Pittsburgh surprised many: But not those who repeatedly reported rising American anti-Semitism

Some 15 years ago I wrote a piece on anti-Semitism for an online Jewish publication that began as follows: “It is an irony of Jewish life that it took the Holocaust to give anti-Semitism a bad name. So widespread was international revulsion over the annihilation of six million Jews that following World War II anti-Semitism, even of the polite variety, became the hatred one dared not publicly express. But only for a time.”

Saturday’s synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh underscored how anti-Semitism is no longer the hatred one dares not publicly express — though that’s been obvious for some time to all who cared to recognize it. I've tried to make the point in numerous GetReligion posts.

The details of what happened in Pittsburg, on the Jewish Sabbath, are by now well known, thanks to the wall-to-wall coverage, much of it sympathetic, detailed and excellent — including their understanding of the Jewish religious and communal aspects.

The extensive coverage is entirely appropriate, I’d say. Because more than just a display of vicious anti-Semitism, what happened in Pittsburg was an American tragedy. It underscored how threatened the nation is today by our corrosive political environment.


That’s likely to continue, if not intensify, regardless of the outcome of next week’s midterm elections.

The coverage I’ve found most worthwhile has not been the breaking news stories, though the facts of the story are certainly critical. Instead, it's the "explainers" that have actually repeated what I've read over and over in Jewish, Israeli and even mainstream American and European media for years now. And which I believe is what the vast majority of self-aware diaspora Jews have long known and feared — that Pittsburgh was only a matter of time.

I highlight them here to underscore what I believe is a critical point. That Jews or any other minority can only be safe in a pluralistic society that tolerates — no, embraces — diversity, be it religious, ethnic, racial, cultural or opinion (the last within broad reason; no yelling fire in crowded theaters).

One news backgrounder I liked is this comprehensive story from The Washington Post that ran Sunday. Here’s its lede:

This is what they had long been fearing. As the threats increased, as the online abuse grew increasingly vicious, as the defacing of synagogues and community centers with swastikas became more commonplace, the possibility of a violent attack loomed over America’s Jewish communities.

On Saturday, the worst of those fears was made real as a gunman stormed a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing at least 11 of its members and injuring many more, reportedly shouting “All Jews must die” during his rampage. It is the worst single attack on American Jews in the history of the country. And it is one that many who have been monitoring anti-Semitic activity in the United States have been dreading.

“Unfortunately, in the atmosphere we are in, as shocking as these incidents always are, they are not surprising,” said Oren Segal, director of the Anti Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “Anti-Semitism is the lifeblood of extremism, and violence is never that far behind.”

I also appreciated this opinion essay written by a New York Times editor for JTA, the international Jewish news agency. Again, it restates what for so many of us in the Jewish community is really nothing new.

I've excerpted a hefty section of this one because I think it’s quite worthwhile.

Last August, when I was speaking at a synagogue in East Hampton about a rising tide of anti-Semitism and intolerance, a congregant stood to tell me that the number of right-wing anti-Semites in this country could fit in that sanctuary.

The problem, he assured me, was not the neo-Nazis, “alt-right” white nationalists and virulent anti-immigrant voices filling my social media feeds — but the anti-Zionists on college campuses. …

I have spent the last two years trolling around the darker corners of 4Chan, 8Chan, Reddit and Gab. I have visited the Daily Stormer’s website so frequently I may be on an F.B.I. watchlist. I know what’s out there.

And since the publication last spring of my book “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump,” I have traversed the country to warn of the dangers of rising nationalism, organized bigotry and anti-Semitic hate. My message: Don’t kid yourself that the most violent forms of hate have been aimed at others — blacks, Muslims, Latino immigrants. Don’t ever think that your government’s pro-Israel policies reflect a tolerance of Jews. We are all in this together.

In most places, synagogues, Jewish community centers, independent bookstores, that message seems to have been absorbed. But virtually everywhere I have gone — especially in Orthodox communities — there have been audience members, sometimes most of them, that have angrily rejected that message.

I have been called a self-hating Jew, deluded, paranoid. President Trump moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, abrogated the Iran nuclear deal, done whatever Benjamin Netanyahu has asked of him. His Orthodox son-in-law is one of his closest advisers. His beloved daughter is a convert. His grandchildren are Jewish.

No, I am told, the scattering of bigots on the fringes of his orbit are of no concern. The BDS movement — Boycott, Divest from and Sanction Israel — is the threat, as are the voices on the left speaking out against Israeli policies and actions toward the Palestinians. Oh, and Louis Farrakhan.

My answer has never been to dismiss those concerns, but to put them into context. The gutter bigotry of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Muslim leader, is no better than the hate spewed by right-wing racists like Richard Spencer and David Duke. It should be condemned as forthrightly.

Finally, here’s an opinion essay by a University of Maryland scholar of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. I believe it's particularly relevant for the preponderance of GetReligion readers, who are not Jews.

Please take the time to read these pieces in full. But if you're just going to read one, make it this one. And yes, it shines a negative light on President Donald Trump.

Trump’s contribution to the revival of anti-Semitism in American politics lies in his penchant for conspiracy theories — evident, for example, in the disgusting closing commercial of his 2016 campaign. It included dark insinuations about global forces, with photos of prominent Jewish figures: George Soros, Lloyd Blankfein and Janet Yellen. That commercial was an unambiguous and obvious appeal to anti-Semitism. … Through his support for conspiratorially minded right-wing media figures, Trump has lent legitimacy to a paranoid and dangerous mode of thinking. He has associated it with the presidency of the United States, when it used to be the domain of fringe racists.

The reality is that Jews are a small minority in America and an even smaller one worldwide. And though we in the United States are mostly white, most of us also know that in this overwhelmingly Christian country, we are still an enduring “other.” We know that however sophisticated and tolerant our Christian friends are — and we cherish our friendships and bonds with them — that as long as Christians read the New Testament, there will always be some — however few in number — who take its words literally and will look upon Judaism and Jews with a mixture of disdain, hatred and fear.

It is time for us all, including our political leaders, to spend some time studying where hatred for Jews comes from and how it can and must be defeated — yet again. The time is long past to end American cluelessness about the history, nature and contemporary danger of anti-Semitism.

Sorry if you find that off-putting. But in my estimation, that’s the prevailing view among the nearly three-quarters of American Jews who did not vote for our president.

Please respect our Commenting Policy