so has engendered renewed attention to the toxic interplay between the illiberal brand of reactionary bigotry taking over the American right and ever-increasing levels of hate, harassment, and violence afflicting Jews and so many other minority groups.
It is true, if banal, to say that antisemitism in America predates Trump and will outlast his departure. But this is a strawman; nobody is suggesting that American antisemitism didn’t exist before Donald Trump willed it into existence. The argument is instead that Donald Trump is a key part of a political movement which facilitates, nurtures, promotes, and accelerates the presence of antisemitism (and many other hatreds besides) in American politics and society. Trump didn’t create antisemitism, but there should be no doubt he’s helping it along.
Yet as the poisonous effects of Trumpism make their ever-clearer marks on Jewish bodies, the Jewish right continues to labor in denial. They deny that antisemitism in America is growing, they deny that if it is growing, it is growing on the right, and they deny if it is growing on the right, that it can in any way be attributed to President Trump and his backers. For them, the very most important lesson we can draw from a man who attacked a synagogue because he thought Jews were behind the effort to bring immigrants to America is to be crystal clear that Donald Trump had nothing to do with it.
On this score, one might think that the data doesn’t lie, and the ADL found that antisemitic incidents in America increased by nearly 60% from 2016 to 2017—the largest year-over-year increase since the venerable antisemitism watchdog began compiling data in 1979. But have no fear: today David Bernstein gamely rose to the occasion and sought to argue that the ADL’s data isn’t what it appears. The ADL’s “actual findings,” in Bernstein’s assessment, “don’t even purport to show any such [increase].”
This is nothing new for Bernstein. A year and a half ago, he was chiding the American Jewish community for falling prey to the “great anti-Semitism panic of 2017”. Now that data has emerged suggesting that the “panic” was in fact perfectly well-founded, Bernstein falls back to the position that the data is unreliable. Yet a careful examination of his objections show that they in fact do little to undermine confidence in the ADL’s core conclusion. At best, they represent the sort of methodological sniping that can be directed at virtually any attempt at empirical social science measurement. While Bernstein’s pot-shots may provide some helpful directions for further research to confirm and cross-check the robustness of the ADL’s analysis, they are nowhere close to sufficient to undermine the prima facie validity of the ADL’s asserted conclusions.
To begin, the ADL’s incident audit is by no means the only bit of evidence pointing to a surge in right-wing antisemitic activity. My Berkeley colleague Avani Mehta Sood has written on the utility of “empirical triangulation” as a means of accounting for the inevitable methodological limitations of any one exploration of proposed social phenomenon: if a series of different experiments or methods, each of which may have shortcomings in their own way, all converge on the same basic conclusion, then we can have considerably more confidence in that conclusion than might be warranted from any one investigation on its own.
And as it happens, the findings of increased right-wing antisemitism suggested by the ADL’s audit are buttressed by other data: including a 22% increase in the number of established neo-Nazi groups from 2016 to 2017, a doubling in the number of White supremacist murders, and a 258% increase in White Supremacist propaganda incidents on American college campuses, as well as massive growth in the incidents of online antisemitic incidents—an increase which the ADL found was overwhelmingly attributable to right-wing sources and which saw localized spikes during events like Trump’s inauguration. They’ve even showcased a series of cases where Donald Trump has been the vector through which the deepest recesses of the antisemitic internet are amplified and promoted to the American masses.
On their own, any of these datapoints could be picked apart to undermine the conclusion that there has been a material increase in antisemitic sentiment in America. But taken together, it is difficult to deny the overwhelming weight of the evidence without falling into a very deep rabbit hole of conspiracy-mongering and cries of “fake news.”
Yet even restricted to just the ADL’s audit, the skeptical case is not compelling. Bernstein offers three main objections to relying on the ADL’s study to warrant the claim that there has been a rise in right-wing antisemitism in America. First, he suggests that many of the antisemitic incidents on college campuses in particular (which almost doubled from 108 to 204) may emanate from the anti-Israel left rather than the White Supremacist right. Second, he argues that some unspecified portion of the growth in reported antisemitic incidents might stem from increased propensity of victims to report, rather than increases in the base rate of incidents. Finally, he objects to the criteria the ADL uses for assessing antisemitic incidents—those where “Jews perceiv[e] themselves as being victimized due to their Jewish identity”—as being too broad and encompassing events which Bernstein believes do not qualify as antisemitic.
