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Shocking antisemitism isn't just another headline. It's personal for this first Jewish-American VP nominee

OpinionShocking antisemitism isn't just another headline. It's personal for this first Jewish-American VP nominee

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In my public and personal life, I have faced no antisemitism.  That is why the recent outbursts of hatred of Jews have shocked me and made me wonder whether the dreams of freedom that drew my grandparents to America will be real for my descendants here.

My political career offers the most objective evidence of the absence of antisemitism in my life.  During the 40 years the people of Connecticut elected me to state and federal offices, our state’s Jewish population was never much more than 2 percent. In other words, the great majority of votes I received in all those elections came from people who were not Jewish. There was never even a hint of antisemitism being used against me in any of my campaigns.

In 2000, I was honored to be selected by Al Gore to be his running mate, the first Jewish-American to run on a major party national ticket. Again, I faced no antisemitism.  The ticket on which there was a Jewish candidate for the first time in American history received 545,000 more votes than the other ticket. That was a great affirmation of the fairness of America’s voters and a tribute to Al Gore who had the confidence in the American people to break a barrier and ask me to run with him.

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In the years after the 2000 election, people would ask if I was surprised that I faced no antisemitism in that national campaign.  I answered that I was grateful but not surprised because that was my experience in Connecticut. However, I would always add that history taught me that there were definitely antisemites in America, but there was such a strong national ethic rejecting such bigotry that the antisemites and other haters felt pressured to stay silent.

The rise in antisemitism in America in recent years means that something serious has changed. Since the war in Gaza began, public expressions of hatred of Jews has reached a fevered pitch.  

On college campuses, Jewish students have been chased into hiding or intimidated into silence.  A Jewish man at a pro-Israel rally in Los Angeles is struck on the head and dies. Vile antisemitic invectives have been shouted at public events, scrawled on walls, and written on posters carried in demonstrations.  And three presidents of leading American universities could not bring themselves to tell a congressional committee that calls for genocide against Jews are at least as deserving of condemnation and discipline as bullying and harassment on their campuses.

How could such previously unimaginable events happen in America? 

One possible explanation is that the number of antisemites in our country has suddenly increased.  In fact, a survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago that was commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League and released early last year suggests that may be so.  It found that 20% of Americans believe in antisemitic conspiracy theories and tropes – almost double the percentage found in a 2019 NORC poll. But I don’t think that fully explains the current crisis.

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The more likely cause of the surge in antisemitism is the erosion of our previous national consensus against such hatred which, I believe, has happened because of the emergence of hate-filled dark places on the internet and the general loss of civility in speech and behavior in our country. 

What can we do to eliminate those causes and return to mutual respect and national unity?

The best response to the hatred that is inflamed on the internet would be for social media and internet companies to self-regulate or close down the sites where that bigotry lives. Failing that, Congress and regulatory agencies must find constitutional ways to stop the stimulation of hatred, including antisemitism, on the internet.

Turning around the increasing incivility in our society will be even more difficult.

American values were very different when my generation was growing up in the decades after World War II. They were based on “the Judeo-Christian ethic,” particularly the Golden Rule against doing anything to, or saying anything about, someone else that we would not want to be done to or said about ourselves.  Political leaders reflected those values in their conduct toward one another, and so did the entertainment industry in what it offered the public. 

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But, with time and social change, our traditional faith-based values lost their influence. The entertainment businesses followed that change in what they produced and so too did politicians in how they spoke. Undisciplined and uncivilized behavior has reached a peak in recent years in the speech and conduct of many of our leaders, including notably former President Trump and politicians on the margins of both major parties — the so-called left-wing “Squad” Democrats and some right-wing Republicans like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.  I am not saying President Trump is an antisemite, but his reckless speech has weakened the restraints on the public statements and behavior of the American people, as have the inflammatory remarks of politicians on the far left and right.

Fixing this cause of hatred cannot be done by laws alone.  It will take personal decisions by the leaders of our government, entertainment industry and social media, and by “we the people” to discipline our speech and behavior to stop the hatred that is dividing and weakening our country. We should demand such changes from the entertainment, news, and media sites we patronize and if they do not change carefully consider our choices. 

In elections, we should vote for or against candidates for office based not just on their policy positions but on their speech and conduct — on whether they behave with civility and respect toward their colleagues and constituents.

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The Jewish-American community is more ready and willing than ever to do everything it can to fight rising antisemitism. In fact, the community’s response to the explosion of Jew hatred has thus far been strong, fearless, and unprecedented.  

Most American Jews seem to correctly experience what is happening now as a post-Holocaust, “Never Again” moment.  They refuse to be quiet and passive either because they fear the antisemites or believe the hatred of Jews will naturally decline and disappear on its own.  

History teaches us that neither of those responses have worked in the face of such bigotry in the past.  

Today, Jewish-Americans are using the power and influence they have earned in this wonderfully free country to fight and defeat the current wave of antisemitism wherever it appears.  That’s why their response is historically significant.  It hasn’t happened like this before anywhere in the diaspora where Jews have been threatened.

However, an aroused Jewish-American community cannot defeat antisemitism without help from the rest of America, any more than African-Americans alone can stop racism, or women alone can defeat gender bias or sexual abuse, or LGBT Americans alone can end hatred based on sexual orientation. Christians too, could use allies in combatting bias they often face in popular culture.  

It will take the broadest possible coalition of Americans coming together to fight hatred against any subgroup who are its victims.  That is surely what our shared national values call on each of us to do.

I have long believed that the current era in Jewish history is the best time ever to be a Jew because of the unprecedented freedom, opportunity, and inclusion Jews have enjoyed in America – the world’s most powerful nation — and because of the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in Israel, and the building of a dynamic, democratic, diverse country in its ancient homeland.

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Can I still argue that this is the best time ever to be Jewish?

I believe I can, but I also fear it will not remain so unless we, the 80% of Americans who don’t believe in antisemitic conspiracy theories and tropes, can convince the 20% who do that they are wrong or, if we can’t change their minds and hearts, push them back into the dark caves in which they have concealed their hatreds for most of American history.

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