Just Because We Are Jewish: The Disturbing and Historic Rise in Antisemitism and What We Can Do About It

By Brian S. Cohen

December 12, 2023

Just Because We Are Jewish: The Disturbing and Historic Rise in Antisemitism and What We Can Do About It


By Brian S. Cohen

Shortly after my bar mitzvah, I interviewed one of my beloved spiritual leaders, Rabbi Solomon Aidelson, a survivor of Auschwitz, for a class project about the Holocaust. To prepare, I studied a great deal about the topic, beginning with Hitler’s rise to power, which unleashed a surge of antisemitism throughout Nazi Germany, including the boycotting of Jewish businesses, the public burning of Jewish-authored books and Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”), one of the largest pogroms in Jewish history, resulting in the destruction of 200 synagogues and 7,500 Jewish shops.

It also shocked me to learn that Jewish children were prohibited from returning to school, that all Jewish businesses had to be handed over to the German government and that Jews were required to wear armbands or Jewish stars for identification. But I was most horrified when I watched films about Hitler’s deportation of millions of Jews to concentration camps. The disturbing images of emaciated Jews in striped uniforms, and piles of corpses in mass graves, have been seared in my mind since and will be forever.

With this knowledge, I felt ready for the discussion, but boy, was I wrong. Listening to Rabbi Aidelson speak in detail about the genocide that threatened his existence and robbed him of his family, with his thick Eastern European accent and his shirtsleeve rolled up to reveal his forearm bearing the number branded on him by the Nazis, made everything in the textbooks and documentaries real.

“My entire life, and my entire being, has been affected by the Holocaust,” he said. “Anyone who has been in Auschwitz has been marked for life, not only by the physical mark of the number tattooed on his arm, but mentally, it will always remain with those that have ever seen and were unfortunate to be in that camp called Auschwitz.”

The interview was at once heartbreaking and infuriating. I could not believe that my people were subjected to such an unthinkable level of hate and persecution just because we were Jewish. At the same time, I had a naïve sense of comfort that an event like the Holocaust could not and would never happen again, that such extreme antisemitism had been an issue for older generations, but it would never be in mine. I was wrong. The missions of the Nazis in the early 20th century and the terrorist group Hamas today are the same: extinguish all Jews. In 2019, Fathi Hamad, a senior member of Hamas, encouraged Palestinians across the world to kill Jews: “Seven million Palestinians outside, enough warming up, you have Jews with you in every place. You should attack every Jew possible in all the world and kill them.”[1]

On Oct. 7, Hamas terrorists heeded that call when they slaughtered as many as 1,200 Jews, the deadliest day for our people since the Holocaust, and kidnapped more than 200 women and children, including the elderly and Holocaust survivors. On that dark day, among other inhumane acts:

  • Hamas raped women and young girls, just because they were Jewish.[2]
  • Hamas burned people of all ages alive, just because they were Jewish.[3]
  • Hamas murdered over 300 people attending a concert for peace and love, just because they were Jewish.[4]

That day, a Hamas terrorist boasted to his parents about killing 10 Jews  as he spoke to them on one of his victims’ phones: “Look how many I killed with my own hands! Your son killed Jews!” He also crowed that he was using a phone stolen from a Jewish woman he had killed. “I killed her and I killed her husband,” he said. “I killed 10 with my own hands! Dad, 10 with my own hands!” The father responded: “Oh my son, God bless you.”[5]

Making matters much worse, these barbaric and unthinkable acts of evil and depravity are being celebrated worldwide, right here in New York, which has the largest Jewish population outside of Israel, and throughout America. According to data released by the Anti-Defamation League, in the month following Hamas’ terror attack on Israel, antisemitic incidents in the U.S. increased by 316% compared with the same time period last year. In addition, in the one-month period between Oct. 7 and Nov. 7, 2023, ADL documented 832 antisemitic incidents of assault, vandalism and harassment across the U.S., an average of nearly 28 incidents a day.[6]

This is a very frightening time to be Jewish. Religious or not, we are all on edge. It is even more frightening to be, as my wife and I are, a parent of Jewish children in college. At NYU, for example, a student held up a sign that read “Keep the world clean” of Jews.[7] A recent study found that 73% of Jewish college students and 44% of non-Jewish students have experienced or witnessed antisemitism since the start of the 2023–2024 school year.[8] The dark cloud of antisemitism that has hovered over us consistently throughout history is surging and combating it must be prioritized as a fundamental human rights issue. We must fight back with a sense of urgency.

