We are changing as a nation, and in one particular respect, not for the better. Jew hating and Jew killing is on the rise.
Jews have generally felt safe to worship and gather as communities in the US since the founding of the Republic. AntiSemitism was prevalent for most of US history, but much less so than in Europe. Children were bullied in schools, and there was routine housing, educational and workplace discrimination until the mid 1960s. Indeed, Jews were prevented from living in certain neighborhoods and communities, and their numbers kept low in many universities. The Academy Award winning film Gentleman’s Agreement, with Gregory Peck, provides a good description of US anti Semitism in the late 1940s. However, even with these discriminatory features, American life was safe for Jews and in marked contrast to Jewish life in Europe. American synagogues were not subjected to violent attacks. There was no history of “pogroms” here, violent property-destroying and murderous attacks by mobs.
Jews who moved to America above all found safety as well as freedom. Jews moved to this country in large numbers between 1880-1920, along with Italians and other European groups seeking a better life. All of those groups found religious freedom, and the US has been a safe place to live and pray as one sees fit.
In the past six months, two gun attacks on worshippers in synagogues have occurred, one in Pittsburgh and one in San Diego. Why?
We now have multiple organized gangs of Jew-haters gathering in groups in many places in the country. They have forums on the web where they meet and encourage each-other. Last Saturday in San Diego, a college student attempted mass murder in a synagogue, but his gun jammed, so he only killed one person and injured about a dozen. This man identified as a white supremacist. So did the man who went into a synagogue shooting with a gun in Pittsburgh six months ago.
Remember also that two white supremacists also blew up the Federal building on Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 killing 168 people and injuring 680 others. (Hitler’s birthday was April 20. This is a nostalgic time of year for white supremacists.)
These trends have been years in the making. I worked as a US Senate aide for the US Senate Committee now called Homeland Security for John Glenn from 1987-89. One issue I worked on then was the growing potential of extremist groups to commit terrorist acts here. Unfortunately, the cultural trends apparent thirty years ago continue to develop.
It is not an accident that the same groups of people who target Jews also target American and US Government institutions. The United States has been a haven for the persecuted going back to its colonial history. The country has become strong precisely in the past 250 years because it attracts people from throughout the world who develop their own communities here, get their children educated, work hard, start and build businesses and help the country flourish in a myriad of ways. Jews, who number less than two percent of the population, have thrived in the United States. The success of Jews in the US, in contrast to say, Russia or Germany or Poland, all of which had large Jewish populations at one point, is because the dominant religious and ethnic cultures in the US have tolerated Jews instead of persecuting them. Moreover, the Bill of Rights and US legal traditions have protected Jews from the worst forms of discrimination.
Jews have, for the most part, now completely integrated into mainstream American life. Indeed, most minority groups and many white Christians would not consider Jews to be a minority at all.
The meaning of Jewish success in America for the white supremacist is the symbol that any group can become largely integrated and successful Americans, while retaining some pride in a distinct ethnic or religious identity. For the white supremacist, who harkens to an imaginary fantasy point in US history, the ultimate scary idea is that America is a place where we all can be Americans and succeed, no matter our ethnicity, national origin, religious tradition or race. A good popular culture film that examined the culture of white supremacists is Betrayed, with Debra Winger, from 1988. It shows how an ideology that hates Jews is linked to other racism and the hatred of the US Government. Last year’s Spike Lee film, BlacKkKlansman, nominated for Best Picture, is also educational on these points.
What can we do as Americans? We must decide as a nation that maintaining our identity as a safe place to be of any background, including Jewish, is important. We must be vigilant against anti-Semitism, and not encourage false fantasies that this country belongs to people of a particular ethnic or religious heritage. We must speak out when the anti Semites try to normalize hatred and treat Jew-haters as pariahs.
Ask yourself, how many synagogue shootings or similar incidents must occur before you speak out?
Read the article published in USA Today, “Rising anti-Semitc hatred is changing Jewish life across the United States”, by Elizabeth Wise and Nicquel Terry Ellis