Aug 3, 2023 - Podcasts

A new high tide of antisemitism in America

A federal jury on Wednesday sentenced to death the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooter. The gunman murdered 11 people in 2018, in what was the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

The big picture: Since then, antisemitism has been on the rise. A report from the Anti-Defamation League found that antisemitic incidents increased by 36% in 2022 to the highest level since 1979. We dig deeper with American University's Director of Jewish Studies.

  • Plus, the U.S. and Europe's $300 billion Russian problem.
  • And, the scope of mental health disorders worldwide.

Axios Today Listener Survey

Guests: Axios' Kate Marino and American University's Pamela Nadell.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi, Lydia McMullen-Laird and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.


NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It's Thursday, August 3rd.

I'm Niala Boodhoo.

Today: the U.S. and Europe's 300 billion dollar Russian problem. Plus, the scope of mental health disorders worldwide.

But first: a new high tide of antisemitism in America. That's our One Big Thing.

NIALA: A federal jury yesterday sentenced to death the mass shooter who murdered 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018, the deadliest anti Semitic attack in U.S. history. Unfortunately, since then, antisemitism has been on the rise. A report from the Anti-Defamation League found that antisemitic incidents increased by 36% last year to the highest level since 1979. Here to help us dig deeper is Pamela Nadell, Professor of History and Director of the Jewish Studies Program at American University. Hi, Pamela. Thanks for being with us.

PAMELA NADELL: Hi Niala, thanks for having me.

NIALA : When we're talking about antisemitic incidents, what exactly does that mean?

PAMELA: The first thing that I would say is that it means that these are reported incidents. There are many incidences that are never reported. Second thing is that it consists of everything from, on a college campus if it gets reported, a student ripping a mezuzah the amulet that Jews keep on outside their doors, outside their homes, ripping it off the student dorm room. It's everything from that to the violence that we saw at the Pittsburgh synagogue. So it runs on a really broad spectrum.

NIALA: What do you see as the main reasons for why this problem is getting worse in America?

PAMELA: The problem is getting worse in America for several reasons. The first one is that we are in a moment of crisis in the United States. Remember at the January 6th attack on the Capitol, there was a man who got a lot of attention. He was wearing a sweatshirt. It read Camp Auschwitz on the front. And we didn't see it, but the back said staff. The second reason is the power of social media to broadcast antisemitism widely. And the third reason is because celebrities have embraced antisemitism and helped to make it mainstream. When Ye, formerly known as Kanye West spouted antisemitism, Donald Trump invited Ye to dinner, and he sat him down with a well known antisemitic white nationalist named Nick Fuentes, and that got extraordinary play. Maybe even more play than the story had gotten, before about the antisemitism. And I'm not accusing Donald Trump of being an antisemite, but I am saying that he has enabled the broadcasting of antisemitism.

NIALA: As a historian, can you give us some context into how this current time period we're in fits into the history of antisemitism in the U. S.? Where are we now versus where we have been?

PAMELA: Historians used to call the period between World War I and World War II the High Tide of American antisemitism. I am afraid that we might rename that period and call the era we are now living in the High Tide of American antisemitism. That period saw physical attacks upon Jews. It saw the Ku Klux Klan boycott Jewish businesses in Indiana, not just in the south, and it was a period when Jews knew that they could be attacked on on the streets of cities like Boston and New York. And what do we have today? We see Jews who are Orthodox Jews means you can see what they look like. They dress differently than other people, and they are physically attacked on the streets of New York. I'm afraid things haven't changed that much. They've only gotten worse.

NIALA : What are the politics at play here?

PAMELA: So For the first time in a really, really long time, American Jews are under attack from both the right and the left. And from the right, there's the potential for terrible violence, like we saw in Pittsburgh, when 11 people were massacred at worship. But from the left we also have antisemitism chiefly, um, construed as anti Israelism, the notion that Israel has no right to exist, that the Jews have no right to have their own state anywhere in the world, and that has also led to violence as we saw in May 2021, when Jews who were having dinner on a street in Los Angeles were attacked. And they're not Israelis, they're American Jews.

