The normalization of bias

The normalization of bias

Statistics and insight both show trend toward increasing anti-Semitism

Alexander Rosemberg
Alexander Rosemberg

The news is grim. There’s no getting around that. Yes, it could be grimmer, but still it’s just not great.

According to Alexander Rosemberg (and no, that’s not a typo; he is from Venezuela, and its naming conventions dictated the m in the middle of his name), the Anti-Defamation League’s director of community affairs for New York and New Jersey, local reported incidents of anti-Semitism recently have begun to trend upward.

“Despite the fact that we are looking at a nominal drop in incidents from 207 last year to 200 this year across New Jersey, there has been a rise toward the end of the year,” he said. “After Pittsburgh.”

Pittsburgh has come to be shorthand for the murders of 11 Jews and the wounding of seven more in the Tree of Life synagogue in that city on October 27. The killer was a white supremacist fueled by anti-Semitism.

The rise in reported incidents that Mr. Rosemberg was talking about was 76 percent. He’s not sure, however, if it was a rise in actual incidents, or that people chose to report them. “Often we find that there is a sticks-and-stones attitude toward run-of-the-mill slurs shouted in the street,” he said. Words won’t harm them, the recipients of those insults think. “So we don’t know what to attribute that spike to, but it’s reasonable to think that it was happening all along and now people find more reason to report it.

The New Jersey county that reported the most anti-Semitic incidents was Bergen, with 36. In Rockland, “we are talking about underreporting,” Mr. Rosemberg said. “In 2017, we counted 12, but we were able to count only four in 2018.” If that were an accurate count, that would be marvelous, but it is more likely, in that tense county, that incidents were not called in.

Reports come from a number of sources, he explained. “Direct calls from complainants, federations and JCCs, and law enforcement and government partners. There is a myriad of sources.”

Most online hatred does not figure into these counts, he added. “We only count that as anti-Semitic if it targets specific groups or people. We have a separate count for online hate.” Even in the physical world, some kinds of hate aren’t counted as anti-Semitic even if that is the intent behind them. “White identity statements, like flyers from Identity Evropa,” the white supremacist group that both the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center classify as a hate group, and that generally is considered as part of the alt-right, “doesn’t use specifically anti-Semitic tropes, but anyone who is Jewish who sees them understands that it is a threat. We all know what the threat of white supremacy means, but they are purposely being covert. They speak more about the possibility of genocide for the white race, but everyone who is a member of a minority group knows what that means.”

Those flyers — those “propaganda episodes,” as the ADL called them — are aimed at recruiting new members.

Using the most current data, from 2018, “We have seen 41 of these episodes” — of flyers from alt-right groups — “across New Jersey, and 67 in New York State,” Mr. Rosemberg said. “Only a fraction is counted as anti-Semitic. In the others, the threat was implied rather than expressed.

“A lot of these propaganda efforts are happening in and around campuses and schools. Rutgers saw a lot of these flyers.”

Mr. Rosemberg described what he called “the Princeton hoax.” In 2019, an alt-right group hung posters at the Ivy League school advertising a rally; no one showed up for it, as its conveners had planned, but it drew about 400 counterprotestors. “That gave the group legitimacy,” he said. “They now apparently had the power to do that, and to provoke all that attention.

“There, groups put a poster up and take a picture of it and publish it in social media.” That amplified it.

“There were 61 anti-Semitic incidents in K-12 schools in New Jersey in 2017; in 2018 that went up to 63, and 29 of them were after October 27. In New York, we saw an increase of 39 percent on college campuses in 2018.”

What has the effect of President Donald J. Trump’s comments about there being “very fine people on both sides” after the “Jews will not replace us” chants and the murder of counterprotestor Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017 been?

“We historically have tracked the percentage of Americans who hold anti-Semitic attitudes, and that number has remained roughly the same,” Mr. Rosemberg said. “That averages about 12 to 14 percent.

“What has changed is that society had a much better check on those attitudes. The zeitgeist — and I am speaking about it coming from leaders from the left and the right and in between — was that it wasn’t okay to come out publicly with those things.

“But now the rhetoric has made it possible for these things to be unchecked, and so you have people who are emboldened to come out and say them and act on them.

“That’s what we call the normalization of bias. Attitudes and biases that become unchecked become speech, and if that is unchecked it becomes action against property or persons.”

There also has been an increase in the number of anti-Semitic assaults; the numbers are low but they are going up. “There has been a 55 percent increase in anti-Semitic assaults in New York State,” he said. “There were 17 in New York and three in New Jersey.”

There is something important to remember, Mr. Rosemberg added. “We often can lose sight of this, but these are not just numbers. Behind each of these incidents, there is someone who is being hurt. There is someone who is being made afraid of doing certain things. And this disrupts the entire social dynamic.

“We heard of a case yesterday, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Someone was walking — my understanding is that this person was wearing religious garb — and no one touched them but they were verbally threatened for the mere fact of being Jewish.

“Nothing really happened, in the sense that nobody was really hurt. But these words shake the recipient up, to say the least, so the recipient goes home and has a conversation with the family, and in turn the family gets shaken up.

“It is a ripple effect. So now you have people who are afraid to walk around in their neighborhood because they are obviously openly Jewish.”

Abraham Foxman of Bergen County worked for the ADL for 50 years; from 1987 to 2015, when he retired, he was its head, and now he is its national director emeritus. He was born in Europe, a hidden child, brought up as Catholic by the former nanny who saved him, later reclaimed by his parents, brought back to Judaism with love, and then brought to the United States, again with love.

He and Mr. Rosemberg see the world in much the same way. Things are not as good as they were, but they are under control.

