The morning of Oct. 27 was supposed to be like any other for the congregants of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. But in the span of just over an hour, a gunman wielding an AR-15-style assault rifle murdered 11 innocent people in what quickly became the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in United States history. The gunman was outspoken online about his anti-Semitism, saying that the U.S. had an “overwhelming Jew problem” and a “Jew infestation.”
It was a moment that shocked the American conscience and made people wonder how these hateful attitudes still exist in 2018. But, those who have been paying attention know that such a show of anti-Semitism shouldn’t be surprising.
In 2017, the Anti-Defamation League reported nearly 2,000 incidents of anti-Semitism in the United States, a 57 percent increase from the previous year. Some have been more publicized than others, like the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that saw protestors chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
Some have been quick to blame the rise on President Trump, saying that his hateful rhetoric and hesitance to admonish white supremacists has ignited this new wave of anti-Semitic violence. It’s a claim that has a lot of merit and is partly true in that white supremacists have interpreted Trump’s success as giving them a free pass to do whatever they want. But, people tend to forget that anti-Semitism didn’t penetrate American culture at the same time that Trump did.
The problem is, unlike with issues like racism, you don’t hear much about American anti-Semitism in the media. It’s been a festering yet subtle issue for generations, and the only reason that it’s being talked about now is that it finally boiled over into a brutal massacre. That needs to be concerning to every American with a conscience.
In many ways, anti-Semitism is as deeply entrenched in American culture as racism. Both have their stakes in political rhetoric, pose a serious threat to the groups they attack and take generations to evolve away. Jews and racial minorities alike have both been maligned by cults of white supremacists and have faced policy attacks by the U.S. government. But as much as the ideals have in common, they’re perceived differently by the general public.
One thing that keeps people from talking about American anti-Semitism like they do racism is the idea that it’s not an American problem to begin with. The word itself brings to mind the images of Nazi Germany and the horrors of the Holocaust, not necessarily anything that was born and bred in the modern United States. In contrast, racism has been a part of American culture since before America even existed. It’s an institution that has always been present in some form, be it slavery, Jim Crow or modern racial profiling. The general public acknowledges that it’s a prevalent issue and is willing to speak out about it in any instance.
But the fact is: anti-Semitism has deeper roots in American history than most people care to admit. Although the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s is generally associated with racist propaganda like “The Birth of a Nation,” it was a response to increases in immigration, which included Jews coming to the United States from Europe. In the era of the Great Depression, Jews were used as scapegoats for the economic turmoil that the country was in. Even though things got better after World War II, that underlying prejudice and hatred never really went away. Sure, the Jewish community has been undoubtedly successful in the United States and has seen its culture flourish, but that doesn’t mean the deep-seeded hatred went away.
The overarching issue is that the American public’s own ignorance toward its culture of anti-Semitism has led to a boiling point where hateful views are translating into more threatening and violent actions. When someone uses a racial slur to refer to a minority on social media, people rightfully get angry and are more than willing to devote quite a bit of time to discussing it, as they should. But Jews, who are often the subject of outrageous alt-right conspiracy theories, don’t always get the same courtesy. George Soros, a Democratic mega-donor who fled the Nazis as a child, is frequently the target of such theories, including one recent idea that he is somehow funding the caravans of asylum-seeking migrants who are coming to the U.S. from Central America.
Sure, these theories get some news exposure, but people are hesitant to talk about them too much because they equate it with spreading the rhetoric. In some instances, maybe that’s true. But there has to be a balance between talking about something too much and not talking about it at all. When people put on their rose-colored goggles and act like these attitudes don’t exist anymore in America, they’re inadvertently telling anti-Semitics that there’s no problem with what they believe in, which leaves an entire community of innocent people at risk. These fanatics start to think that they’re somehow the righteous few, and it doesn’t take long before their beliefs translate into violent incidents, such as what happened in Pittsburgh.
Anti-Semitism is still a problem that Americans deal with on a daily basis, and just like racism, it’s not going to go away any time soon. Subsets of the population harbor an intense hatred for Jewish people for no reason other than the religion that they’re a part of. It’s an ideology born of nativism, propaganda and stereotypes that took decades to build, and to think that it’s just going to fade away on its own is frankly ignorant. It’s going to require discussion, outrage and an unwillingness to tolerate even the slightest anti-Semitic microaggressions. At the very least, it shouldn’t take a mass shooting during a synagogue service for people to wake up and realize that something is wrong.