Kenneth Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League, will talk about “Resurgent Anti-Semitism: How Much to Worry” at the opening general meeting of the Bergen County section of the National Council of Jewish Women this week. (See box for details.)
While angst would seem to be endemic to the Jewish personality — would Woody Allen have a career without it? — Mr. Jacobson tries to help distinguish between what is truly worrying and what is not worth losing sleep over.
“This is very important in everything we do at the ADL because people look to us to assess the state of many things, including anti-Semitism, and it’s important not to understate or overstate,” Mr. Jacobson said. “Our responsibility is to find the correct spot on the spectrum.”
Mr. Jacobson, a Yeshiva University graduate, holds a master’s degree in American history from Columbia University. He joined the ADL in 1972 and has served in a variety of positions relating to international, Middle Eastern, and interfaith affairs. He now oversees and coordinates the formulation and implementation of ADL policy.
“There’s a lot to talk about in the current world regarding both global and domestic anti-Semitism,” Mr. Jacobson said. “They have certain commonalities but also differences. Globally, we have come to a very strange point in history, over the last 15 years or so in Europe. Not that anti-Semitism ever disappeared after World War II, but it wasn’t a primary issue on people’s minds in Western Europe, generally speaking.
“At the beginning of the 21st century, something new began occurring. I’ll talk about the factors that came to bear and continue to operate that have brought about some of these changes.”
Anti-Semitism on the domestic front is foremost in American Jews’ minds these days. “Perhaps in the 2,000-year history of the diaspora, and certainly in the last 50 to 60 years, there has never been a Jewish community as comfortable in its own skin as the Jews in the United States,” Mr. Jacobson said.
“But we shouldn’t be complacent. Unlike in Europe, where the revival of anti-Semitism was hardly a shock, in America we didn’t expect some of the things we’ve seen recently. Residual anti-Semitism always existed, but in the last year or two it has really entered into the consciousness of American Jews in ways it has not in a while.”
He is referring here to “the re-emergence of classic right-wing anti-Semitism in America. I will talk about the election campaign and the president and what it means and what it doesn’t.”
There is no indication that Americans are becoming more anti-Semitic, he said. “There have always been Americans with anti-Semitic attitudes, and now they are more willing to act on those feelings. That’s the big change, and it’s a very serious thing that we worry about.”
The increasingly noisy neo-Nazi fringe, however, is only one piece of a bigger picture.
“Anti-Semitism has no ideological limits,” Mr. Jacobson said. “It comes from the right and from the left, from majority and minority communities. That’s a common theme.
“It’s usually very easy to identify anti-Semitism from the right because it’s blatant. From the left, it’s expressed in a framework of human rights and equality in a way that makes it harder to identify. And that gets into the Israel issue.
“You can criticize Israel as you can criticize any country, but when is it actually anti-Semitism? In my talk, I’ll get into that and into the BDS issue and how it plays out.”
BDS, an abbreviation for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel, is a vocal presence on college campuses and “is anti-Semitic at its core,” Mr. Jacobson said. Yet its impact on policy, and on the country as a whole, falls in the category of something not to worry about.
“With the exception of Evergreen State College in Washington recently, there really isn’t any university in the United States that has passed a BDS resolution,” Mr. Jacobson said. “The very real problem is that student groups have picked up on this theme and have created significant difficulties for Jewish students, especially on the larger campuses, in California and Michigan, particularly. The Jewish students feel alienated and pressured and that resonates with parents and grandparents.
“The reason BDS is a big deal is because a lot of college students who may have some problem with Israel are attracted to this. They’re not necessarily motivated by anti-Semitism but get sucked into it. They jump in and give the movement all its weight; we refer to them as the ‘long tail’ of BDS.”
Another issue Mr. Jacobson will address is what he sees as the direct relationship between America’s role in the world and the welfare of the Jewish people.
“When America is in retreat from the world, it’s bad for America and bad for the Jewish people, and when America is engaged in the world, it’s good for America and good for the Jewish people,” he said.
“The history of the 20th century really sums it up: We went into isolation before World War II and the world paid a huge price and the Jewish people paid the ultimate price for that isolationism. America became the leader in the world after the war, and even with all the mistakes that were made, such as Vietnam, it was for the good.
“Where is that leadership today, and where is it going? That’s an overarching issue in regard to all that happens. There were challenges in the Obama administration as well, and that carries over.”
On the bright side, he pointed out that the Trump administration recently decided to maintain the State Department position of Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, established by George W. Bush.
“Under President Obama, this office was one of the key vehicles for dealing with global anti-Semitism,” Mr. Jacobson said. “We had been pushing folks to write to the White House to make sure President Trump did not end this special envoy. So we shouldn’t give up and think we don’t have any impact. I always talk about actions people can take.”
Jane Abraham, NCJS’s co-president, said that she is “delighted to welcome Ken Jacobson to kick off our series of general meetings this year. With the current state of world affairs, we will be especially interested to hear his talk.”
NCJS’s program chair, Barbara Tilles, said that in light of “anti-Semitic incidents occurring here and around the world, this is a very timely topic for discussion. And who better to lead this discussion than Ken Jacobson?”
The Bergen County section of NCJW, a grassroots social-justice organization inspired by Jewish values, provides educational programs and speakers throughout the year, including six general meetings as well as study groups, book groups, and trips.
What: Kenneth Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League, will talk about “Resurgent Anti-Semitism: How Much to Worry” at the opening general meeting of the Bergen County section of the National Council of Jewish Women.
When: On Thursday, September 14, at 12:30 p.m.
Where: At Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck
How much: Free for members; $10 for non-members (applicable toward $60 annual membership if paid that day)
For more information: Email firstname.lastname@example.org, call (201) 385-4847, or go to www.ncjwbcs.org.