(Bernstein also makes a fourth observation: that the ADL found a decrease in antisemitic assaults from 2016 to 2017, from 36 to 19. There are all manner of ways I could try to explain that fact away—starting with the relatively small raw numbers being vulnerable to greater year-over-year volatility—but the more plausible conclusion is that the data says what it says, and that antisemitic assaults did indeed decline from 2016 to 2017. One shouldn’t cherry-pick, after all.).
None of these objections is particularly persuasive. Start with the college case. Yes, it is certainly true that some number of antisemitic incidents on campuses come from left-wing sources. But that’s irrelevant in explaining the overall year-over-year increase from 2016 to 2017 unless there was some evidence that the proportion of left-wing incidents grew over that time. But Bernstein provides no evidence suggesting this is the case. And while an explicit breakout in terms of ideological origin of collegiate antisemitism could be useful in an ideal world (at least where it is feasible to draw such inferences), what evidence we do have is consistent with the ADL’s claims about right-wing antisemitism: The giant, 258% increase in White Supremacist incidents on campuses noted above indicates that if anything the growth on campus is occurring on the right side of the spectrum, and the ADL’s own sampling of collegiate incidents likewise suggests that most (though by no means all) of the cases in its audits are uncontroversial examples of far-right hatred.
Next, Bernstein argues that the environment of heightened sensitivity to antisemitism in the wake of the Trump campaign means that more antisemitic incidents are being reported (even though there might not be any growth in their underlying frequency). Again, this is possible—but it’s also speculative, particularly as against the more straight-forward inference that more antisemitism is being reported because more antisemitism is occurring. And since Bernstein has no hard evidence regarding the prevalence of this phenomenon other than some intuition that it’s occurring, he can offer no indication regarding how much of the measured increase in antisemitism it supposedly explains. Is it all of it? Half? A few percentage points? If there was hard data telling us what, if any proportion, of the measured increase in antisemitism is attributable to increased reporting rates, that would make for a very valuable control. But it puts a rather giant thumb on the scale to assume that, in absence of that data, we can just decide by fiat that a significant proportion of the increase in antisemitic incidents is actually an artifact of increased willingness to talk to the ADL.
Again, this argument is little more than a cheap methodological pot-shot. Yet on this issue there’s a normative problem as well. Bernstein’s argument is that we’re seeing higher levels of antisemitic incidents because Jews are more frequently reporting antisemitism. But the most straight-forward explanation for why Jews are more frequently reporting antisemitism is that there actually is more antisemitism—Jews are responding to actual, real changes in the social milieu. Bernstein, wedded to the narrative that this whole antisemitism story is a “panic”, needs another story—one where antisemitism isn’t actually increasing but Jews have nonetheless become more attuned to it. And the story he tells, consequently, is essentially one of mass communal hysteria: the Jewish community’s assessment of antisemitism is being driven not by facts but by “ideology, emotion, partisanship, or panic.”
It should not be hard to see just how irresponsible this line of argument is. Around the world, the primary rationale for dismissing Jewish claims of antisemitism is precisely to deny the epistemic reliability of Jews. From our unease about the BDS movement to our concerns about the UN’s Israel obsession, from fretting about endemic antisemitism in UK Labour to worries about Soros-conspiracy mongering in Hungary (and America), the response is always of a kind: we’re making it up, we’re paranoid, we’re ideological, we’re playing a game, we’re seeing things that are not there. Each of these responses seek to avoid the more obvious truth: that Jews see antisemitism when there is antisemitism, and so if Jews are reporting antisemitism we should take that testimony seriously. So too in America. If it is true—and it does seem true—that Jews have become dramatically more attuned to antisemitism in their lives over the past few years than we have in the past, the best explanation for why that is so is because there has been a serious, material change in the antisemitism of our environment. There is something deeply alarming about the propensity to resist that conclusion—a resistance which cannot help but denigrate the testimonial reliability of Jews generally.
