San Francisco police officers and F.B.I. agents gather in front of the home of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in San Francisco, Oct. 28, 2022, after her husband was attacked by a man who spread antisemitic conspiracy theories. (Photo/JTA-Justin Sullivan-Getty Images)
San Francisco police officers and F.B.I. agents gather in front of the home of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in San Francisco, Oct. 28, 2022, after her husband was attacked by a man who spread antisemitic conspiracy theories. (Photo/JTA-Justin Sullivan-Getty Images)

A new anxious age: American Jews face open antisemitism in a tense political era

On a recent Friday evening, Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland, interrupted her Shabbat sermon.

Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin

Earlier that day, a 21-time Grammy winner and one of the most vaunted celebrities in the country had doubled down on conspiratorial antisemitic tropes that he had been mainlining into the American bloodstream for weeks.

In an interview on Oct. 28, the rapper formerly called Kanye West compared himself to George Floyd for the persecution he was under after making antisemitic statements, read a list of companies with Jewish executives, and blamed his supposedly misdiagnosed bipolar disorder on a “Jewish doctor.”

His comments came after weeks of spreading lies about Jewish power and control, comments shared with millions.

And they followed a year of recurrent antisemitic flyer campaigns and other propaganda stunts in the Bay Area and around the country. An army of Nazi sympathizers, led by a Petaluma man, repeatedly left anti-Jewish literature on people’s doorsteps, and had evaded consequence.

So Mates-Muchin opened the synagogue floor to dialogue. “People were talking about feeling vulnerable,” she said.

One after another, congregants shared stories about their family’s experience with antisemitism, or their own: stories of “great-grandparents in Poland,” or relatives who lived through or died in the Holocaust; memories of “not getting jobs or into certain schools” because they were Jewish in the 1940s and ’50s.

“There was an inkling” among some congregants that “that was all in the past,” the rabbi said.  “Obviously, in the last five years or so, it has become such a different reality.”

Five years ago, right-wing extremists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, carrying torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us!” It formed an indelible image of a new political era, one in which extremists, bound by internet subcultures, felt comfortable showing their faces in acts of hate.

In other words, the hoods were off.

Now, Jewish community leaders in the Bay Area are describing a fresh wave of uncertainty and anxiety. It’s marked both by a rise in open antisemitism and the specter of political violence, exemplified in their own back yard by the frightening Oct. 28 attack on Paul Pelosi in San Francisco.

Since 2016, reported threats against members of Congress have increased tenfold, according to a recent report in the New York Times. In an era of acute political polarization, threats can come from either side. Still, it is the extreme right that is powering threats of violence facing Jews and other minority groups.

The destabilizing political era cannot be disentangled from antisemitism. It is often part and parcel of the blinkered ideologies that compel certain people to act, as it did David DePape, the man who shattered Paul Pelosi’s skull, motivated by conspiracy theories and racked by delusion.

At a time when it feels like you just want to curl up and disappear, I think it’s that much more important that we continue to reach out.

The Anti-Defamation League worries keenly about political violence, acknowledging in a report last year that “antisemitism will often be a central part of the conspiratorial views” that fuel it.

Indeed, it’s easy to locate the kernel of antisemitism in conspiracy theories like QAnon, Pizzagate or the rantings of Alex Jones, even when the word “Jew” is not mentioned. The Proud Boys who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, often present to the news media as a multiracial fraternity, then share rank antisemitism in encrypted messaging apps. American terrorists — including those who committed large-scale acts of violence this year in Buffalo, New York, and in 2019 in El Paso, Texas — do so in the name of an antisemitic conspiracy theory, the Great Replacement, even when Jews are not targeted.

So what’s different now? Emboldened by hugely influential celebrities, anti-Jewish bigotry is increasingly finding its way into the mainstream.

“I feel like the Overton window of acceptable discourse keeps moving for the worse,” said Rabbi Mark Bloom, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, in an email.

“My big concern is their big followings,” he said of celebrities who had spread antisemitism, referring both to Ye and Kyrie Irving, the preternaturally talented NBA point guard who shared an antisemitic movie on his Twitter account on Oct. 27. The film, which spreads lies about Jewish power and accuses Jews of fabricating the Holocaust, is today a bestseller on Amazon Prime video.

“Our children now have to have arguments with their peers because of this,” Bloom said, “even though there really is no ‘other side.’”

