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Greenblatt's book argues growing intolerance in the U.S. threatens democracy

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The presents under my tree this past Christmas included an old book. It's a Sinclair Lewis novel from 1935 called "It Can't Happen Here." The plot describes a populist leader who wins election to the presidency and imposes a kind of fascism on America. A new book by Jonathan Greenblatt is called "It Could Happen Here." It's nonfiction, an argument against authoritarianism. Greenblatt is head of the Anti-Defamation League, or ADL, founded to oppose antisemitism. He closely followed the growth of antisemitic attacks in the United States in recent years. He also was a critic of the recent administration of former President Donald Trump and of the effort to overturn a democratic election one year ago.

What could happen here?

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: Creeping authoritarianism, increasing divisionists and an actual explosion of violence. Even here in this democracy, increasingly we realize just how fragile it can be. And the unthinkable - neighbors at odds with one another, families coming apart at the seams, violence breaking out in our streets.

INSKEEP: You raise an even greater specter than that by beginning your book with a visit to Germany, where your Jewish ancestors once had been, in a town where no Jews live anymore. Are you truly worried about something that severe?

GREENBLATT: You know, my grandfather, who indeed was Jewish and from Germany, when he was a young man, he never could have envisioned that the only country he'd ever known, a country where he was very patriotic - my great-grandfather fought in the first world war for Germany - would literally designate him sort of an enemy from within. And in fact, my wife is Iranian, and her family, also Jewish, trace their roots back thousands of years. And they never could have imagined that they would be, like my grandfather from Germany, forced out of their country. It can happen here if we don't literally, with our own hands, choose to stop this before it comes to pass.

INSKEEP: The United States has been a refuge for Jews. If you're Jewish, do you have to have somewhere in the back of your head the possibility in mind that it would cease to be that?

GREENBLATT: Well, I was recently having dinner with a friend in Washington, D.C. He's from Canada. And I said, do you think about a plan B? And he wisely said to me, this, America, is our plan B. We have no choice but to make this work.

INSKEEP: Is Trumpism the mass movement you're afraid of, or are you afraid of something different or something worse?

GREENBLATT: Well, let's be clear about two things. No. 1, Trumpism, or this authoritarianism, which, again, would target certain minorities and think it's not only OK but reasonable to, for example, use language like the Chinese virus, knowing that Asian Americans were being attacked in the streets. That is absolutely a problem. But also, neither side of the political spectrum is immune from intolerance. We also must be concerned with a kind of - you could - some might call it cancel culture. It's a different kind of authoritarianism, but a creeping intolerance from the far left, as well, that subjects people to litmus tests, to questions of loyalty. It's also very troubling.

INSKEEP: It's interesting you mention that because, of course, we've been covering the anti-vax movements, which come from both the right and the left, denying the science on vaccines. Does that kind of conspiracy theory often, sooner or later, become an anti-Jewish conspiracy theory?

GREENBLATT: There's no question that the anti-vax movement often will invoke longstanding antisemitic stereotypes. This ideas that - we saw this at ADL from the earliest days of the virus. Some said that either the Jewish people or the Jewish state had invented the virus to kill gentiles, non-Jews. That's an old anti-Jewish conspiracy. Then others were saying as the vaccines were developed, that the Jews developed them, either the Jewish people or the Jewish state, to profit off the misery of people who are suffering. It's really troubling. In recent weeks, we've seen antisemitic flyers dropped in places like Los Angeles, Calif., Austin, Texas, outside of Chicago, Ill., that say COVID is a Jewish problem.

INSKEEP: What do you make of people who refer to antisemitism in oblique ways, in ways that the audience themselves may not entirely pick up on it? I think, for example, of critical references to George Soros, just kind of general attacks on George Soros, who is politically active and happens to be Jewish.

GREENBLATT: When you somehow believe that a shadowy Jewish figure is responsible for everything from COVID-19 to paying - I don't know - migrant caravans to cross the border to trying to undermine democracy, that is really problematic. So - you know, I say this as someone who doesn't agree with everything George Soros believes. But I'm certainly not going to entertain the fantasy that he is manipulating events from behind the scenes. And whether George Soros or - some might have said the late Sheldon Adelson did that. Others in a previous generation said the Rothschild family was doing that. But all of it, Steve, bears a hallmark of classic antisemitism, and it's a sign of the fracturing of civil society in ways that are very frightening.

INSKEEP: I'm interested in what you think of your fellow Americans at this point. Do you presume that there is a really, really large reservoir of anti-Semitism in the population that is waiting to be tapped?

GREENBLATT: Well, look. We know at the ADL - we've been tracking antisemitic attitudes since the 1960s. And the good news is antisemitic attitudes are at almost a historic low, somewhere between eight and 10% of the population. Now, that's still 30-some-odd million people. Nonetheless - nonetheless, those attitudes have dropped dramatically over the decades, Steve. So I have great optimism and hope. But the frightening thing is that we've watched antisemitic incidents explode. They're almost double today what they were just five or six years ago.

INSKEEP: You said there's a decline in antisemitic views in terms of percentages, but an increase in violence. Is it possible that this violence - I don't want to call it exactly a sign of progress, but a symptom of it - it's a desperate rearguard action by people who know they've lost the majority?

GREENBLATT: I think that's fair. I mean, I think in some ways, the number of incidents does reflect a reaction from some elements. Again, in just the last 12 months, Steve, we've had acts of violence in places like Brooklyn. We've had attacks on Jews in public places after the fighting in Gaza. It's all very worrisome. But what I really get concerned about is when the antisemitism is normalized, when people simply don't even realize they're being prejudiced and they express really troubling views. And I think we need to work to try to stop that.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Greenblatt's new book is called "It Could Happen Here." Thanks so much.

GREENBLATT: Thank you, Steve. I appreciate the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRONOS QUARTET'S "LITTLE BLUE SOMETHING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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