Bernstein’s third argument against the ADL’s conclusion is by some measure his most substantive. He disagrees with the ADL’s criteria for an antisemitic incident as one where “Jews perceiv[e] themselves as being victimized due to their Jewish identity.” This definition, Bernstein contends, incorporates cases where that perception is mistaken—contrary to the victim’s perception, the act was not motivated by antisemitic intent.
Like with the college case, the first problem with this objection is that so long as the ADL was consistent in its metrics the use of this definition shouldn’t have an impact on the year-over-year increase from 2016 to 2017. The same types of incidents which Bernstein thinks should not have been included in 2017 will also have been included in 2016. So again, unless one has evidence that the ratio of perceived-but-not-actual antisemitic incidents changed from 2017 to 2016 (and here presumably Bernstein would return to his “antisemitism panic” hypothesis), this objection tells us nothing.
But the bigger issue is that this criteria for measuring antisemitism—which Bernstein refers to as a “methodological tic”—is actually quite standard in the field, at least since the famous MacPherson Report assessing racism in British policing practices in 1999. And that’s a good thing: incidents of antisemitism should not be restricted to cases where the perpetrator is motivated by nothing more than raw Jew-hatred. Indeed, the examples Bernstein relies upon—the JCC bomb threats that ripped through the Jewish community in early 2017—provide a sterling example of why any picture of antisemitism in America the ADL tried to draw would be distorted by a rigid focus on antisemitic “intent”.
Bernstein contends that the bomb threats should not have been included in the ADL’s tally because the two perpetrators—an African-American man in Missouri and an Israeli teenager—“were not motivated by anti-Semitism”. The Missourian reportedly was looking to frame his ex-girlfriend in an elaborate revenge scheme (contrary to Bernstein’s assertion, there has been to my knowledge no reporting one way or the other regarding the Israeli’s motivations). Bernstein presumably believes that unless the reason for sending bomb threats to JCC was to elicit terror or fear in Jews, then these acts were not antisemitic.
I, of course, have argued passionately the opposite: that both actors were indeed antisemitic even absent that motivating reason. My logic was, I thought, straightforward: if you care more about exacting revenge on a former lover than you do about terrorizing innocent Jews nationwide, you’re being antisemitic (it clearly wasn’t quite as straightforward as I thought: nothing I’ve ever written has elicited more antisemitic harassment than that column). It is entirely beside the point if one wasn’t “motivated” by Jew-hatred. Someone with proper moral attitudes towards Jews would have behaved differently; the utter failure to properly weigh Jewish safety as against misogynist vengeance plots represents a complete neglect of one’s moral obligations towards Jews.
Indeed, it is worth stressing how little of what we commonly think of as antisemitism would qualify if the term only encompassed those whose explicit motive was literally nothing more than “antisemitism”, simpliciter. Adolf Eichmann, for example, fervently denied to the very end that he ever harbored any sort of malice towards Jews. He did what he did, he said, because he wanted to advance his career in the Nazi German government. To most of us, that is woeful, bordering on bizarre, as an attempt to deny the antisemitic character of his actions. Participating in the mass extermination of Jews is antisemitic regardless of you’re doing it out of hatred or careerism. So too with sending bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers only because you loathe your ex-girlfriend. And with vandalizing a Hillel because you really want to “Free Palestine.” And with running advertisements accusing the rich globalist Jew of “owning” your opponent simply because you want to win an election. It is absolutely appropriate, and absolutely correct, to dub all of these antisemitic, because careerism, romantic jealousy, pro-Palestinian politics, and electoral triumphs are not good enough reasons to kill, threaten, vandalize, or degrade the Jewish community.
For his part, Bernstein is quite well aware of this. In other writings, he is careful to not assert who is and isn’t “antisemitic” in circumstances where we cannot access what is in another’s mind (but then, when can we?). This is what he says about Mondoweiss proprietor Philip Weiss, for instance, after noting the many, many ways that Weiss and his website indulge in obvious antisemitic themes. But he is also quite clear that, ultimately, the psychological assessment is not the point. “Most people of goodwill”, he writes in the context of journalists referring to American Jewish writers and politicians as “Israel-firsters”, “will try to avoid using phrases” (or, I assume, taking actions) “related to Jews once they recognize that they have the odor of neo-Nazism about them.” What then, should we say about people who refuse to make such efforts? I’d say they’re engaging in antisemitism of a negligent or reckless form. Bernstein might use another term to describe some sort of inchoately defined failure to discharge one’s proper obligations towards Jews. But ultimately, he understands that the difference is purely terminological. Hence, his final word on Weiss: “who cares” whether Weiss is “anti-Semitic” versus having “some other motivation”; either way, Bernstein concludes, “when you’re reading Mondoweiss, you’re reading a hate site.”