Although I was not alive at the time, I believe that this is what the eve of the Holocaust must have felt like.

The Jewish People and Antisemitism: A Very Brief History

“As a Jew I carry with me the tears and sufferings of my grandparents and theirs through the generations. The story of my people is a narrative of centuries of exiles and expulsions, persecutions and pogroms . . . .  Jews knew that they or their children risked being murdered simply because they were Jews. Those tears are written into the very fabric of Jewish memory, which is to say, Jewish identity.” – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The Dignity of Difference”

The Jewish people have always lived in the land of Israel, but over many years, they dispersed throughout the Middle East and beyond. In Rome and Greece, their loyalty was questioned because they rejected polytheism, which engendered antisemitic rhetoric. Later, a genocide in Alexandria wiped out the Jewish population of Egypt.[9] Jews were also blamed for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, despite the fact that the Romans were responsible.[10]

During the Middle Ages, antisemitism and the persecution of Jews continued. Jews were blamed for the Black Death and accused of killing Christian children and using their blood for Passover rituals. Several countries created Jewish ghettos to separate Jews from society, and Jews were expelled from many countries, including England (1290), France (1306), and Spain (1492).[11] More recently, in 1894, a serious injustice known as the Dreyfus Affair led to an irreversible wave of antisemitism in France, with people calling for the death of Jews.[12]

Jews are still scapegoated for problems throughout the world and, since the Holocaust, many of the same hateful antisemitic narratives persist, such as that Jews are greedy and deceive others to get ahead, but today, they are much easier to promote on social media by influencers with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers. Notably, certain conspiracy theories, like “the Jews control Hollywood,” came about after Jews immigrated to the U.S. and were forced to become entrepreneurial and create opportunities for themselves in certain industries, like entertainment, and professions, like law and medicine, in which they were denied employment.[13] A classic  no-win scenario: Jews are denied opportunities simply for being Jewish and then stereotyped and hated for working hard to overcome such bigotry and achieving success.

The Work of the Task Force

Last year, NYSBA President Richard Lewis convened the Task Force on Combating Antisemitism and Anti-Asian Hate. The task force, conceived in the fall of 2022, launched in the spring of 2023 in response to the alarming levels of hate toward Jews and Asians, But since Oct. 7, we have been confronted with even more antisemitic hate crimes (at levels that we have not experienced since the Holocaust), following years when anti-Asian hate crimes have dominated the news.

In 2021, 746 anti-Asian hate crimes and 817 antisemitic hate crimes were reported to the FBI by law enforcement agencies. From 2020 to 2021, reports of anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 167%. Antisemitic hate crimes increased by 20%, according to the same data.

Sadly, while Jews account for only 2.4% of the U.S. population, we are the victims of at least 63% of reported religiously motivated hate crimes. And recent polling conducted by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law found that 65% of college students active in Jewish organizations felt unsafe on campus because of physical or verbal attacks, and half felt the need to conceal their Jewish identity or support for Israel for the sake of their safety.

To date, bar associations have not systematically studied the problem of hate crimes. This task force seeks to close that gap. As President Lewis has said: “Antisemitic and anti-Asian bias in America is overt and disturbing, and it is increasing exponentially. . . . We have launched this task force because we are at a crossroads, and left unchecked, we can only expect that crimes against these two vulnerable groups will continue to spiral out of control.” The task force has been grappling with the scourge of hate crimes, which present a clear and present danger to many, but most strikingly to New Yorkers.

The task force is hard at work on a report that will go before the Executive Committee and the House of Delegates in January. If the report is approved by the bar association’s governing body, the association will begin lobbying for changes in the law. For example, we explained to the Executive Committee in an informational report at its November meeting that we are proposing that all offenses, if motivated by bias, should count as hate crimes. The current law provides a lengthy list, but leaves out certain offenses like graffiti, criminal obstruction of breathing and rape in the third degree, and only provides “negative guidance” by defining what is not a hate crime. We are examining the possibility of changing the law, or issuing model jury instructions, to permit jurors to consider the totality of the circumstances or to provide more examples in the statute of what constitutes a hate crime, including the actions of a defendant before and during an attack.

