For Alex Zeldin, it began as a normal Friday.
He was headed to Trader Joe’s on New York City’s Upper West Side to pick up some food for the Jewish Sabbath.
As usual, he was wearing his yarmulke, or skullcap. When he turned a corner, he realized that a couple of teenagers had started to follow him, spewing antisemitic insults.
“It took me about halfway down the block to realize that the thing that they were commenting on was they kept saying, ‘yarmulke’: ‘I want to take that yarmulke, I want to hit him in his head and take that yarmulke; that Jewish baby killer,'” Zeldin recalled.
Zeldin’s harassers ultimately peeled off, but the fact that they used the term “baby-killers” gave him a jolt.
I don’t think that the general population, and progressives included among that, have a good understanding of what they’re looking at when antisemitic violence doesn’t have a swastika attached to it
“Calling Jews ‘baby-killers’? That’s the blood libel. That’s a thing that was happening in medieval Europe,” he said, referring to the age-old, antisemitic lie that accused Jews of murdering Christian children to use their blood in rituals.
Zeldin, who writes a column for the Forward, a Jewish publication devoted to news and progressive thought, notes that “baby killer” invective has gained traction — propagated widely on social media – in response to last month’s military conflict between Israel and Hamas that left dozens of Palestinian children among the dead.
During nearly two weeks of fighting, the Anti-Defamation League, or ADL, tracked a 75% spike in antisemitic incidents in the U.S., including brazen assaults, vandalism, harassment, and hate speech.
“It was like a wildfire that spread much farther than we had anticipated or really seen in the past,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the ADL. “We were pretty staggered to see how fast this played out.”
That antisemitic surge is an alarming trend, one that’s also left many Jews wondering where their allies have gone.
‘Who is here for us?’
Zeldin has heard from many Jews who feel they’ve been abandoned by people they would expect to be their allies.
“It’s definitely a moment of frustration,” he said. “A lot of the messaging that Jews have gotten over the last four years … is you’ve got to show up. You have to be an ally. You have to speak up for others. And I think a lot of Jews, myself included, very much took that to heart,” marching in support of women’s and immigrant rights, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
But recently, he says, reciprocity has been hard to find.
“I don’t think that the general population, and progressives included among that, have a good understanding of what they’re looking at when antisemitic violence doesn’t have a swastika attached to it,” Zeldin said.
He says people find it easier to see and condemn antisemitism when it involves white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us,” as they did in the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. Or when a gunman opened fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa. on Oct. 27, 2018, and killed 11 worshipers, because he believed a conspiracy theory that claims Jews are helping immigrants resettle in America in order to make the country less white.
But, Zeldin says, when anti-Jewish hate is less glaring, or gets twisted up with Middle East geopolitics, “folks struggle to identify it and to understand that it is a severe problem.”
Even before the latest flareup of Mideast violence, some Jews were already feeling abandoned in the fight against antisemitism. Comedian Sarah Silverman talked about it on her podcast in March.
“Stop rolling your eyes, and be our allies,” she urged. “It makes me sad to know that so many Jews that I know commit their lives to being allies to so many, to stick their necks out for others, and I’m proud of that. That will always be our way.”