At the same time that Jews were feeling unprecedented acceptance in the U.S., the climate was growing increasingly hostile, intensifying since Donald Trump was elected president. And attacks on Jews are on the rise in Europe as well.
Until recent years, many Jews in America believed that the worst of anti-Semitism was over there, in Europe, a vestige of the old country.
American Jews were welcome in universities, country clubs and corporate boards that once excluded their grandparents. They married non-Jews, moved into mixed neighborhoods and by 2000, the first Jew ran for vice president on a major party ticket.
So the massacre Saturday of 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue, by a man who told police when he surrendered that he “wanted all Jews to die,” was for many a shocking wake-up call.
“This kind of evil makes me think of the Holocaust and how people can be so cruel, that there is so much evil in the world, still,” said Moshe Taube, 91, a retired cantor from Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh and a survivor of the Holocaust.
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But it did not come out of nowhere, said experts in anti-Semitism. At the same time that Jews were feeling unprecedented acceptance in the United States, the climate was growing increasingly hostile, intensifying in the two years since Donald Trump was elected president. And it comes at a time when attacks on Jews are on the rise in Europe as well, with frequent anti-Semitic incidents in France and Germany.
The hate in the United States came into full view last year as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, with lines of men carrying torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”
Swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti have been cropping up on synagogues and Jewish homes around the country. Jews online are subjected to vicious slurs and threats. Many synagogues and Jewish day schools have been amping up security measures.
The Anti-Defamation League logged a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017, compared to the previous year — including bomb threats, assaults, vandalism, and anti-Semitic posters and literature found on college campuses.
A spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League said that before Saturday’s shooting, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in recent U.S. history was in 1985, when a man killed a family of four in Seattle. He had mistakenly thought they were Jewish.
There was also an attack by a white supremacist on a Jewish Community Center filled with children in Los Angeles in 1999 that injured five. More recently, in 2014, a white supremacist opened fire outside a Jewish Community Center in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, killing three people.
“I’m not a Chicken Little who’s always yelling, ‘It’s worse than it’s ever been!’ But now I think it’s worse than it’s ever been,” said Deborah E. Lipstadt, professor of Holocaust history at Emory University, in Atlanta, and author of an upcoming book on anti-Semitism.
Lipstadt said she does not wish to be seen as alarmist, because in some ways “things have never been better” for Jews in America.
But she likened anti-Semitism to a herpes infection that lays dormant and re-emerges at times of stress. It does not go away, no matter how “acculturated” Jews have become in the United States, because “it’s a conspiracy theory,” said Lipstadt, whose win at trial against a Holocaust denier in England was portrayed in the 2016 movie “Denial.”
What has changed, said several experts in interviews, is that conspiracy theories and “dog whistles” that resonate with anti-Semites and white supremacists are being circulated by establishment sources, including the president and members of Congress. Bizarre claims about Jews have moved from the margins to the establishment.
Prominent recent examples include unfounded conspiracy theories about George Soros, a wealthy donor to Democratic Party causes, and a Jewish émigré from Hungary who survived the Nazis.
On Oct. 5, Trump asserted on Twitter that the women who stopped Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., in an elevator to plead with him to vote against advancing the nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court were “paid for by Soros and others.” In a rally in Missoula, Montana, on Oct. 19, the president told the crowd that the media prefers to interview protesters who were paid for by “Soros or somebody.”
Soros has also been blamed for financing the caravan of Hondurans and Guatemalans fleeing north on foot through Mexico — another claim with no factual basis.
A day after a pipe bomb was discovered at Soros’ home in Westchester, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House majority leader, wrote in a tweet, “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer and Bloomberg to BUY this election! Get out and vote Republican Nov. 6.”
Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, are also Jewish billionaires. After more explosive devices were found in the homes and offices of other Democratic leaders and supporters, McCarthy deleted the tweet.
Anti-Semitism has also become a charged topic on many U.S. college campuses, with Israel as the detonator.
Activists on the left — sometimes including young Jews — call for boycotts and divestments from companies doing business in Israel, or the occupied territories. Mainstream Jewish groups are now branding such campaigns as anti-Semitism. Where to draw the line between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism is a growing source of friction in many colleges and state capitals.
In Europe, Jewish leaders have been confronting open hatred toward Jews, also sometimes linked to animosity toward Israel.
In France, Jews have increasingly faced attacks and insults from members of the country’s large Muslim community. In March, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, Mireille Knoll, was knifed to death in her apartment by a young man who shouted “Allahu akbar.” Prosecutors classified it as an anti-Semitic hate crime.
In a 2015 study, 42 percent of French Jews surveyed said that they had suffered insults or aggressive acts at the hands of Muslims.
In Germany, anti-Semitism remains a daily occurrence, sometimes taking on the form of criminal attacks on Jews or Jewish institutions in the country, but often in more casual insults or the questioning of the country’s post-World War II commitment to “never again” repeat the Nazi Holocaust.
One of the most prominent anti-Semitic attacks this year, in which a young Syrian struck a man wearing a skullcap on the street of a trendy Berlin neighborhood, led the head of Germany’s main Jewish organization to warn Jews against openly wearing skullcaps, or other public displays of their religion in public.
A demonstration in support of the country’s Jews drew thousands of people to the streets, but months later, in the midst of violent demonstrations by neo-Nazis in the eastern city of Chemnitz, masked assailants threw rocks and bottles at a local Jewish restaurant and shouted anti-Semitic insults, the owner told police.
Nadine Epstein, editor-in-chief of Moment, an independent Jewish magazine in the United States, said that in 2014 the magazine did a special section on anti-Semitism, interviewing a wide range of scholars and leaders in the field. She said that her conclusion was that anti-Semitism, while persistent, was mostly a problem in Europe. But “it wasn’t really an issue in the U.S.,” she said.
“Four plus years later,” she added in an email, “we live in a very different world where nationalism, and with it anti-Semitism, is on the rise, stirred up by the rhetoric of one candidate in the 2016 presidential campaign. It’s been building ever since, and now that we are in the run-up to the midterms, the first national election since, we are seeing the consequences of such dangerous rhetoric.”
Moment magazine now has a webpage to monitor anti-Semitism around the world, something Epstein said she never imagined doing.