A vicious attack in context
The story was shocking, and the details were horrific: Zachary Tennen, a 19-year-old Michigan State University student, said two men he met at a party on Aug. 26 asked if he were Jewish. When he said that he was, the men raised their arms in a Nazi salute, broke his jaw, and then, in Tennen’s account, stapled his lip to his gums.
Reaction was swift and angry. “We are horrified by this violent assault and allegations that the student may have been viciously attacked because he was Jewish,” wrote the Anti-Defamation League. “Disgusted by this blatant anti-semitism, hatred, & violence toward our alumni,” tweeted Birthright Israel.
But then the story shifted. By the middle of last week police in East Lansing said they had identified a suspect and that a preliminary investigation indicated it was not likely a hate crime. Tennen’s jaw was broken, the cops said, but there was no evidence that his mouth was stapled shut. Most significantly, witnesses couldn’t confirm Tennen’s account that he was slugged after revealing he was Jewish.
Facebook, Twitter, and the comments sections of newspaper web sites offered a minute-by-minute transcript of the ways we think and talk about anti-Semitism.
Take, for example, the comments that follow a Detroit News article about the police investigation. Writes one commenter: “We’ve learned that Jewish slurs are really not slurs, and physical attacks on Jews are not hate crimes.” Well, no — we learned that police have the responsibility to investigate a crime before passing judgment. “There’s a big difference between an assault and assault that classifies as a hate crime,” Sgt. Jeff Murphy told the paper. “We need to figure out what this one is so we can seek the appropriate charges on whoever did it.”
The ADL, to its credit, understands the distinction between an allegation and an investigation. “We are confident that the East Lansing Police will thoroughly investigate this deeply troubling case and, given the allegations, treat it as a possible hate crime,” wrote its regional director. Note the word “possible.”
Another commenter writes that the victim’s account “sounds so fabricated.” Again, this is while Tennen lay in a hospital bed, his jaw wired, and before police had a chance to do a thorough investigation.
Meanwhile, Facebook lit up with comments about the “return” or “resurgence” of anti-Semitism. “For the people who say there is no anti-Semitism…oh yes there is. And there’s plenty more where this came from,” wrote one of my Facebook friends.
Plenty more? An isolated attack in East Lansing does not suggest the resurgence of anything, especially when recent surveys show that the number of anti-Semitic incidents has plateaued. Considering the size of the Jewish and general population, anti-Semitic attacks of this or any nature remain fairly rare. In 2010, the ADL tallied only 22 “physical assaults on Jewish individuals” (down from 29 in 2009) and 900 cases of “anti-Semitic harassment, threats, and events.” The latter included things like someone posting “stupid Jewish bitch” on a teenager’s Facebook page and a driver yelling anti-Semitic comments at a New Jersey father and son.
But on balance the American-Jewish community has never been more secure, or the anti-Semitic fringe more isolated. Consider the words of Abe Foxman, the ADL’s national director, who is often accused of exaggerating anti-Semitism. In fact, Foxman acknowledged in February that for most American Jews, “experiences with anti-Semitism in their lives and the insecurity surrounding fears of anti-Semitism are largely things of the past.”
Foxman described the situation 60 and 70 years ago, when Jews were blocked from medical schools, faced quotas at Ivy League colleges, and were the regular targets of politicians, religious leaders, and “intellectuals.” “Since such events no longer regularly occur,” writes Foxman, “it is customary to focus on the American Jewish experience as exceptional in the long history of the Diaspora.”
We can’t be sure yet what did or didn’t happen to Zach Tennen. Every so often, Jews are assaulted for being Jews — not to the degree that they are in Europe, for example, but it happens. Nevertheless, such attacks do not represent the reality of being Jewish in America. Yet too many of us keep insisting that every swastika scrawled by a teenager, every ugly Jew crack on Facebook is either a sign of a vast anti-Jewish conspiracy or the harbinger of a pogrom to come. That gives way too much power and credit to a small number of idiots.
We should be zealous in insisting that police and judges enforce the hate crimes statutes that have never been stronger or more prevalent. We should support the kind of tolerance programs that are ubiquitous in American classrooms. We should provide the resources that college students need to be strong advocates for Israel, and we should demand that universities remain safe places for political and religious expression.
Every anti-Semitic attack or taunt is one too many, and a cursory Google search finds conspiracy-mongers, hate groups, and purveyors of anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Israelism.
But we have to stop living like it’s 1934. Zachary Tennen deserves justice, he deserves a complete healing of body and soul, and he deserves our concern and support. He doesn’t deserve to become a poster boy for the “New Anti-Semitism.”