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, in trying to paint a picture about the prevalence of antisemitism in the American environment, the ADL is absolutely correct to include cases of these sorts—to echo Bernstein and reply “who cares” to the motivational question. If Jews live in an America where people devalue Jewish lives so much that “other” political or social projects take precedence over not sending bomb threats to our community centers, not defacing our synagogues with graffiti, not excluding our coreligionists from marches and organizations, not using neo-Nazi terminology to refer to our politicians, or not blasting out antisemitic tropes in political advertising—that’s a really scary America for Jews to live in! Jews are absolutely justified in viewing those trends with concern, and the ADL would be absolutely warranted in characterizing them all as incidents of antisemitism.
In sum, none of Bernstein’s objections to the ADL’s antisemitism statistics do much to undermine the core conclusion: that antisemitism has been rising in America over Trump’s tenure, and that much (though not all) of that rise is attributable to the sort of far-right currents which both sustain and are sustained by Donald Trump and his Republican Party. But while Bernstein’s response to the ADL’s antisemitism statistics may be shallow, it is part of a much broader phenomenon.
The ADL, in particular, has over the past few years faced a concerted right-wing endeavor of discrediting—a naked attempt to “work the refs” and undermine the most prestigious antisemitism watchdog in the world as an indelibly leftist organization (ironically, if anything the ADL has been far too gunshy at forthrightly tackling the mainstreaming of right-wing hate: its recent essay on George Soros conspiracy theories, for example, somehow managed to omit mention of any of the very prominent elected Republicans—from Chuck Grassley to Trump himself—who were spreading it. Elected Republicans regularly receive this tactful silence from the ADL; needless to say, for some reason someone like Keith Ellison does not share in this kid-glove treatment). In this world, the spotlight the ADL has shone on the prevalence and growth of vicious, virulent, and violent right-wing hatred does not reflect a dangerous problem needing confrontation, but yet another “fake news” plot. Rather than face up to the obvious need to clean house, the right prefers to deny, deny, deny.
This is nothing new of course. There is a deep, almost intractable denialism about the seriousness of antisemitism as an going and materially dangerous phenomenon in this country (and clearly, this denial is by no means restricted to the right). But there’s something extra-infuriating at how rapidly this was the response that characterized the Jewish right after Pittsburgh. As we mourned our loss, buried our dead, and tried to imagine what needs to change in our society so that horrors like this (and like Louisville, and like Charlottesville, and … so on and so on and so terribly on) their response to that atrocity seemed coordinated around the need to make absolutely, positively sure that Donald Trump and his supporters are okay.
We saw this from Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, who sought to deflect from the unambiguously right-wing character of the Pittsburgh atrocity by emphasizing how “both sides” were responsible for renewed antisemitism in America and then went out of his way to praise President Trump’s response to the attack. We saw it from Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, who bemoaned how “unfair” it was that “people are using this horrific antisemitic act to Donald Trump” (this tweet is, as of this writing, currently pinned to the top of his page). We saw it from the Republican Jewish Coalition, whose letter to the President lavishing him with praise for how he handled the massacre was almost four times longer than its statement about the atrocity itself.
So forgive me if I’ve lost my tolerance for penny-ante games of methodological gotcha that seek to discredit Jewish voices and deny what the evidence makes clear. Antisemitism is real. It is growing. It is growing on the far-left, but it is surging into the conventional right, which (as Republican Representative Steve King just inadvertently admitted) is in any event increasingly indistinguishable from its ethnosupremacist (former-)fringe. Jews are not delusional when we report it, and the ADL is not fabricating when it compiles it.
Right-wing antisemitism is real, it is growing, it is growing mainstream, and it needs to be confronted. The time for rear-guard denialism is over.