The midterm elections have proven the wisdom behind a much-maligned warning given to the Israelites of the Exodus generation: Bad behavior, if unchecked, will continue to spread and eventually prove to be our undoing. That is as true today as it was then.
Hate is growing in America, and anti-Jewish hate especially. According to an analysis of national police data compiled by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, hate-motivated incidents increased by nearly 39 percent in 37 major U.S. cities in 2021 and the numbers are looking even worse for 2022. Incidents targeting Jews and Asians made up the majority of that increase.
We saw it a week ago in that “credible threat” against synagogues here and in several incidents that occurred in Lakewood on the same day.
Behind this dangerous surge is the kind of hateful rhetoric that so blatantly marked this past election cycle, and that has been a staple of political discourse here since mid-2015. Study after study in the last few years has shown how that rhetoric fuels the rising flames of hate here.
The studies refer to this as “the Trump effect,” because Donald Trump’s election in 2016 was followed by a “statistically significant surge in reported hate crimes” here, according to the authors of one such study, University of Alabama Prof. Griffin Edwards and Loyola University Prof. Stephen Rushin. The largest increases in reported hate crimes were registered in counties Trump won by the widest margins.
One of the first things the responsible leaders of both parties at all levels must do is to end this hateful rhetoric. They must find a way to work together to make this the “United” States in more than just a name.
One of the first things we in the Jewish community must do is to unite to help make that happen, even if it means picking our heads out of the sand we have buried them in.
There are antisemites at both ends of the political spectrum, on the far left (they call themselves “progressives”) and on the far right (the white nationalists a/k/a supremacists, and the Christian nationalists). The two parties not only must disavow such people, reject them as candidates they support, but they must speak out against them publicly whenever scurrilous speech flows from their lips.
This they are loathe to do if those candidates win their elections. Early on, for example, Republican leaders may have regarded Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene as a “three-headed monster,” as she once put, but then they rallied around her after she won her first election. In February 2021, when the House voted to strip her of her committee assignments because of her incendiary rhetoric, only 11 Republicans went along; 199 Republicans voted no.
The Democrats have repudiated hate speech from among their ranks, although not often enough. In the House, both parties joined in passing a resolution in 2019 condemning “anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism and other forms of bigotry,” following an antisemitic tweet from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). The resolution passed by a vote of 407 to 23—all 23 were Republicans.
At a White House summit called in September “to counter the corrosive effects of hate-fueled violence” here, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the launching of a nationwide initiative dubbed United Against Hate. Such actions are meaningless, however, without forceful action by the responsible leaders of both parties. If the just ended campaign season is any indication, however, such action is unlikely anytime soon, and especially so from the Republican leadership. The White Christian Nationalists and the White Supremacists have a stranglehold on the Grand Old Party. The party leadership is unwilling to break loose from it because these groups now represent a large part of the GOP’s base.
Trump may be to blame for that, but it is the “Trump effect” that is the problem. In the just-ended campaign season, one Republican candidate after another based their campaigns on the Trump playbook.
A case in point is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who enjoys a good reputation among some segments of the Florida Jewish community. Ever since 2020, however, when he first set his sights on a 2024 presidential run, he has been playing up to the haters in disturbing ways.
There is his continuing lack of any direct response regarding the antisemitic messages that appeared outside a Jacksonville stadium and on a highway overpass on Saturday, October 29.
There was his silence following a neo-Nazi rally last January in Orlando on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He later defended his silence by saying he was not interested in commenting on “some jackass doing this on the street” — he reduced a crowd of neo-Nazis to “some jackass.”
There was his silence in July following a demonstration in Tampa in which neo-Nazis carried banners emblazoned with swastikas and SS insignias, as well as banners that hailed “our glorious leader, Ron DeSantis” and proclaimed that Florida was “DeSantis Country.”
His silence speaks volumes about how he and so many other Republicans this year are emulating Trump — and that bodes ill for us in the next two years. That DeSantis also espouses the Christianizing of America, a staple of his re-election campaign, came through last weekend in one of his last election commercials. It began with the words, “And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a protector.’ So God made a fighter” — Ron DeSantis.
Others who echo that Christianizing theme include former Vice President Mike Pence, who said on Oct. 26 that the Constitution does not protect minorities from having Christianity forced on them.
The observable “Trump effect” nationally morphed into the “DeSantis effect” in Florida beginning in 2020. Hate began to explode there, and hate against Jews especially. According to an ADL report, “Hate in the Sunshine State: Extremism & Antisemitism in Florida, 2020-2022,” there was a 71 percent increase in extremist-related incidents in Florida between 2020 and 2021.
Hate crimes against Jews accounted for 80 percent of religiously motivated incidents there in 2020, versus 56 percent nationally. In 2021, there were 207 extremist-related incidents in Florida, compared to 121 in 2020. And 2022 is on track to equal or exceed that the number.
DeSantis also has played up to the haters by making their favorite Jewish target, the financier George Soros, his target as well. In one fundraising email with the subject line “Soros-funded extremists are threatening our state,” DeSantis wrote, among other things: “[S]top Soros from destroying Florida.”
Earlier this year, in suspending a Democratic state attorney who happened to be Jewish, DeSantis referred to him as being “Soros-backed.”
The more such rhetoric — from the left or the right — becomes the norm, the greater the threat to our democracy in general and our rights to practice Judaism specifically.
The post-Exodus generation was commanded to expel the seven nations living in Canaan at the time, a command often derided as the Torah’s support for ethnic cleansing. The Torah, however, was very specific about the reason for this demand. As Exodus 23:33 put it, “lest they…will prove to be a snare to you.” This warning is repeated in Exodus 34:12 and hyperbolically in Deuteronomy 7:16.
The Israelites were new to the Torah’s strange laws, which were meant to upend the immoral, unethical, and unjust practices of pagan religions. Allowing the Canaanites to remain in the land risked having the Israelites rejecting the radically new system and choosing the ways of the pagan majority in their midst. The Canaanites, of course, remained there, and time and time again they did prove to be a snare to our ancestors.
We see the wisdom of that today in the way hate-filled political rhetoric is fast becoming the acceptable norm because those who rely on it all too often are successful, thereby ensnaring others to follow that lead in order to win votes.
The political leaders of both parties, but the GOP leadership especially, must disavow any candidate who spouts hateful rhetoric, and they must do so in decisive ways. They are not likely to do so, however, unless we in the Jewish community unite to demand that they do so, but there is little sign that this can happen. DeSantis and Pence, for example, are featured speakers at next week’s Republican Jewish Coalition gathering in Las Vegas.
Gabriel Groisman, the mayor of Bal Harbour, Fla., who is known internationally for sounding the alarm on rising antisemitism, tweeted this “to the Jewish-American community” on Sunday: “We’ve reached the tipping point. Daily attacks against our people. We’ve been here before in other generations and other continents. How will we respond? With STRENGTH, doubling down on everything and imposing a zero tolerance policy. It’s on.”
We need to pick our heads up out of that sand before it turns into quicksand and pulls us down altogether. Otherwise, the next two years will only see the rhetoric becoming even worse, and the number of hate crimes continuing to soar.
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.