Both Ye and Irving faced hefty business consequences; Ye was dropped from lucrative sponsorship deals, losing, he said, billions in net worth. Irving, after reiterating his support for the film in a press conference, and remaining coy when asked whether he harbors antisemitic views, was dropped by Nike and suspended for at least five games without pay.

Still, the institutional response to these hateful missteps could not erase something much more concerning, and much more ungovernable: the upswell of support for them.

An Instagram post from Ye expressing solidarity with Irving earned more than 1 million likes. A number of NBA players equivocated when asked about Irving’s behavior; Brooklyn Nets teammate Kevin Durant said the Nets should “move on” (he later wrote that he doesn’t “condone” hate speech or antisemitism). Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma, a teammate of the NBA’s only Jewish player, Deni Avdija, tweeted cryptically on Nov. 4, “Can’t even tell the truth no more.” The tweet drew rebukes from antisemitism watchdog groups; Kuzma then added that the tweet was “not about any current events lol.” Meanwhile a hashtag trended on Twitter: #FreeKyrie.

Emboldened by the coarsening of the public discourse, white supremacists picked up the mantle. The Goyim Defense League, the antisemitic group responsible for flyer campaigns in more than 40 states and led by Jon Minadeo Jr., embarked on a national propaganda tour, seeing an opportunity to capitalize on what Kanye had started: an effort to “redpill” the “normies” (internet speak for opening the eyes of regular people to previously secret but essential knowledge).

Pictures of the Goyim Defense League banners supporting Kanye West's comments about Jews went viral after they were captured in Los Angeles, Oct. 22, 2022. (Screenshot from Twitter)
Pictures of the Goyim Defense League banners supporting Kanye West’s comments about Jews went viral after they were captured in Los Angeles, Oct. 22, 2022. (Screenshot from Twitter)

GDL members, working with National Socialists, hung banners saying “Kanye is right about the Jews” and projected digital messages in highly trafficked areas in California and Florida. “We’ve found the Jews’ weak spot!” a GDL post on the social network Gab read, sharing YouTube videos about the Ye and Irving controversies.

Today, antisemites continue to flood Twitter with hate using the hashtag #TheNoticing, spreading, minute-by-minute, anti-Jewish conspiracies, Holocaust denial and threats to prominent figures such as the CEO of the ADL.

“Music and sports have the unique capacity to bring people of all races, creeds and political beliefs together,” Bloom said. “They are now driving us further apart.”

Rabbi Ryan Bauer
Rabbi Ryan Bauer

For Rabbi Ryan Bauer of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, the experience of the past month was deeply discouraging because it forced him to think about whether the Jewish community had the allies it thought it did.

“The more concerning thing is the reaction to Kyrie Irving,” Bauer said.

In the basketball world, Irving’s actions did earn unequivocal condemnation from Charles Barkley (whose daughter is married to a Jew), Shaq, Steve Kerr and others. But Bauer saw far more leeway given to Irving than, say, Donald Sterling, the former Clippers owner banned from the NBA after making racist statements that were publicized in a leaked recording. Irving, on the other hand, remains vice president of the players union.

“You can imagine if you flipped the scenario around, if someone had posted a racist video,” the reaction would have been different, Bauer said.

“You’re not seeing a sweeping response that says, hey, there’s no place for this kind of hate,” Bauer added.

He also felt snubbed by allies in the fight for social justice, particularly after years of concerted efforts from Jewish community leaders to show solidarity with marginalized groups.

“I was at [San Francisco International Airport] during the Muslim ban, and for the Black Lives Matter movement,” Bauer said. “The Jewish community has been involved in all these things. And I think there’s a bit of looking around and saying, wait a second, where’s the reaction here?”

“I just feel like it’s been a bit tepid,” Bauer added.

So, how to respond?

Even as local synagogues continue to invest heavily in security measures such as armed guards, locks and surveillance systems, the proliferation of hate speech online and in live antisemitic stunts presents a separate problem.

Antisemitic discourse works to dehumanize Jews while maintaining plausible deniability. Outside of actual violence, spreading hate can be confused with spreading “truth.”

In response, many rabbis say, Jews should be even more visible.

“The reaction to it is not to hide, but to get bigger,” Bauer said. “We are an important part of American society. So don’t hide in your workplaces, don’t hide in your schools.”

Added Mates-Muchin, “At a time when it feels like you just want to curl up and disappear, I think it’s that much more important that we continue to reach out, and continue to build connections with people. To look to each other and to other Jewish communities for support. Recognizing that we are in this together.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.