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United States of Anxiety

NEW YORK — American Jews are anxious.

They’re worried about COVID-19, which already has killed a quarter million Americans and is spreading more rapidly as winter approaches. They’re nervous about a precarious financial future.

Historically, Jews vote in high numbers. Jon Ossoff, who is running for Senate, votes early in Atlanta. (Megan Varner/Getty)

They’re concerned about anti-Semitism and violence on the right driven by increasingly active white supremacist groups with funny names and unfunny agendas, like the Proud Boys, QAnon and the Boogaloo Bois.

They were unnerved when some Black Lives Matter protests in the spring and summer were accompanied by violence, lawlessness, and anti-Semitic and anti-Israel vandalism.

They’re uneasy with the rise of a certain kind of progressivism in some corners of the left that seeks to make support for Israel a political and moral sin.

Most of all, however, they fear for the demise of American democracy.

It’s possible that a disputed election — or even a clear win by one candidate or the other — will result in political chaos no matter who wins.

And in a community that is solidly Democratic — polls show American Jews prefer Joe Biden over Trump by a 75%-22% margin — most American Jews are worried about the possibility of a second Trump term and what that may mean for the future of the country they call home.

On the other hand, among Trump’s Jewish supporters, including most Orthodox Jews, there’s a fear that a Biden win will accelerate a breakdown of law and order and elevate a progressive left that’s hostile to religion and the Jewish state and intent on turning America into a socialist country.

It’s a time of great anxiety in America generally, and it’s not restricted to Jews. There is a real concern that America is declining. The coronavirus has only heightened it,” observed Jonathan Sarna, a historian of American Jewry at Brandeis University.

“If one understands that the deep fear is that America’s best days are behind it, then this anxiety is not only momentary, but especially for Jews — who grew up with stories of the Holocaust — the question is: Maybe we should be looking around.”

For the first time in memory, American Jews are talking seriously about obtaining second passports, “just in case.”

They’re looking into emigrating to Canada, obtaining citizenship from a European country, or immigrating to Israel.

This year, a record number of American Jews started applications with Nefesh B’Nefesh, the agency that handles aliyah from North America.

“A surprising number of Jews, if they’re honest, have had a conversation that would have been unthinkable for them 10 years ago: What if we have to leave the country?” Sarna said. “What’s the Plan B?”

Liliana Schaefer of Winchester, Va., is most of the way through the process of obtaining citizenship from Germany, where her father was born.

“I’ve been seeing a rise in anti-Semitism on both the left and the right, and even though I identify with more leftists politics it’s making me be more afraid,” said Schaefer, 19.

“I just want to have an extra passport. Europe is a place I can leave to if things get bad here.”

Schaefer added, “You can never have too many passports. It’s always good to have a backup plan. That might be intergenerational trauma talking, but having an escape is always a good idea.”

Heather Segal, a lawyer in Toronto who has been handling immigration inquiries for 25 years, says she’s never before seen interest this high by Americans looking to move to Canada. Most of her clients are American Jews.

“’I’m not going to get stuck,’” Segal says her clients have told her.

“There’s going to be a civil war. It’s going to be the end of democracy. I’m very concerned for our future. I don’t want to wait and see what happens. My grandparents left Poland in WW II.”

While the last few months of sickness, civil unrest and political tumult have brought American Jewish anxiety to the fore, it had been building steadily for years, surveys suggest.

In the June, 2019 version of an annual survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee, 65% of respondents said they considered the status of American Jews less secure than a year previously (15% said it was more secure), up from 55% in 2018.

In this year’s survey, released this week, 43% said US Jews are less secure than a year ago and 52% said it’s about the same as last year.

In previous years, when the question asked about anti-Semitism specifically, 41% said in 2017 that anti-Semitism was a serious problem in the US, up from 21% in 2016, 21% in 2015 and 14% in 2013 (there was no survey in 2014).

American Jews traditionally think of anti-Semitism as something that happens over there — in France, in England, online, in the Muslim world.

But the signs that anti-Semitism has come home have become harder and harder to ignore:

• months of attacks against Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn in 2019.

• the massacre in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life synagogue in October, 2018, which killed 11 and was the deadliest-ever anti-Semitic attack in US history.

• the shooting at the Chabad of Poway, Calif. in April, 2019, which killed one.

• attacks weeks apart in December, 2019 in Monsey, NY and Jersey City, NJ in which four people were killed by assailants.

“First, we need to recognize the problem for what it is: an epidemic. We are no longer talking about isolated, occasional actions — bad enough as those are — but a regular phenomenon,” wrote a Jewish congresswoman, Nita Lowey, along with the head of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, in an op-ed in The New York Times that month.

“Second, we must acknowledge that there are multiple ideological sources feeding this paroxysm of hate; it is not a result of a single political outlook.”

Today, the anti-Semitic sentiment seems to come from all sides:

• College students who harass and marginalize Jewish students who dare to openly support Israel or fail to denounce Zionism as racism.

• Black athletes and celebrities posting anti-Semitic messages on social media.