NIALA : What do you most want people to know about this problem right now?

PAMELA: I think the thing that is most important is to understand that, first of all, antisemitism is one part of a long history of how Americans have discriminated against other minorities. And the second thing that I would say is that antisemitism in other times and places has been the canary in the goldmine. And that when there is a moment of terrible crisis and antisemitism rises, I think we have to worry about what's going to happen next. And I'm not only talking about antisemitism and the Jews.

NIALA: Pamela Nadell is a professor of history and director of the Jewish Studies Program at American University. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

PAMELA: My pleasure. Thank you.

NIALA: After the break, the West grapples with how to handle Moscow's frozen assets.

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I'm Niala Boodhoo.

When Russia first invaded Ukraine last February, the West froze Russian central bank assets worth around $300 billion. Axios business editor Kate Marino is reporting that now Western countries are trying to figure out what to do with those funds and whether they could be used to help rebuild Ukraine.

So Kate, it's been more than a year since Russia invaded Ukraine. Why are Western leaders now trying to figure out what to do with these frozen Russian assets?

KATE MARINO: What was once looked at as kind of a legal impossibility, back at the beginning of the invasion, people are now starting to say, wait a minute this has gone on longer than we expected. We've seen atrocities piling up. We've seen the cost of the expected reconstruction growing and growing. The World Bank actually estimates that as of now, it's over $400 billion.

So that has really started, to have people who think about these kinds of legal issues say, we've got to figure out something. We've got, between the U. S. and its allies, about 300 billion worth of Russian central bank assets that were frozen. You know, at this point, politically and in popular opinion, like, there's just no way that they think they could give them back to Russia at some later date. They just feel like it needs to be funneled into Ukraine's reconstruction somehow, some way.

NIALA: So Congress has actually pitched bills that would make this happen.

KATE: There are a few bills out there. One in particular that people seem to be the most focused on one that was introduced, with a handful of bipartisan sponsors. It basically just gives the president the authority to confiscate the assets held in the U.S. and transfer them to the benefit of Ukraine. that would take care of one part of the legal obstacles because you've got, it's, appears to be illegal domestically, but also illegal under international law.So this bill would take care of the domestic part. But the elephant in the room is that most of the assets are actually sitting in Europe.

NIALA: And what is the thinking in Europe about all of this right now?

KATE: Over the last couple months EU leaders got together and we're speaking about an idea whereby they would use some of the interest income generated by the Russian Central Bank assets, or they would invest the assets and only use the investment gains and send those to Ukraine. The downside to that is that's just not that much money compared to the scale of what Ukraine needs, and it still leaves $300 billion sitting there that people want to deploy over to Ukraine.

NIALA: Kate, legally, is this even possible to do?

KATE: The important thing to know is that central bank assets have just always been viewed as pretty untouchable under international law. And this has to do with complicated legal concepts like sovereign immunity and state property rights. A lot of people that I've spoken with, have said the vibes out there have changed from this is impossible we can't do this to okay, we've got to figure out a way to do this. That doesn't mean anyone has the answer to how they're going to do it legally, but the vibes have shifted a little bit in the way people are thinking about it.

NIALA: Kate Marino is a business editor for Axios.Thanks, Kate.

KATE: Thank you.

NIALA: One last headline for you today – a new study caught our eye that says about half of the world's population "can expect to develop" at least one type of mental disorder by the time they are 75 years old. The study was published in the scientific journal The Lancet Psychiatry, and showed major depression and anxiety to be the most common disorders. The study also found differences between men and women…for example for men, alcohol abuse is more likely, while more women suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.

And that's all we've got for you today! And a reminder that we're running a listener survey to get to know you better and keep improving Axios Today, and we'd really love your feedback. Plus you'll be entered to win a $50 Amazon gift card. You can find a link to the survey in our show notes.

I'm Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we'll see you back here tomorrow morning.

Go deeper