We are also examining the Stop Hiding Hate Act (S895/A06789), legislation that has passed the New York Senate and is pending in the Assembly. This bill would require large social media companies to disclose their policies and moderation practices for online hate speech. The legislation is modeled after a similar law in California.

In line with our mandate, the task force is also examining how to stop hate before it begins through education, especially in schools. While anti-bias, anti-bullying and diversity programming has been shown to be effective, we are exploring how to make such programming consistent in schools throughout the state. In addition, we are examining measures to increase compliance with New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act, which aspires to provide the state’s public elementary and secondary school students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying on school property, a school bus and/or at a school function.

In the letter to the Executive Committee, the task force said it is also reviewing measures to improve the reporting of hate crimes. The current situation is a patchwork of inconsistent laws that result in severe underreporting of hate crime in some states. New York’s reporting system has made substantial strides, but we are examining the reporting laws of Oregon, New Jersey and Massachusetts to help us further. Oregon’s law, for example, requires all police agencies to document reports of alleged hate crimes – whether or not they result in arrest – and share information with the state criminal justice division. District attorneys must track their hate crime caseloads and report on outcomes, sentences and recidivism.

To be sure, I have no illusions that our task force alone will reverse antisemitism, which has persisted for thousands of years. In this larger war against bigotry, all hands must be on deck, and as a bar association, this is the role that we can and must play. I hope that we are not alone and that all stakeholders will come together and take a stand to combat all forms of hate.


Brian S. Cohen is a partner and co-founder of Lachtman Cohen in White Plains, where his practice focuses on complex commercial, employment, and civil rights litigation. He is the co-chair of the NYSBA Task Force on Combating Antisemitism and Anti-Asian Hate, a member of NYSBA’s House of Delegates, and a vice president of the Westchester County Bar Association.


The Working Definition of Antisemitism: An Important and Useful Tool for Guidance and Education

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is the only intergovernmental organization mandated to focus solely on Holocaust-related issues. The alliance’s Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial built international consensus around the following non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism, which many institutions and organizations worldwide have endorsed and adopted:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”[14]

Per the alliance, “antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for ‘why things go wrong.’” In addition, antisemitism “is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.”[15]

The alliance also provides 11 examples of contemporary antisemitism “in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere” including, among others: calling for, aiding or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion; making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing or stereotypical allegations about the power of Jews as a collective, such as the Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions; accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews; denying the Holocaust; or holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the state of Israel.[16]

As explained by the Anti-Defamation League, the world’s leading organization fighting antisemitism and hate in all forms, “these examples are important, because while certain longstanding myths animating antisemitism have stood the test of millennia, manifestations of antisemitism do change, sometimes significantly, over time and place. It is important to provide guidance built on the knowledge of experts in the field, as well as the lived experience of large segments of the Jewish population.”

In addition, the alliance’s definition is intended to be utilized by various government and non-government agencies and institutions, such as college administrators, law enforcement and others, as an important tool for education and guidance on antisemitism. As the ADL further explained: “As antisemitic incidents have increased worldwide, governments and civil society have sought ways to speak out against antisemitism and ensure that there is awareness of its real-life manifestations and impact. The definition should not be viewed as a substitute or replacement for existing laws and it is not a ‘charging authority,’ but [n]onetheless, it is critical as guidance. . .  … to better enable [institutions and organizations] to identify antisemitism and gather and analyze relevant data.”[17]

Finally, according to the alliance, “antisemitic acts are criminal when they are so defined by law . . . ” and “criminal acts are antisemitic when the targets of attacks, whether they are people or property – such as buildings, schools, places of worship and cemeteries – are selected because they are, or are perceived to be, Jewish or linked to Jews.”[18]

[1] Hamas Official Condemned After Calling on Palestinians to Kill Jews, VOA, July 15, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/a/middle-east_hamas-official-condemned-after-calling-palestinians-kill-jews/6171870.html.

