The outside of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in the days after a white supremacist murdered 11 people during Shabbat services in Oct. 2018.
(Still from "Repairing the World")
The outside of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in the days after a white supremacist murdered 11 people during Shabbat services in Oct. 2018. (Still from "Repairing the World")

A journalist’s prescient take on rise of antisemitism in U.S.

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Rummaging recently through my apartment’s chaotic collection of old periodicals, I unearthed a Pete Hamill column from a 1981 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. I used to read the paper when I lived in the city. Hamill, who died in 2020, was a seminal New York journalist, author and editor whose career spanned more than half a century.

The column begins by relating a story from Hamill’s youth about a neighborhood stickball game in which all the participants were, like himself, Christian — Irish Catholic mostly, with a lonely Protestant thrown in for ecumenical diversity (but not open-mindedness).

A kid watching from the sidelines turns out to be Jewish. He’s invited to play, and Hamill notes his prowess at the bat and style in the field. Soon enough, though, there’s a confrontation; Robbins, the Jewish kid, knocks down an older and bigger kid who’d shoved him. Some Irish elders come out of a bar, and being apprised of the circumstances, offer: “What the hell are you playing with a Jew for? Just stay away from him.” Sure enough, that’s the last any of Hamill’s friends play with Robbins.

Hamill said he was reminded of Robbins at the time he wrote the column. “All of that was 35 years ago [1945], but I thought about Robbins the other day when I saw the report from the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith about the startling increase in anti-Semitic acts during the past year. I thought about [Robbins] … when I traveled around the country last autumn [1980], and picked up anti-Semitic talk almost everywhere…. Jews are being blamed for high oil prices (because of U.S. support for Israel), for the loss of the war in Vietnam (supposedly for leading the opposition to the war), for the general decline of the economy.”

He went on to point out that antisemitic vandalism and attacks “have been given a wider, more ominous importance by those fundamentalist Christian preachers who say such stuff as, ‘God doesn’t hear the prayers of Jews,’ while politicizing religion through the campaign to elect Ronald Reagan. I thought about Robbins when I heard a lot of this anti-Jewish nonsense last fall, and then I remembered that Richard Nixon had muttered on March 23, 1973, in a taped conversation with John Dean: ‘Those Jewboys are everywhere,’ said the president of the United States. ‘You can’t stop them.’”

“The new president [Reagan] should openly, strongly denounce anti-Semitism,” Hamill wrote, “making clear that certain fundamentalist Christians are crackpots. He should also instruct his attorney general to use the full force of the law against all those whose anti-Semitic virus bursts into overt criminal action.”

Numerous academic papers, news and government reports and, most recently, a CNN special titled “Rising Hate: Antisemitism in America” have documented the correlation between the spike in hate crimes — specifically antisemitic hate crimes — and the 2016 presidential campaign. According to Reuters: “Overall, the number of acts targeting Jews and Jewish institutions rose 34 percent in 2016 … and jumped 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017, the ADL said”; the FBI’s 2017 Annual Hate Crime Statistic Report “showed a 37 percent jump in anti-Semitic incidents to 983 from 684 a year earlier.” And the incidents continue, going far beyond Hamill’s ominous remark that “today [1981] a lot of the old Nixon crowd is back in Washington.” These new guys, the Trump crowd, make the “Nixon crowd” look like Zionists.

In 2020 (the last year for which we have complete Department of Justice figures), there were more than three times the number of “anti-Jewish incidents” than incidents against the next three religious categories combined. I suppose we might manage if it were as simple as what then-ADL director Nathan Perlmutter told Hamill in 1981: “The sheer statistics of anti-Jewish incidents suggest that there’s a high quotient of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish hostility which still exists just beneath the surface of American life.”

Unfortunately, it’s no longer below the surface; rather it’s blasting through more virulent and deadly with each passing year. The stickball incident seems quaint juxtaposed against the Tree of Life synagogue massacre.

I wonder what column Hamill would write today with the taint of Richard Nixon back in the news providing historical perspective on our latest former president and his legal jeopardy, and with a Jewish attorney general signing a search warrant request on that former president’s residence and a Jewish magistrate signing off on it. I think he’d be nauseated. Sick to his stomach. Would he grasp the significance of his prescience? Undoubtedly. He was a very smart guy.

Mitch Paradise

Mitch Paradise is a writer, producer and teacher living in Los Angeles and a former Bay Area resident.