Pittsburgh synagogue murders one year later: A story of rising antisemitism in America

Two forces in our politics make this iteration of antisemitism so combustible — white radicalization online and Donald Trump

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Jewish Council on Urban Affairs activists rally in downtown Chicago in the spring of 2018 to urge Illinois members of the U.S. Senate and House to protect immigrant communities.

Jewish Council on Urban Affairs activists rally in downtown Chicago in the spring of 2018 to urge the local members of the U.S. Senate and House to protect immigrant communities.

Photo provided by JCUA

One year ago, on Oct. 27, 2018, a white nationalist gunman stormed into a Pittsburgh synagogue during Saturday morning prayers, armed with an assault rifle and an ideology that cast Jews as the secret source of evil in the world.

The man murdered 11 people that day in what was the deadliest antisemitic attack in our nation’s history.

The shooting shook the Jewish community to its core, yet we’ve come to realize that before long our mourning is bound to resurface as new tragedies unfold. Just earlier this month on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, a neo-Nazi in the German town of Halle killed two people outside a synagogue after denouncing Jews as “the root of all these problems.” The next attack can’t be far off.

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According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents in the U.S. surged nearly 60 percent in 2017, the largest single-year increase on record. A recent report by the Kantor Center found that antisemitic violence claimed more Jewish lives around the world in 2018 than in any year in decades. The trends locally are just as disturbing, with antisemitic incidents in Illinois rising since 2015.

In times like these, it’s easy to resign ourselves to the idea that antisemitism is inevitable. We tell our children that no matter where we go, we’ll never be totally safe, because in every society throughout history, Jews have been (and will always be) targeted. But this approach is a mistake. To treat antisemitism as an eternal, almost primordial force beyond our comprehension blinds us to the political and social circumstances in which it emerges.

We need to clearly understand the dynamics of antisemitism and forge a path to confront it.

Antisemitism flourished in Christian Europe, as the imperial Roman Empire spread its rule across the continent — and along with it the idea that Jews were responsible for killing Jesus. The contempt for Jews manifested in a panoply of Roman laws and institutions that isolated Jews from the rest of the population; Jews were prohibited from intermarriage, barred from working in the civil service or the army, and had their places of worship confiscated.

Even as power changed hands over the centuries, the conception of Jews as a mischievous, disloyal and malefic force endured. Forced into social isolation, Jews were scapegoated as the leading cause of a society’s problems — a deft political maneuver the ruling class could play when it needed to redirect the public’s attention away from the real sources of injustice.

The story told about Jews was highly adaptable. In times of war, Jews were blamed for undermining countries from within. In times of famine, Jews were blamed for poisoning crops. Jews were blamed for spreading the Plague across Europe. Jews were blamed for the rise of capitalism and they were blamed for the rise of communism. And now, when looking at the political contours of the 21st century, it’s not hard to put together a modified and modernized story about the Jew.

Today, the story told by white supremacists is that Jews are leading the charge for globalization, leading to millions of lost jobs in Western economies. Jews are unpatriotic and disloyal, controlling international finance and encouraging mass immigration and race mixing.

One of the reasons the Pittsburgh shooter chose the Tree of Life synagogue as the site of his massacre was because the congregation had just hosted a fundraiser by the Jewish organization HIAS, which supports immigrants and refugees. This tragedy reminds us that these conspiracy theories become more than stories; they have murderous consequences.

There are two forces in our politics that make this iteration of antisemitism so combustible. The first is the epidemic of white radicalization online. The internet has allowed neo-Nazis and other racist communities the space to find each other and build reactionary movements. The digital platforms we rely on for information trap users inside ideological echo chambers and push them to become further entrenched in extremist viewpoints. The conspiracy-minded thinkers blaming Jews have all the content they need to confirm their delusional theories of the world.

The second force is the growing nationalism and authoritarianism in the United States and around the world. Put simply, our administration is trafficking in destructive rhetoric and behavior that puts Jewish lives at risk. Almost three years into his term, Donald Trump and his administration have found common cause with white nationalists, advanced age-old tropes about Jewish disloyalty and control, and weaponized incidents of antisemitism on the left to fracture and delegitimize the progressive movement.

So what can Jews do, in a world of rising antisemitism and proliferating white nationalism?

Surely, we must not further isolate ourselves, put our heads down, and hope for the best. We must fix our gaze outward. We must forge relationships of solidarity with other communities who are experiencing the immediate and direct consequences of white nationalism and white supremacy.

This means working locally to address the most pressing justice issues in Chicago, and elevating the voices of Jews of Color. A society where immigrant communities are vilified and targeted will never be safe for Jews. A society where police kill unarmed black children will never be safe for Jews. A society with immense inequality, skewed distribution of resources and unchecked concentrations of power will never be safe for Jews.

The end to Jewish oppression is inextricably tied to the end of oppression for all.

That’s why on Sunday, as we commemorate the first anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting at a vigil at Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain, we will not only speak to the fear and violence that Jews are facing but also the other manifestations of white nationalism that are corroding our society and threatening so many communities.

It has been a frightening year for Jews, and we urgently need to build a better world. But we must do it together.

Judy Levey is the executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a a 55-year old, member-driven organization dedicated to ending poverty, racism and antisemitism in partnership with Chicago’s diverse communities.

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