[2] Hilo Glazer, The Scope of Hamas’ Campaign of Rape Against Israeli Women Is Revealed, Testimony After Testimony, Haaretz, Nov. 30, 2023, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2023-11-30/ty-article-magazine/.highlight/hamas-campaign-of-rape-against-israeli-women-is-revealed-testimony-after-testimony/0000018c-2144-da36-a1de-6767dac90000; Gaby Hinsliff, Whatever Your View of the Israel-Hamas War, Rape is Rape, The Guardian, Dec. 1, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/dec/01/israel-hamas-war-rape-israelis-palestinians; Michal Herzog, Opinion: The Silence From International Bodies Over Hamas’ Mass Rapes Is a Betrayal of All Women, Newsweek, Nov. 22, 2023, https://www.newsweek.com/silence-international-bodies-over-hamas-mass-rapes-betrayal-all-women-opinion-1845783.

[3] Eric Cortellessa, The Oct. 7 Massacre Revealed a New Hamas Social Media Strategy, Time, Oct. 31, 2023, https://time.com/6330005/the-oct-7-massacre-revealed-a-new-hamas-social-media-strategy/; Aaron Poris, Evidence on Display at Israel’s Forensic Pathology Center Confirms Hamas’ Atrocities, The Medialine, Nov. 6, 2023, https://themedialine.org/top-stories/evidence-on-display-at-israels-forensic-pathology-center-confirms-hamas-atrocities/; Stephen Gray, Maayan Lubell and Ryan McNeill, Hunted by Hamas: 27 Hours of Slaughter and Survival Inside Israel’s Kibbutz Be’eri, Reuters, Nov. 3, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/israel-palestinians-kibbutz-attack/.

[4] Roger Cohen, Peace, a Forgotten Word, Renews Its Claim in the Holy Land, N.Y. Times, Oct. 22, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/22/world/middleeast/peace-activists-israel-palestinian.html; Amir Cohen, At Israeli Rave Site Hit by Hamas, Music Plays Again for the Dead, Reuters, Nov. 29, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israeli-rave-site-hit-by-hamas-music-plays-again-dead-2023-11-29; Michal Herzog, Opinion: The Silence From International Bodies Over Hamas’ Mass Rapes Is a Betrayal of All Women, Newsweek, Nov. 22, 2023, https://www.newsweek.com/silence-international-bodies-over-hamas-mass-rapes-betrayal-allwomen-opinion-1845783.

[5] Alyssa Guzman, Hamas Terrorist Brags About Killing Jews While Talking to Parents on Victim’s Phone: ‘Killed 10 With My Own Hands!,’ N.Y. Post, Oct. 24, 2023, https://nypost.com/2023/10/24/news/hamas-terrorist-brags-to-parents-about-killing-jews/.

[6] One Month Following Hamas Massacre, ADL Documents Dramatic Surge in Antisemitic Incidents in the U.S., ADL, Nov. 13, 2023, https://www.adl.org/resources/press-release/one-month-following-hamas-massacre-adl-documents-dramatic-surge-antisemitic.

[7] Jen Smith, NYU Investigating ‘Repugnant’ Students Who Held Antisemitic ‘Keep the World Clean’ Signs at Washington Square Park Protest, Daily Mail, Oct. 25, 2023, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-12672281/NYU-investigating-repugnant-students-held-anti-Semitic-world-clean-signs-Washington-Square-Park-protest.html.

[8] Campus Antisemitism: A Study of Campus Climate Before and After the Hamas Terrorist Attacks, ADL, Nov. 29, 2023, https://www.adl.org/resources/report/campus-antisemitism-study-campus-climate-and-after-hamas-terrorist-attacks.

[9] Mikah Ahuvia, Judaism, Jewish History, and Anti-Jewish Prejudice: An Overview, Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, Univ. of Washington, https://jewishstudies.washington.edu/who-are-jews-jewish-history-origins-antisemitism/.

[10] Why the Jews: History of Antisemitism, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/antisemitism/what-is-antisemitism/why-the-jews-history-of-antisemitism.

[11] A Brief History of Anti-Semitism, ADL, https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/education-outreach/Brief-History-on-Anti-Semitism-A.pdf.

[12] Id.

[13] Jay Michaelson, There Are a Lot of Jews in Hollywood. Let a Rabbi Explain Why, Rolling Stone, Dec. 11, 2022, https://www.rollingstone.com/tv-movies/tv-movie-features/jews-in-hollywood-kanye-west-dave-chappelle-rabbi-explains-1234645366/.

[14] What Is Antisemitism? International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/resources/working-definitions-charters/working-definition-antisemitism.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] About the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, ADL, Feb. 19, 2021, https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounder/about-ihra-working-definition-antisemitism.

[18] Supra note 14.

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