By Emmaia Gelman

The Colleyville synagogue incident started out feeling like another in the litany of anguishing attacks on Jewish spaces. But almost immediately, it was not the same: the agonizing hours of livestream and the rabbi’s interviews brought us in close, partly bypassing the FBI and the Anti-Defamation League, who often step in to narrate. In one unexpected turn, the hostage-taker seemed not to be hostile toward Jews, even if he may have harbored conspiracy theories about Jewish power. Despite this important detail, most responses to Colleyville have focused on protecting Jews and Jewish spaces from forces hostile to us. Centering irrational hate is a strategy that supports ever-increasing militarization, as centering terror does for the US state. An ADL-sponsored security training, and the DHS grant created to fund it, are offered as protection against the threat the ADL defines. In community spaces though, particularly social media, Colleyville has unsettled some of the usual conversations about antisemitism.

There’s rarely room for more nuance in discussing antisemitism in mainstream spaces, or even more progressive ones. The ADL narrates with a powerful voice, despite objections from Jewish and antiracist organizations. It’s a major US Jewish organization, and bills itself as “one of the nation’s premier civil rights organizations” and a close partner of law enforcement. The ADL’s often-repeated view, forged in Cold War anti-communism, is that each Jewish encounter with unsafety reveals a rogue element (left, right, or anti-Zionist) threatening US democracy. Even in more progressive spaces, another ADL project sets the terms for discussion: its work to make hate crime a catch-all terminology for anti-Black, anti-Jewish, anti-queer, and other acts. The language of stopping hate has become so commonplace that the conservative taproot of hate crimes law has all but disappeared. In its light, asking what histories or power relations might have motivated an attacker is easily read as minimizing hate. The space for asking questions is small.

This constricted conversation about antisemitism was only normalized in the 1980s, although its foundations were laid earlier. Here’s how it began. In 1960, spurred by a spate of swastika graffiti, the ADL set out to produce studies of antisemitism with sociologists and psychologists. Over the next two decades it published a litany of surveys of antisemitism’s correlations with Christian beliefs, conservatism, teenage rebelliousness, Black protest politics, and stereotypes. The project was well meant, but charged (including by Jewish critics) as fuzzy science, with leading questions and surveys so poorly calibrated that Jewish respondents would appear as antisemites. It didn’t matter. Even if antisemitism was never quite defined, the ADL’s reports, steadily appearing and widely disseminated, established it as a social problem. 

Reporters and elected officials turned to the ADL for information on antisemitism. By the early 1980s, the ADL – whose neoconservative director avowed that the civil rights movement discriminated against whites, and that the Christian Right’s support for Israel was much more important than its antisemitism – had launched a full court press to make antisemitism the headline. It wasn’t a good faith project. The ADL itself believed that antisemitism was largely past and [Ashkenazi] Jews had “truly merged into the majority… in thought, aspirations, commitment and status.” (Throughout its 109-year history, the ADL has frequently been charged by Jewish and marginalized communities with leveragingmisrepresenting, and weaponizing antisemitism in the service of its other political aims.)

Jewish communities dealing with attacks did not initially share the ADL’s victimology. Well into the 1980s, they often refuted efforts to characterize an attack as inherently antisemitic. They asked whether a swastika was drawn by a Nazi, or by a teenager who just wanted to violate a taboo. (The ADL itself reported that it was generally the teen.) Communities asked whether toppled gravestones meant Jews were unsafe, or whether other gravestones were desecrated too. Where anti-Jewish language was used, they considered whether it might be a complaint about the role of Jewish business owners as a force in Black urban life, rather than Jews as people. In other words, they considered the ways that people encounter the world – a world of racialized power relations – besides simply as Jews.

But the ADL’s national platform kept growing throughout the 1980s. By 1981, the ADL had launched its yearly Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, an opaque report that deliberately bundled minor incidents like graffiti with major violence like arson, stripped of their contexts, on the theory that any one might signify a resurgence of existential threat. 

During this decade, the ADL also launched a state-by-state campaign for laws to criminalize “racial and religious vandalism”, which would soon become hate crimes laws. Antisemitic violence had not been a major concern for Jewish communities, but hate crimes touched a national crisis. A surging wave of anti-Black and related white nationalist violence – and the Reagan-era FBI’s refusal to prosecute those crimes – made state hate crimes laws a matter of urgency for Black, Asian, and LGBTQ communities, among others.

The escalation of national attention to hate crimes meant the end of local Jewish conversations about antisemitism. In 1980, antisemitism stories exploded, quadrupling their share in mainstream press. Rather than reflecting local understanding about the meaning of an incident, they were far more likely to be abstract: to presume “hate” as the motive, “Jewishness” as the target, and “unsafety” as the result. This change didn’t take place only in mainstream media, but in Jewish community media too. It left us with a simplified narrative of victimhood, often framed as the possible harbinger of another Nazi holocaust. Perhaps most tragic, looking back over the newspapers of past decades: as antisemitism rises to the top, other aspects of Jewish life fade from view.

What’s lost matters. In Colleyville, the hostage-taker may not have been hostile toward Jews. He may have been desperate, believing Jews to be leverageable for his aims. He may have been delusional. Those are forms of antisemitism, but they are different from antisemitism that aims to erase us. They’re not ideological, not religious, they cannot be used to rationalize war or militarism.

The Colleyville synagogue’s very public peril – and Rabbi Cytron-Walker’s bravery in taking action and speaking for himself – is a precious chance to have a conversation about antisemitism and safety that’s freed from the ironbound meanings into which we’ve been pressed.

Since Saturday, voices on national news have commanded us to take the Colleyville incident as a sign to press forward on the same course. We’re invited to invest even more in the ADL: the rising tide of Jewish and other voices objecting to the ADL is drowned out by the fact that its security training helped the congregants survive their ordeal. We’re invited to talk more about Israel and its security, which is especially outrageous as Israeli forces push forward the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah while tweeting about Martin Luther King’s birthday. We’re invited to demand confirmation of an antisemitism czar whose abstractions of antisemitism are outrageously banal. It has been hopeful to watch people say no: we’re going to think this through ourselves. To undo six decades of the ADL’s relentless work, we are going to have to do that relentlessly, too.


Emmaia Gelman is 2021-22 Invited Lecturer in the Department of Social & Cultural Analysis at NYU, where she teaches political and cultural histories of race, queerness, rights, and movements and their intersections with colonialism and capitalism. She earned her PhD in the American Studies program at NYU SCA (2021), and her Masters in Urban Studies and Planning at MIT (2007).

Emmaia’s research investigates political and cultural processes in the production and contestation of US ideas about race, identity, and “protecting rights”– particularly the largely behind-the-scenes role of conservative institutions in producing them, and the deployment of those ideas to oppose antiracist organizing in domestic and global spheres. This work uses historical research, cultural studies analysis, and political archives, and is grounded in ongoing conversation with Black, Jewish, Arab, Muslim, and queer community organizations.

Her dissertation, “Empire against race: a critical history of the Anti-Defamation League, 1913-1990”, historicizes the hate crimes framework, anti-bias education, and the establishment of “subjects of remedy” in the context of neoconservative projects including the marginalization of antiracist movements, anti-communism, and global pursuits of Western power.