• QAnon conspiracy theorists who, alleging that Satan-worshipping Democrats are running a secret global pedophile network, are also promoting classic anti-Semitic tropes.

• Republican congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is favored to win her election next month to the US House, has posed for photos with a former neo-Nazi leader, shared a video with an anti-Semitic claim about “Zionist supremacists” trying to flood Europe with refugees and accused George Soros and the Rothschild family of trying to control the world.

Then there are the actual anti-Semitic incidents, which hit an all-time high in 2019, according to the ADL. Over 2,100 incidents of anti-Semitic assault, vandalism and harassment took place in 2019, including five killings.

In 2020, pandemic lockdowns that limited outdoor activity seem to have reduced the number of actual anti-Semitic assaults. However, anti-Semitic rhetoric has flourished online, where some conspiracy theorists blame Jews for spreading the virus.

With coronavirus cases now disproportionately high in New York neighborhoods with large haredi populations — some New York Jews are worried about a possible anti-Semitic backlash against all Jews for spreading the virus.

Much of the anti-Semitism seems to have nothing to do with the virus.

When Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd spread across America in May, synagogues in Los Angeles, Wisconsin, Minneapolis and elsewhere were vandalized by anti-Semitic or anti-Israel graffiti.

In late August, arsonists set fire to the Chabad house at the University of Delaware.

Days earlier, a Chabad house in Portland, Oregon, caught fire — twice (authorities are investigating the cause).

In October, a self-described skinhead pleaded guilty to a plot to blow up a Pueblo, Colorado synagogue.

Synagogues in America now routinely have security at the entrance — a practice that’s been commonplace in Europe for decades but was rare in the US up until a few years ago.

Some of the funding for securing Jewish institutions comes from the US government in the form of grants from the Department of Homeland Security.

Perhaps no factor weighs more heavily on the minds of American Jews right now than the upcoming election.

The stakes are high. Biden’s Jewish supporters — including roughly three-quarters of US Jews — share the fears of US Democrats generally: A second Trump term, they worry, would further stoke the divisions in American society, impede an effective US response to the coronavirus and hollow out US institutions from the Centers for Disease Control to the State Department.

They’re also worried about Trump’s approach toward white supremacists. In this season’s first presidential debate, when Trump was asked by moderator Chris Wallace (who is Jewish) to condemn the Proud Boys — a group of violent, armed right-wing extremists — Trump said: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”

His declaration was taken up as a rallying cry by the Proud Boys.

Trump subsequently issued a more forceful condemnation of white supremacy.

Trump’s Jewish supporters — largely Orthodox, according to one recent poll by an unnamed firm that showed Orthodox Jews favor Trump by 83% to 13% — have their own concerns about a Biden win: violence and unrest on the left, embrace of anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist progressives by the left-leaning political, cultural and corporate establishment, and a White House that takes a harder line on Israel.

At the same time, there are plenty of Republican Jews who worry about anti-Semitism from the right, and Democratic Jewish voters who are concerned with anti-Israel sentiment on the left.

The writer Bari Weiss, who grew up in Pittsburgh attending Tree of Life, has accused Trump of creating an environment in which right-wing racists and anti-Semites feel emboldened. At the same time, she has been a prominent voice warning against trends on the left that could undermine the place of Jews in American life.

“Did you see that protesters tagged a synagogue in Kenosha with ‘Free Palestine’ graffiti? Did you hear about the march in DC where they chanted ‘Israel, we know you, you murder children too’?” wrote Weiss, a former New York Times opinion columnist and author of How to Fight Anti-Semitism, in a recent piece in the online Jewish magazine Tablet.

“There is another danger, this one from the left. And unlike Trump, this one has attained cultural dominance, capturing America’s elites and our most powerful institutions. In the event of a Biden victory, it is hard to imagine it meeting resistance. So let me make my purpose perfectly clear: I am here to ring the alarm. I’m here to say: Do not be shocked anymore. Stop saying, can you believe. It’s time to accept reality, if we want to have any hope of fixing it.”

One seemingly undecided Jewish voter in New York, Arnie Singer, described his political dilemma as a choice between his heart and his brain.

“The question is with those voters who align with the Republican platform but can’t stomach Trump, the man. He has made it very difficult for us, because while we might like some of the things he has done (tax cut, Middle East/Israel policy, business mindset), we hate the way he communicates, bullies, throws tantrums, and panders to far right sympathies (although he himself is not a blatant racist and certainly not an anti-Semite).

“A vote for Biden,” Singer wrote on Facebook, “is also a vote for a Democratic party that has strayed too far to the left and has a powerful segment whose Israel policy scares us.

“Although Biden himself might not scare us, those who will influence him and who will inevitably take his place in four years (or sooner) do.”

On both right and left, there is a creeping feeling among American Jews that the orthodoxies that have undergirded their sense of security in what was once deemed “the goldene medina” (the golden land) are melting away. Maybe American democracy is not unshakeable. Maybe liberalism is not an impermeable guarantor of Jewish safety. Maybe the calamities that befell Jewish communities elsewhere in the world could happen here, too.

Ben Sales contributed to this report.




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