Are U.S. Jews Still More Safe Than the Jews of Europe?

The last two years have seen extreme right-wing views entering the mainstream, including a militant strain of white nationalism. But until the unprecedented Pittsburgh synagogue hate crime, I would have said U.S. Jews lived unthreatened lives relative to Europe. Now, that's changed

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A police officer stands guard outside Temple Sinai before Friday evening Shabbat services on November 2, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
A police officer stands guard outside Temple Sinai before Friday evening Shabbat services on November 2, 2018 in Pittsburgh, PennsylvaniaCredit: AFP

The murderous attack on Jews at prayer in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, on October 27, put a bloody exclamation point behind an already growing sense of unease in today’s America.

Over the past two years, the entry into the country’s mainstream of extreme right-wing views, including a militant strain of white nationalism, made clear that the social and political climate was changing, and not for the better.

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No one, however, expected a crazed gunman shouting "all Jews must die" to enter a synagogue on a normal Shabbat morning and carry out the worst massacre of Jews in American history. While it is still too soon to assess all of the implications of this horrific event, anti-Semitism is sure to be on Jewish minds and, very likely, on the minds of others, too, as we approach the midterm Congressional elections

Until this unprecedented hate crime, most American Jews of this generation, if asked, would say that they typically go about their daily lives without encountering overt antagonism.

In earlier decades, however, American Jews experienced varying degrees of discrimination and exclusion. A hard-edged anti-Semitism was a prominent part of the public discourse of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and during these years Jews were frequently accused of disloyalty, economic profiteering, and war-mongering. 

Acts of aggression against individual Jews and Jewish institutions have also occurred over the years and continue to this day, with frequent reports of assaults on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and elsewhere.

The United States has hardly been free of anti-Semitism, yet most American Jews have long felt generally accepted, are fully integrated in virtually all strata of American life, and believe themselves to be secure and at home in the United States.

Well before the Pittsburgh shootings, though, recent events had begun to rattle these feelings of safety and belonging. Anti-Jewish hostility has been on the upsurge globally since the turn of the millennium, and Jews everywhere have begun to feel more vulnerable.

The Jewish community and allies come together for a candlelight vigil for victims of the synagogue shooting at the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh. White House, D.C. October 27, 2018Credit: AFP

The Anti-Defamation League’s most recent report reveals that 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents took place in the U.S. in 2017 - a 57 percent increase over the previous year’s total. Most involved vandalism and verbal abuse and not physical assaults.

Compared to the situation in European countries, where physical attacks against Jews, some of them lethal, are far more common, it had long been thought that the situation in America has been relatively safe. Nevertheless, given the uptick in anti-Semitism in both word and deed and the general sense of tension and confrontation in today’s highly polarized American society, there is need for increased protection - a need that is sure to increase dramatically in the aftermath of Pittsburgh.

In response, a newly extended defense organization, Community Security Services, has already trained some 4,000 Jewish volunteers to protect synagogues and other Jewish institutions in America. That number is now sure to grow.

Beyond these problems, manifestations of anti-Jewish hostility have become evident in extreme segments of the political right, the political left, and political Islam. The first of these now seems especially threatening.

The public displays of hard-right, white supremacist, and anti-Semitic fervor that culminated in the infamous rally of neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and others in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017 came as a shock. Many Americans looked on with a deepening sense of dismay, which was compounded when President Trump remarked that there were "very fine people" on both sides of that violent event.  

File photo: White nationalists march in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017.Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

One wondered if it was an aberrant, one-off happening or heralded the revival of re-energized passions on the extreme right.  

A second rally held one year after the Charlottesville gathering attracted only a small handful of supporters, though, so it seemed to many  that the "alt-right," a loose collection of diverse, counter-cultural types on the reactionary right, had for now retreated mostly to its previous online existence.

But the Pittsburgh assault signaled that not everyone would be satisfied with a merely virtual anti-Semitic existence somewhere in cyberspace. Robert Bowers, a previously unknown Jew-hating activist, his head full of delusional notions about non-existent Jewish threats, decided it was time to "go in." He did just that and, guns blazing, took the lives of 11 innocent Jews.

Ominously, and in another sphere of public life, several extreme figures, including Holocaust deniers and openly declared anti-Semites, are running for local, state, and national office, mostly as Republicans, in several U.S. states.

The most notorious of these is Arthur Jones, an avowed white supremacist, anti-Semite, and former leader of the American Nazi party, who is on the ticket as the uncontested Republican candidate for a Congressional seat in Illinois’ third district.

Jones is an extreme case but not an isolated one, for several others who share racist and anti-Semitic views are also in contention for political office, and not for the first time. None is expected to win, but the fact that they are in the race at all gives their toxic views far greater visibility than they otherwise would have.

Add to all of the above a widespread sense of disquiet about some of President Trump’s more extreme America First policies, as well as his often incendiary  rhetoric, some of it bound to fuel a growing intolerance and even xenophobia among groups within the country, and the situation worsens. Factor in as well America’s pervasive gun culture, and the potential for still more violence becomes obvious.

In addition, an increasingly hostile scene for Jewish students on some U.S. college campuses, anti-Semitic exhortations issuing from imams in a number of American mosques, Louis Farrakhan’s continuing preaching against "Satanic Jews," and the frequent appearance of swastikas and other signs of anti-Jewish hatred make it understandable why many American Jews are feeling concerns  they have not previously known.

Older Americans may recall when rabid anti-Semitic propaganda was widely disseminated in the years of Father Coughlin and the Christian Front, Henry Ford and "The International Jew", and the swastika epidemic of 1959-60. For most younger Americans, though, today’s toxic rhetoric and the violence that can accompany it are new and alarming.

Until the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue, it would have been safe to say that compared to the situation of Jews living in European countries, most American Jews live unthreatened lives. The America they have long known as stable and hospitable, however, is in a phase of social, political, and ideological tumult, in which extreme views of many kinds have come prominently to the fore. Anti-Semitism flourishes in such an unsettled climate, as do other kinds of racial, ethnic, and religious hostility.

Just how this troubled sense of things will accompany voters to the ballot box remains to be seen, but it should not be discounted as a factor in how people of all faiths, or none, and particularly Jews, will vote.

Alvin H. Rosenfeld is Professor of English and holds the Irving M. Glazer Chair in Jewish Studies at Indiana University, where he is also Director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary anti-Semitism at Indiana University. He is the editor of Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives (Indiana University Press, 2013) and Deciphering the New Antisemitism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2015)