Antisemitism in the Rocklands?

We have recently been shocked by the machete-wielding attack on a Hanukkah celebration in the Rocklands, which follows a number of other attacks in the same area, and most of the perpetrators came from outside that area. What is going on and why the Rocklands?

While this should not be seen as the only reason, or even the main one, the ideological fragmentation of our society, encouraged by the Internet, plays a significant role. Today, probably more people read the news and other information on the internet than they do in newspapers or books. This has consequences...

Every time you make a search or a selection online, your browser registers your choices and uses them to construct your profile of preferences - which they then use to label you in a specific(s) consumer group, thus helping with the marketing of online products.

Online products could of course be anything these days - including information. Let us say that I look often into Israel... the browser registers that, and every time I go into a news service online the cookies popping up with special info will most likely be about Israel. Even the selection of news in the front page of the news service website may reflect my preferences by prioritizing the information I seek most often. Why? - so I keep coming back, boosting circulation to that website and making it more marketable for advertisers, which is where the money comes from. This selective displaying of information can be even more sophisticated (depending on how the profile is constructed) and give preference to either pro- or anti-Israel news. Even more, it can prioritize one kind of political agenda over another. The net result is creating a perception that my preferences (or points of view) are Universal or at least a lot more prevalent than they really are.

So, if I carry a grudge against Jews, the browser knows and will direct me to news sources and information sites reflecting that preference. This would immerse me in a virtual world where my ideas and opinions get validated, making me feel very good. But every time I look outside my bubble, I will see a different world (the real one) and I will be frustrated by the differences between the cozy virtual bubble I live in and the crude reality of the outside. As this frustration grows, I will perceive it in a way that further reinforces my ideas... ("The Media doesn't pay attention to the dangers presented by Jews because Jews control the Media", for example). I need to believe in those connections because they constitute the core of my personal identity... So people spring to action to defend what they perceive to be an attack not only on their society, but on their very core identity. The closer the perceived attack to the core identity of the individual, the more likely the individual will react emotionally and/or violently - because the perceived threat is greater.

To the above, we need to add social permission to act. In every society there are always "permissible" and "not permissible" behaviors; or in another language - pollitically correct or incorrect behaviors. As the events of the Shoah continue to recede into the past and Holocaust survivors pass away taking with them the living witnessing, the events of the Nazi war against the Jews are becoming a subject of debate. This has reached an extreme in some societies which go as far as proclaiming the Holocaust as a Jewish invention to profiteer from World sympathy.

With these elements the stage is set for individuals who need somebody to blame for the perceived injustices they are subject to, to select their scapegoat. Jews have been the scapegoat of Western and Islamic cultures for a very long time. Anti Jewish prejudices are deeply embeded in Western culture, even in America. The confluence of the factors described above allows those prejudices to be played out. Of course, this re-emergence of Antisemitism as a social reality at a time when American society is highly polarized in political terms, politcizes the prejudice which then becomes a weapon in the hands of people on one side or another of the political spectrum, and used against "the other"

What we need to understand, and that is probably a painful reality, is that Antisemitism never dissapeared in our society - it just went underground for a few decades for a variety of reasons. The manifestations we witness today may be using new tools (denying the right of the Jewish people to self-determination for example) along the old ones (Jews have too much power, for example), but the prejudice is the same.

So what about the Rocklands? The Rocklands is home to a rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox Jewish population. The Ultra-Orthodox population is very different from the general American environment, differentiating itself by clothing, even hairstyle. This makes the non-Jewish population (and many in the Jewish community) look at them as "the other". In the Rocklands, Ultra-Orthodox Hassidic Jews represent today close to 31 % of the total population, a very significant growth from even a decade ago. The growth is fueled by a high number of children per household as well as migration to the area from overcrowded parts of New York City. The non-Jewish population (and even the liberal Jewish population) includes individuals who perceive this growth in the Orthodox community's presence in the area as a threat; as a change which is transforming their environment in ways that make them feel to some extent outsiders. The result is tension. It is on this tension that antisemtisim builds its case and spreads its venom. The reason for the perpetrators to be many times from outside the area is simple: they are less likely (in their minds) to be identified. The choice of the target is also fueled by internet content that reflect local tensions.

Having said what I said, we still need to come together as a Jewish community to fight antisemitism wherever we see it. I recently sent a personal letter to Netflix complaining about a misrepresentation of the Argentinean Jewish community in their documentary about the death of Argentinean prosecutor Alberto Nisman in 2015. In the documentary (which otherwise is very well done and documented), they show on screen an officer of DAIA, a Jewish umbrella organization. The acronym "DAIA" stands for "Delegacion de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas", which correctly translated means "Delegation of Argentinean Israelite Associations". The Netflix production translate it as "Delegation of Argentine and Israeli Associations", with clear implications about the "double loyatly" antisemitic drope.

We need to understand that language is a living thing; it changes in each generation. And language is shaped by the society, but it also shapes the society. It can set the stage for a growth in antisemitic violence. The term "Israelite" was widespread in America and Europe for a long time as an indentifier for Jews. Yet today is being conflated with "Israeli" (and not only in Argentina), implying (many times without intention) that Jews are really foreigners with more loyalty to Israel than to their home societies, and that is presented as incompatble.

We must fight antisemitism in its violent manifestations, of course - but also in the social symbolism of language. A recently created twitter account goes by the handle "Iamajewsowhat?", trying to roll back the taboo of looking at Jewish identity as also having an ethnic component - not just a religious one. Is that the correct approach? time will tell, but the creators of that account are taking action.


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