On October 27, 2018, a white racist broke into the Synagogue of the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh and murdered 11 people. This marked what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in American history.
The horrific attack confirmed the growing wave of anti-Semitism and white supremacy in the United States that accelerated during Donald Trump’s presidency and continues to this day.
We live in difficult, dark times when it is easy to lose track of all of the painful events that compete for our attention. But we owe it to the victims of the tree of life shooting – and to the victims of anti-Semitism across the country and around the world – not to forget. Instead, we must learn from these tragedies.
Growing up, I naively viewed anti-Semitism as a footnote in history to study rather than a current threat to face. Now I realize how isolated I was from reality. It feels like there’s a different story almost every week about an anti-Semitic street robbery or vandalism in a synagogue.
Just this week, parking lots at a high school in Austin, Texas were sprayed with swastikas, the N word and other bigoted language. And near the Shalom Austin Jewish Community Center, Newsweek said, a banner attributed to a white supremacist organization that read “Vax the Jews” was hung on a bridge.
It needs to be made clear that anti-Semitism is a core aspect of the ideology of white supremacy and not a side effect. There’s a reason the white racists who marched through Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” They invoked the conspiracy theory known as The Great Replacement, which says that non-white immigrants and refugees will move to the United States and Western Europe in large numbers to replace the existing white population. Many white racists accuse Jews of staging this, The Pittsburgh shooter himself said he specifically targeted the synagogue dedicated to the tree of life because the community, in collaboration with the HIAS refugee agency (formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) Shabbat held. Exactly six months after the Tree of Life shooting, a white racist attacked a Chabad in Poway, California, during a Passover service.
The story goes on
Anti-Semitism is part of the driving ideology that enlivens white nationalist conspiracy theories about a world where white Christian men are losing power and control. But the physical attacks on Jews and the spread of anti-Semitic tropes did not all come from the right.
In December 2019, a slew of incidents rocked the New York and New Jersey Jewish community, from a shooting in a kosher market in Jersey City to a fatal knife stab at a Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York. None of these attackers were white racists.
Then, in May 2021, a new rampage of anti-Semitic attacks spread around the world after rocket fire broke out between Israel and Hamas. During the two-week conflict, Jews were attacked on the streets of New York and Los Angeles, and anti-Semitic incidents in London increased by more than 500%.
Yet despite the spate of anti-Semitic attacks, Jewish groups have mostly been left alone. A new American Jewish Committee report on anti-Semitism found that 53% of the American public knew little or nothing about these recent attacks on Jews.
A likely reason for this is the lack of education about Jewish history and experiences. A staggering 63% of Millennials and Generation Z don’t know that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, according to a 2020 survey commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Even more socially conscious activists may not know that Jews are a small minority, making up only 2% of the US population, but accounting for 58% of all religiously motivated hate crimes in America in 2020.
There are only 15.2 million Jews in the world. There are individual celebrities with more followers than Jews in the world. So what you say is important.
To put the extent of the Holocaust into a larger perspective: Today there are five billion more people than in 1939, but there are still around 1.5 million fewer Jews. That’s the cost of six million.
Another challenge is that social media has become a vehicle for spreading hatred. On TikTok, anti-Semitic comments rose 912% in 2021, climbing from 41 to 415, according to a study by Dr. Gabriel Weimann from the University of Haifa and Natalie Masri from the IDC Herzliya Institute for Counter-Terrorism. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said it had received 193 reports of possible anti-Semitic incidents in the week after the war between Hamas and Israel began, including on platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Twitter. Between May 7 and May 14, more than 17,000 tweets with variations of the phrase “Hitler was right” were posted.
Anti-Semitism has a way of working its way from the fringes to the mainstream. Anti-Semitic tropes can get stuck in dark corners of the internet and then reinforced by politicians like MP Marjorie Taylor-Greene and Fox News anchors like Tucker Carlson. The New York Times isn’t immune either. In April 2019 – on the same day of the shooting in the Poway Synagogue – the newspaper published an anti-Semitic cartoon in its international edition depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a seeing eye dog with a Star of David collar carrying a blind Trump a Yarmulke cites, which reinforces both a dehumanizing caricature of Jews and a myth that Israel controls American politics. (The Times later apologized)
“This type of content normalizes anti-Semitism by adding to the tropes of Jewish control at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise. And on the same day, a man attacked a synagogue for believing in such myths? a moral failure on a large scale, ”said Jonathan Greenblat, CEO of ADL.
It is important to understand that none of this is a coincidence. Anti-Semitism is deeply anchored in the social fabric of society. Where xenophobia and scaremongering reign, anti-Semitism is often close behind.
This week, organizers of the deadly Unite the Right 2017 rally in Charlottesville are on trial. The white racists responsible for the violent incident happen to be sued by two Jewish women. Roberta Kaplan is leading the lawsuit brought by Integrity First for America, a civil rights nonprofit led by Amy Spitalnick, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.
If the case is successful, the case will put a heavy strain on the finances of the white nationalist and far right organizations involved and send a strong message against hatred. Like all turning points in history, neither Charlottesville nor Pittsburgh can be forgotten. Their teachings and sacrifices are to be remembered.
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Originally published in Teen Vogue