The Alarming Rise of Anti-Semitism
On the morning of October 27, 2018, eleven innocent people were killed and seven injured as they began a worship service in Pittsburgh. The reason?
All were Jewish. The Tree of Life Synagogue shooting is the deadliest attack against the American Jewish community in U.S. history.
The Tree of Life Synagogue murders can be seen as a terrible manifestation of anti-Semitism, domestic terrorism, mental illness, or all three.
The murderer had earlier posted anti-Semitic comments against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which the synagogue supported. He regularly shared content from anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi groups, and his profile on white nationalist site Gab read, “Jews are the children of Satan.” After his apprehension by police, he was overheard telling them, “All these Jews need to die.”
The Tree of Life Synagogue murders can be seen as a terrible manifestation of anti-Semitism, domestic terrorism, mental illness, or all three. But as shocking as the crime was, the anti-Semitic hatred behind it may not be as much of an aberration as we’d like to believe.
Tragically, six months to the day after this attack, the American Jewish Community was hit with another horrific synagogue shooting. On April 27, 2019, a man entered the Chabad of Poway Synagogue during Passover services and began shooting. He killed synagogue member Lori Gilbert Kaye, who had come to say Kaddish for her mother, and injured 3 more, including the congregation’s leader, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein.
Anti-Semitism is rising. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports that the number of anti-Semitic incidents was nearly 60 percent higher in 2017 than 2016, the largest single-year increase on record. The past two years have seen many disturbing manifestations of anti-Semitism in American life. At the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, hundreds of marchers waved swastika banners, made Nazi salutes, and chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” Counter-protestor Heather Heyer was murdered by a professed neo-Nazi who intentionally ran her down. Just a few months earlier, hundreds of Jewish tombstones were desecrated in Pennsylvania and Missouri. The FBI noted a doubling of anti-Semitic incidents Online, false and noxious conspiracy theories have flourished, and not just on neo-Nazi sites in the dark corners of the internet. Anti-Semitic material about Jewish billionaire George Soros and other prominent Jews, for example, is shared on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The rise of digital and social media and the anonymous web has enabled hate speech and anti-Semitic insults and threats in a way that didn’t exist previously.
Where Does Anti-Semitism Come From?
Anti-Semitism has been with us since biblical times. Many scholars see the roots of anti-Jewish sentiment in the rule of the Roman Empire and the birth of Christianity. When Greek and Roman conquerors invaded Israel and destroyed both the first and second Temples, Jews were forced to move away and form new communities that were scattered across the ancient world. As Christianity grew, there was a push to attract new followers and a desire among early Christians to protect themselves from persecution by the brutal Romans. Their solution was to become separate from the Jews. At some point, the idea of deicide – that Jews, not Romans, – had crucified Jesus, became a persistent, anti-Semitic myth.
During the medieval period, Jews were associated with the devil, and the idea of “blood libel” – that Jews used the blood of Christians for ritual purposes – took hold within Christendom. It became particularly deadly in the Middle Ages with the widespread persecution of Jews on religious grounds. After the devastating Great Plague pandemic swept Europe in the 1300s, killing from 30 to 60% of the population, many blamed the Jews for the contagion, claiming they had poisoned the water wells. Additionally, thousands were persecuted and murdered during the Spanish Inquisition. In 1476, the rulers of Spain asked the Pope to start the Inquisition to catch Jews who pretended to be Christians. In 1492 they commanded all Jews to leave Spain or die.
To fight anti-Semitic thinking, we must first try to understand the goals of those who spread it. There are three main types of anti-Semitism that threaten us today. Islamic fundamentalism is behind many of the violent attacks and rhetoric against Jews, and it is spreading all over the world. As New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks wrote, “This form of anti-Semitism cannot be reasoned away because it doesn’t exist on the level of reason.” The response must include deterrence and swift law enforcement action. Yet, although law enforcement is an ally, education can also help over time.
Another form of anti-Semitism comes from a small but highly vocal group of white nationalists. It was white nationalism that drove the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, the Tree of Life murderer in Pittsburgh, and the recent attack on Chabad of Poway synagogue. Anti-Semitism as white identity politics thrives on neo-Nazi websites, protests, and political rallies. Although he wasn’t elected and was denounced by the GOP, self-professed neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier Arthur Jones won 26.5 percent of the vote in Illinois’s third district in 2018. That is a frightening indicator that this form of anti-Semitism is becoming more mainstream.
Anti-Zionism as Veiled Anti-Semitism
Yet the most insidious form of anti-Semitism of all may be the creeping anti-Zionism we’re seeing across college campuses and in our political discourse. Alarmingly, it has found a home in some circles in the form of the BDS movement. Inside Higher Ed reports that study-abroad programs are increasingly a target of a movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions. At the University of Michigan, two instructors refused to write letters of recommendation for students looking to study abroad at Israeli universities.
Judea Pearl, Turing Award winner and father of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and later beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan, recently denounced such anti-Zionism. Pearl chose to reject his status as a distinguished alum of NYU after the school honored the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter for the “extraordinary and positive impact” of its work, which includes the boycott of Zionist student clubs. Pearl publicly decried the SJP’s “intimidation tactics” that have made him and others feel “unwelcome and unsafe on our own campus.”
In January, US Representative Rashida Tlaib tweeted in response to US Senator and Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders regarding the anti-BDS bill that was soon to be presented to Congress for a vote, writing, “They forgot what country they represent.” The comment has been widely condemned for evoking an old attack on American Jews — namely, that Jews are not loyal to the United States. Similar false claims were made about Jews in Europe during the early 20th century by both Nazis and Communists, even after Jews had served their countries in battle, leading to their persecution and mass murder. Tlaib’s comment also implies Jewish control of politicians – another frequent anti-Semitic theme on both the far-left and far-right.