“I am still an optimist,” Mr. Foxman said. “America, after Israel, still is the safest country for Jews anywhere in the world. Having said that, I do have to say that the situation now is serious, but it is not critical. Over the years that I have been involved in the ADL, we have tried to tell the American Jewish community that anti-Semitism still is out there.

“There is a significant component of the American society that is seriously infected by anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes.

“The good news is that the anti-Semitism is latent,” he continued. “Therefore, our major responsibility and challenge is to make sure that it continues to be latent. We always worry about the flashpoint that will take it from latency to being active. So throughout the years, we as a community have built a firewall, a policy of containment with all kinds of elements that could contain it.

“Anti-Semitism is a disease,” he said. “A virus. We have been relatively successful in the last 50 years in keeping it latent.”

Switching metaphors, “there have been a whole series of elements that managed to keep it in the sewer, and to keep the covers on.

“But what is it that has worked for us?

“First, memory. In the early years, the memory of Auschwitz. The memory of the Holocaust. That worked. It wasn’t 100 percent, but it did keep many people from acting out.

“Because of that memory, we developed a consensus of civility, a consensus that it is okay to be a bigot in your heart and mind, but it is not okay to act it out. If you act it out in America, you will pay the consequences for it. Those consequences might not necessarily be legal, but if you are in politics you won’t go far.

“And then there was the media, which exposed and shamed and educated. And we developed coalitions with all kinds of other groups, so we didn’t stand alone and they didn’t stand alone. There were taboos. Political correctness was not a panacea, but it was about decency and civility.”

And then there was Israel. “Israel provided part of our firewall, because Israel, as a sovereign state, provided us with an insurance policy,” Mr. Foxman said.

“People took note of all those things, and they were part of a firewall that basically kept us okay.

“But I have to remind you that the ADL put out a book in 1964, called ‘Danger on the Right,’ and we put out the annual report of anti-Semitic incidents. We have been telling the community for years that there is a virus out there, and we have to take it seriously. Be aware of it. Don’t be paralyzed by it, but know that it is there. Know that we have to be vigilant and knowledgeable.” And that message didn’t come only from the ADL, he added; it also came from the American Jewish Committee, the America Jewish Congress, and many other Jewish organizations.

So far, so good. “So none of this that’s going on now should come as a great surprise,” Mr. Foxman said. “But people don’t want to live with fear.” So they ignored the ever-present but invisible dangers.

“But now, in the last few years, the firewall has been dissipating,” he continued. “The memory is less and less. Civility I believe has been hurt by our public discourse, and also by the internet, which makes communication impersonal. People don’t talk to each other as much; they talk past each other, anonymously and in code.

“Taboos have been destroyed by Trumpism and by politics. It’s okay to say terrible things in public about everybody and anybody now.”

What Mr. Foxman calls the “new lack of civility, the lack of respect, the breaking down of taboos is very serious,” he said. “Part of the struggle against extremism is the use of the bully pulpit, using it for unity, respect, dignity, decency.

“That bully pulpit is gone, and if anything it lines up on the other side. The atmospherics coming from the other side are so sad. We have to fix it without them. Anyone who acquiesces to this tone, to the lack of civility, from the leadership is part of the problem.”

And then there’s Israel, which used to be such a shining asset.

“Israel has been converted from an asset to a liability, and now it has become a legitimizing platform to be used against Jews,” Mr. Foxman said. “This is our new reality.”

How to fix it? “The challenge for us is to rebuild that firewall so that the things that can be put back together can be put back together Some things probably can’t be.

“After 9/11, we struggled with finding a balance between security and civil liberties.” Who’s we? “Both Jews and Americans in general; we Jews are a bit more sensitive and more involved in these issues. We feel it a bit more because we are more concerned about security.” The Patriot Act of 2001 shows that struggle, he suggested. “The balance isn’t perfect, and we occasionally have to readjust.”

Now, the internet and social media present the next battleground in the struggle between security and civil liberties. “We need to find a balance between First Amendment freedom and civility,” Mr. Foxman said. “For many years, platform providers would say that there is nothing we can do about it, because of the algorithms. We know now that a lot can be done, like Facebook just removing Alexander Jones, Louis Farrakhan, and Milo Yiannopoulos. This is a major challenge for us, finding that balance.

“The internet is a superhighway and some people travel it anonymously, like they’re wearing Klan hoods.” He cited the murderer who invaded the Chabad synagogue in Poway and starting shooting, killing Lori Gilbert-Kaye and injuring three others. “He breaks the old rules,” Mr. Foxman said. “His family seems decent. He doesn’t belong to a hate church. His anti-Semitism comes from the internet.

“They are not killing Jews out of love of Jesus. It comes out of a white supremacist hatred that he sucked out of the internet. It is a different kind of lone wolf. It used to be that the hate came from the environment. Now someone can sit in a room and push buttons and infuse himself with hatred.”

What can we do?

“Because of this administration and its focus” — the Trump administration has decided to go after jihadist terror groups instead of splitting its focus between such organizations and white supremacist groups, even though most terrorist crimes in the United States have been committed by white supremacists — “we have to increase our focus on right-wing groups,” Mr. Foxman said. “Twenty-five years ago, we pushed legislation against paramilitary groups. They are still out there, and they are beginning to surface again, as they have on the border. We have to focus on them.

“‘Never again’ was not a guarantee,” he said. “It was an aspiration. We need to be vigilant about it. Just remembering that it happened before is not enough to make it not happen again.”

But there’s a risk on the other side of that as well. “If we overdo our security awareness, we may accomplish ourselves what the anti-Semites want to accomplish,” Mr. Foxman said. “We need to be serious about our safety and security, but not to the point where Jews are afraid to go to synagogue, or afraid to have our students go to day school or yeshiva or Talmud Torah. We can’t be afraid to the point where we are afraid to send them, because that would give Hitler a posthumous victory.”

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