The United States is witnessing a disturbing rise in anti-Semitic acts, which are sweeping over the country in wave after wave. In St. Louis, more than a hundred tombstones were tipped over; similar hate crimes have taken place in Philadelphia and New York. Attacks are taking place not only in cities across the country, but also in small towns. In Scottsburg, Indiana (a community with less than ten thousand residents), the gravestones of a Jewish couple were defaced with spray paint. To date, there have been reports of bomb threats against Jewish institutions in thirty-three states, and across college campuses.
The rise in hate crimes has risen sharply since Trump’s election. As early as four days following President Trump’s electoral win, an Episcopal Church in a small town in southern Indiana was vandalized with “Heil Trump”. Last weekend, in Orchard Park, a suburb of Buffalo, New York, residents and local law officials discovered spray-painted swastikas and vulgar graffiti on overpasses, a dozen vehicles, and on an elementary school playground. Ten Jewish community centers have been targeted with bomb threats for the fourth time in five weeks. And the list goes on.
While it is not only Jewish individuals and groups who have been increasingly subjected to bigotry and xenophobic outbursts, these latest acts are the escalation of overt anti-Semitism which re-appeared during the 2016 election. What began with tweeting and Internet trolling, is now manifesting itself in more brazen and threatening ways. Unless the underlying conditions are answered, there is every reason to expect that these attacks will persist and become more violent.
The growing anti-Semitism in the United States has been fed by a social-political atmosphere that is conducive to groups that thrive on racist ideology. White nationalist groups have been encouraged by the current administration's willingness to lend an ear and more to those on the far right.
The president of the United States does not have to be explicitly, or even implicitly, anti-Semitic in either words or deeds to create conditions in which anti-Semitic groups feel emboldened. By being ever ready to entertain conspiracy theories, by showing little regard whatsoever for facts when they are not to his liking, by "remembering" the Holocaust without any mention of the destruction of European Jewry, by failing to condemn these acts in a more timely manner, by empowering figures such as Steve Bannon, and by lending credence to the agenda of the alt-right, the president has helped to make these waves of anti-Semitism and bigotry possible.
Over the past year, the space of public discourse has deteriorated; what was once political spin has been replaced by palpable and shameless lying. It is clear that Trumpism – with its contempt for inconvenient truths, and glorification of authoritarian strongmen – is in part responsible for what is taking place. Racist ideology feeds off of illusions, beliefs which are held because they satisfy deep-seated wishes, without regard for evidence, justification, or warrant. Trumpism has provided the soil in which such illusions are free to grow unhampered by a sense of epistemic and moral responsibility.
The current rise of antisemitism was able to take root more easily when common manners and basic decency were shoved aside during an increasingly ugly election. Courtesy and manners are not insignificant things, but essential to ethical life (in the Hegelian sense), to our shared social substance, the ethical medium in which we dwell with others. The loss of the simple decency that we generally take for granted has wide ramifications and ultimately it creates a social environment where inhibitions against overtly racist acts are weakened, and hate crimes are more likely to occur.
Trump has shown himself ready to make brazen accusations without citing any evidentiary support; he has shown contempt for the rule of law and the freedom of the press, turning away the New York Times and CNN and referring to the media as "the Enemy of the American people" – language which is itself fraught with fascist undertones. Trumpism insists that we cannot be held morally responsible for the claims we make and the statements we endorse.
Indeed, what Trumpism represents is, to put it simply, the suicide of thought (to borrow a phrase from G. K. Chesterton). We are being reminded every day that the human intellect is free to destroy itself precisely by abdicating the responsibility and authority we have to think – we are becoming a society increasingly at war with reason and ‘the tower already reels.’ Trumpism is one of the great-thought destroying forces of our time in its contempt for things like objective knowledge and the disinterested pursuit of truth. The assault on epistemic values has moral consequences – to entertain ‘alternative facts’ and endorse theories on the basis of rumor or heresy is a moral failing, not only because it can lead to actual harm, but because in time it corrupts the mind itself.
To stem the rise of anti-Semitism, we need to restore the integrity of our public discourse, our commitment to intellectual honesty and self-scrutiny. Anti-Semitism has been allowed to grow because we as a country have created an environment that is conducive to race-minded reactionaries. Our country has grown meaner and more cynical. In the span of only a decade, comments that it would have been inconceivable to say in public are now becoming increasingly commonplace.
To properly address the deterioration of our nation’s ethical substance, we cannot underestimate the importance of trust. As the philosopher Jay Bernstein observed, “…trust relations provide the ethical substance of everyday living… Trust relations are relations of mutual recognition in which we acknowledge our mutual standing and vulnerability with respect to one another.” Trust is the “invisible substance of our moral lives” – we only notice it when it has been shattered.
These anti-Semitic and racist acts are attacks precisely on that trust which, under normal conditions, we take for granted. Restoring social trust is a long and difficult process. In this case it will involve, among other things, undoing the moral and epistemic harm caused by Trumpism, and Trump himself must begin this undertaking.