Tree of Life Synagogue vigil in Pittsburgh, Oct. 27, 2018. Photo courtesy Governor Tom Wolf.
In the wake of this weekend’s shooting in Pittsburgh, all but the furthest fringes of online and media discourse have expressed revulsion for the shooter’s actions and sympathy for the Jewish community in Pennsylvania and beyond.
Yet this reaction masks the reality that low-grade anti-Semitism flourishes in many corners of America. In fact, such sentiments – or at least their overt expression – may be growing.
The Anti-Defamation League, a group that tracks and fights anti-Semitism, identified nearly 2,000 incidents of anti-Jewish violence and harassment in 2017, a 57 percent increase over the year prior. The organization also identified a marked increase in anti-Semitic content on social media, noting that such attacks were unusual in American discourse prior to a few years ago. Jewish political candidates, journalists and private citizens have reported increasing harassment, especially but not exclusively online. Anti-Semitic vandalism is also on the rise.
There is no question that the shooting in Pittsburgh was motivated by anti-Semitism. The suspect reportedly spouted overtly hateful statements to that effect before surrendering to the police. Law enforcement reports that he also posted virulently anti-Jewish content online prior to the attack.
President Donald Trump said, in condemning the attack during a speech in Indianapolis: “This was an anti-Semitic act. You wouldn’t think this would be possible in this day and age.” His surprise is not unique. Many Americans doubtless think that widespread, modern-day anti-Semitism is largely a European problem, not an American one. But prejudice does not always necessarily lead to violence of the type we saw in Pittsburgh. It can also crop up on campuses and in corporate conference rooms, where the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is treated as a rational response to an intractable problem.
It is not that America, or the world in general, owes anything particularly to Israel. There is plenty of space to criticize a country that has occupied a neighboring population for half a century while colonizing conquered land in a settlement program that has all but put a genuine peace out of reach. Nor is it inherently anti-Semitic to question how a modern democracy, as Israel sees itself, can exist within an avowedly religious state.
Yet anti-Semitism does manifest in the double standards that many Americans and other Westerners apply to Israel vis-a-vis the other participants in the region’s conflict.
Consider: In what other Middle Eastern country would a Supreme Court have overruled the government to admit a foreigner previously deemed an opponent of the regime? The short answer is “none of them.” Israel’s Supreme Court, however, ruled in mid-October that an American graduate student must be allowed to study in the country despite her past support of BDS. Lara Alqasem, a 22-year-old from Florida, formerly led the University of Florida’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine but says she no longer supports the idea of boycotting Israel. A lower court permitted the government to bar Alqasem from entering the country due to her former support of BDS, but the Supreme Court overturned that ruling.
BDS is a movement ostensibly aimed at opposing Israel’s occupation of historically Palestinian territory. Supporters call for participants to boycott Israel’s government, businesses and cultural institutions; to pressure financial institutions and other organizations to withdraw investments in Israeli companies; and to campaign for sanctions against Israel itself.
While Israel is far from blameless, it is hard to see how the country deserves to be boycotted or divested from Western institutions if the same standard does not apply elsewhere. What about Iran and Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women and religious minorities? Or Syria and Egypt’s autocratic governments? Or the entire Palestinian political and paramilitary infrastructure’s use of civilians as political pawns and terrorist cannon fodder, while promoting an avowedly anti-Jewish propaganda movement?
There is something grossly out of kilter in the circles where a one-sided BDS movement is seen as a rational response to a multi-sided problem.
The person to blame for the 11 deaths in Pittsburgh is the shooter and no one else. I am not suggesting that we lay the blame for these deaths, or the other injuries and terror that this man caused, at the feet of BDS or its supporters. But America ought to take a close look at its creeping acceptance of low-grade anti-Semitism, whether it manifests in violence, harassment or a double standard for international conduct.