Is America Any Different When It Comes to Antisemitism?
On November 9th, communities around the world will mark the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the infamous antisemitic pogrom that symbolized the acceleration of Hitler’s murderous campaign against the Jewish people. The decimation of European Jewry was soon to follow.
On that night, in 1938, my grandmother, then only 9 years old, peered out of the window of her apartment on Vienna’s Lilienbrunngasse. On the street below she witnessed the devastation wrought on the neighboring synagogue. A Torah scroll, hallowed by Jewish worshipers, lay muddied on the ground. It was a scene that remains etched in her memory and she recounts it with crystal clarity to this day.
For American Jews, the commemoration this year will bear added tragic significance.
In what is being described as the “deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States,” a synagogue in the leafy, peaceful neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, was targeted during morning prayer services on Saturday. The white supremacist attacker killed 11 worshipers and wounded four others. FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Jones described the crime scene as the “most horrific” he’d seen in 22 years with the bureau.
For a community that still lives with the collective trauma of a tormented past, the attack presents a paradigm shift. In the past, the targeting of Jews for murder was largely thought to be centered on specific geographic regions. For many American Jews such attacks were of a historic nature, or, more recently, mostly confined to European countries with restive radical Islamist populations. Israeli Jews, as well, surrounded by myriad enemies, faced daily threats.
Now the US Jewish community must contend with a devastating new reality. Even here, in America, long seen in the Jewish consciousness as a place of refuge, a safe haven, Jews can be massacred in their houses of worship.
It affirms that for the ideology of antisemitism there are few established norms or constraints under which it can be expected to abide. It has endured through the ages and has proven its ability to transcend geographic boundaries and political ideologies. It has been present on the left and on the right, among communists, socialists and capitalists. It has taken on both religious and secular forms and has remained as venomous throughout.
Where America may find opportunity to stand out, however, is in its capacity to respond to antisemitic crimes.
In March 2012, an Islamist gunman murdered a teacher and three young children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in the south of France. Responding to the tragedy, famed Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel lamented what he saw as the transient nature of the sympathies expressed to the Jewish community.
Writing for The Algemeiner at the time Wiesel said, “It often happens like this. Jewish blood is spilled and, temporarily, sympathy for Jews grows; the world warms to them.” The attack, he feared, would be seen as a matter of unique concern to the Jewish community. He was right. The outrage soon diminished.
The issue was addressed again in 2015 by then-French Prime Minister Manuel Valls soon after another radical Islamist killed four shoppers at a kosher supermarket in Paris.
In an address to the French Parliament just days after the attack, Valls thundered from the podium, “We haven’t shown enough outrage.” Enumerating a number of recent antisemitic attacks in France, Valls noted that the incidents “did not produce the national outrage that our Jewish compatriots expected.”
“When the Jews of France are attacked, France is attacked, the conscience of humanity is attacked,” he continued. “Let us never forget that.”
In contrast, the general American response to the bloodshed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh signals a widespread, natural and genuine sense of deep solidarity with US Jewry.
President Trump rightly referred to the attack as “an assault on all of us,” and flags across the country are flying at half mast. Americans of all stripes attended vigils in the thousands and donated funds to the families of the victims. Religious denominations from across the spectrum rushed to voice their support. Cultural figures and sports teams too joined the fray, adding their prominent voices to a growing chorus of concerned fellow citizens.
There is much soul-searching that remains in the days ahead. There are many unanswered questions. How was the attacker’s murderous hatred allowed to fester among us? How will future atrocities be prevented?
And, when American Jews gather to mourn the victims as they are laid to rest in the coming days, and when soon after we mark the Kristallnacht anniversary, many will ask themselves if America is indeed different.
It is true that the hatred which has plagued the Jewish people lives here too, yet it is a society that has also shown a unique capacity to appropriately respond to the spreading prejudice. American Jews will be encouraged by the outpouring of support and hopeful that the country will remain a haven for years to come and among the safest the community has ever settled.
Dovid Efune is the editor-in-chief and CEO of The Algemeiner.