Detail from interfaith memorial service to honor the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, October 2018.
Photo courtesy Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf.
The shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California last weekend was undeniably tragic. But it is hard to tell if it is a symptom of a growing problem in the U.S. – one with centuries of history behind it.
Anti-Semitism is often a sign of a society under pressure or in decline. While Jews were widely persecuted in Medieval Europe, they were especially viciously targeted during the spread of the Black Death. European countries that needed to shore up their treasuries often banished Jewish populations, since the possessions of those banished reverted to the crown; this happened in England and France, among other places. Spain’s expulsion of its Jewish population in 1492 backfired economically, as the country suffered from the loss of a major segment of its workforce. And, of course, the deep economic struggles Germany faced after World War I contributed directly to the rise of the Nazi Party.
People sometimes look for a scapegoat when their personal circumstances are poor or the state of their society is dismal. A handy scapegoat is often a group that it is easy to label as the “other.” Unfortunately, the Jews have a long history of being that group.
In Europe today, reports of violence and aggression against Jewish populations have risen sharply. France reported a 74% increase in the number of anti-Semitic acts last year, and in Germany, anti-Semitic attacks rose by more than 60%. A 2015-16 survey by the Pew Research Center found that sizable minorities of many Eastern European countries say they would not accept Jews as fellow citizens. Anti-Jewish rhetoric has also cropped up in Hungary, the United Kingdom, Sweden and elsewhere. The European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency recently found that anti-Semitic incidents were so common among European Jews that most victims did not bother reporting them.
It is harder to say whether we are seeing a widespread increase in anti-Semitism in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League has reported growing numbers of reported incidents of anti-Semitism in the U.S., with 1,986 in 2017 – a 57% jump from the year prior. The majority of those incidents took the form of harassment, including bomb threats. But these numbers may have been skewed by an American-Israeli teenager who was found guilty of making hundreds of threats to bomb or attack Jewish schools or community centers. He single-handedly boosted fear across the U.S., as well as in the U.K., Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Unlike Europe, where the data seems very clear, it is harder to say whether anti-Semitism is on the rise in the United States.
On the other hand, two synagogue shootings in the past six months is enough to give a person pause. The shooting at a Passover service in Poway killed one woman and wounded three other people; almost exactly six months earlier, a shooter killed 11 people and injured six more during morning services at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh. Both alleged perpetrators participated in online communities where they espoused anti-Semitism and other forms of hate. In an online letter, which authorities are in the process of authenticating, the alleged Poway shooter said he had been directly inspired by the shooting in Pittsburgh, as well as the recent attack on a pair of mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
White nationalists and white supremacists seem emboldened in recent years. Online harassment of Jews, especially Jewish journalists, reportedly rose sharply in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections. While people debate the degree to which rising levels of hate speech directly cause increased violence, there seems to be at least some correlation. The FBI released a report in late 2018 showing that hate crimes overall increased about 17% in 2017 compared to 2016.
Between the more-prevalent anti-Semitic rhetoric and the isolated but frightening incidents of violence, many Jewish congregations and nonprofit organizations have taken steps to defend themselves. Adam Hertzman, director of marketing for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after the October shooting, “There are security measures at pretty much every synagogue and Jewish institution in Pittsburgh.”
This tracks with my personal experience chairing my local synagogue’s budget and finance committee, where I oversaw significant increases in security expenses. These changes arrived mainly in response to the 2014 shootings at a Jewish community center and a Jewish retirement community near Kansas City. It wasn’t always this way, but now every time there is a shooting, spending more money on security seems to be the default response.
I also volunteer at a local Jewish nonprofit here in Atlanta, whose president visited the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in the immediate aftermath of the shooting there last year. When he returned, he told us he had been surprised to hear that Pittsburgh Jewish organizations spend $30,000 per week – over $1.5 million per year – on security. I, however, wasn’t surprised; this figure sounded about right to me. Significant protection costs money. Aaron Bisno, the rabbi of the synagogue that now hosts two of the congregations that formerly met at Tree of Life, told The New York Times that hiring two security guards for 13 hours costs more than $1,000 daily. The more dangerous conditions seem to become, the more vulnerable organizations spend. Unfortunately, these expenditures are a drag on all the other programs and philanthropy the faith communities could otherwise use that money to support.
Many people believe that, with time, racial and religious intolerance will go away. Unfortunately, this may be wishful thinking. Anti-Semitism specifically has been with us for centuries. And while attitudes may sometimes shift generationally, hate does not spring out of nowhere. The Poway shooter was 19 years old. The attacks on a church in Charleston, South Carolina and on mosques in Christchurch were carried out by a 21-year-old and a 28-year old, respectively. These young men did not conceive their ideas out of thin air; they latched onto old ideas that have been passed down.
Their ideas, while not new, were inarguably extreme. The alleged Poway shooter wrote that “Every Jew is responsible for the meticulously planned genocide of the European race.” The Pittsburgh shooter compared Jews to Satan and complained of an “infestation.” He further wrote that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which works with the federal government to resettle refugees in the U.S., was bringing in “invaders” specifically to kill people like him. From their writings, it seems clear that the alleged shooters were not only deeply disturbed; they also didn’t know any Jews or, if they did, they had no real interactions with them.
In my life, I have met many people who had never known a Jew before, especially when I attended college and then when I moved to Georgia from New York. Many of these people held misconceptions. Even when they realized I was a normal person, it could still be difficult to help them understand that I’m not an outlier in the Jewish community. We laugh at the same jokes, we care about our families, and we share the same struggles as everyone else.
It may never be possible to completely stamp out anti-Semitism specifically or hate generally. Prejudices and fear get passed on from generation to generation. Generalized hate can also provide easy answers for complex problems that some people can’t or won’t try to think through. As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I have been surprised in the last few years at how fearful some older Jews I know have become about the current political climate in the U.S. They have more life experience, and I assume they know what signs of real trouble look like. But in reality, it is not always easy to tell when an ignorant remark is just an ignorant remark, or when it is the start of something much worse. It was rattling to hear the daughter of a Holocaust survivor tell me, “This is how it all starts.” My hope is that, over time, she is proven wrong.
I have written before about the fact that many people seem frustrated and angry even though the U.S. economy is running strong, and I worry about how we will react when the next downturn comes. For the sake of our country, we need to work harder to confront and stamp out all forms of hatred, whether it’s open aggression or a casual remark or joke. There are lots of things that rational people can disagree on, but standing up to hatred shouldn’t be one of them.