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Increasingly On Edge, Jews Asking: How Bad Is It?

Increasingly On Edge, Jews Asking: How Bad Is It?

In wake of Pittsburgh shul massacre, ‘forecast is stormy weather,’ says one expert.

A woman stands at a memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue after the shooting on October 27. Getty Images
A woman stands at a memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue after the shooting on October 27. Getty Images

In Suffolk County, a middle-aged woman warns her husband to cover his kipa with a baseball cap when he leaves the house. In Norfolk, Va., the board of directors of B’nai Israel Congregation issues a message that warns members to teach children “NOT to let strangers in.” In Fort Collins, Colo., Congregation Har Shalom announces that a police officer will guard its upcoming Chanukah market.

At synagogues, JCCs and other Jewish institutions across the United States, leaders are looking into upgraded security measures, and in the wake of last week’s killing of 11 worshippers during Shabbat morning services at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh — thought to be the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history — Jews from Park Slope to Pico-Robertson in Los Angeles are asking, “So how bad is it?”

Is it open season on Jews in the U.S., Philip Roth’s fictional “The Plot Against America” come to life? Or has a kind of hysteria taken hold in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, fueled by endless media repetition of the Anti-Defamation League’s statistic that anti-Semitic attacks have skyrocketed in the Trump era?

The attack on the Tree of Life Congregation was the work of a lone actor filled with rage against Jews, says one line of thinking. Robert Bowers’ actions are part of the mainstreaming of far-right hate fueled at least in part by President Trump’s rhetoric, says another.

A makeshift memorial near Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh this week. Getty Iimages

Into this extraordinary political climate, where every explanation of what is taking place seems to lay bare deep divisions in the Jewish community, come the experiences of everyday Jews. Parents are now having to explain to their young children about a man who had a lot of guns and used them to kill Jews. Non-observant Jews, moved to tears by what happened in Pittsburgh, are scrambling to find a synagogue to attend, a threshold they haven’t crossed in years. And some members of the Jewish community are thinking of signing up for firearms training, giving life to the slogan of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, “Every Jew a .22.”

Has America become France?

Events that have taken place here and around the country since the Pittsburgh tragedy offer an inconclusive answer. There have been chilling examples of hate, and heartening examples of interfaith harmony.

Muslims in Pittsburgh raised more than $100,000 to pay for the funeral expenses of the Tree of Life victims; non-Jews in several cities formed protective “rings of peace” around local synagogues; thousands of people attended Shabbat services last week as a sign of solidarity in the #ShowUpForShabbat initiated by the AJC. (At Park Avenue Synagogue on the Upper East Side, for instance, congregants at the Friday night service said the large crowd was a third more than usual. Acknowledging the throng, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, who hoped the increased attendane would become a permanent thing, quipped, “We’ll be here next week, too.”)

And yet, the days after the Pittsburgh shooting witnessed a spate of anti-Semitic incidents across the U.S., including vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in upstate Rochester; swastikas spray-painted on homes in Brooklyn Heights; F*** Jews” grafitti on a synagogue in Irvine, Calif.; a man in New Jersey’s Bergen County yelling “lying rabbi” at a man walking to shul; a pole hurled through the window of a synagogue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood; a swastika painted on a campaign sign in Stony Brook for congressional candidate Perry Gershon; and the words “Kill all Jews” found inside Union Temple in Prospect Heights, forcing the cancellation of a political event to be hosted by “Broad City” actress Ilana Glazer.

Tammy Hepps, Kate Rothstein and her daughter, Simone Rothstein, 16, pray from a prayerbook a block away from the site of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood on October 27, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Getty Images

“People are more nervous than usual,” said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which last week co-sponsored a well-attended “Security Readiness Seminar” and distributed a security alert to Jewish institutions.

“People want to know how to protect themselves,” Pollock said. “More people are paying attention now.”

One example of the increased security consciousness: A congregant at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills remarked that every shul he passed on the way to his synagogue last Saturday had, for the first time, posted a guard outside. The Modern Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale announced this week that it will, for the first time, have an armed security at the entrance to the synagogue. And Chabad of Long Island announced a $1 million campaign to raise funds for upgraded security measures at its 32 Jewish centers there.

Not only Jews are worried. According to an NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll conducted after the Pittsburgh shooting, 80 percent of voters said they are concerned that “the negative tone and lack of civility in Washington” will lead to further violence or acts of terror.

A widespread outbreak of anti-Jewish violence is an “extremely remote possibility,” said Aryeh Tuchman, associate director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism.

What to make of all of it — Charlottesville, pipe bombs mailed to George Soros and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, and now Pittsburgh and the debate over armed guards at synagogues?

Jews and non-Jews seem to see this issue in different ways.

Police tape seals the perimeter of the Tree of Life synagogue after the shooting massacre on October 27. Getty Images

According to a new survey of 2,000 registered voters conducted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, more than 70 percent of Jews believe that anti-Semitism is on the rise, while only 30 percent of the general population does.

In interviews across the country this week, experts and community observers offered a combination of good news and bad news. Anti-Semitism is not, of course, foreign to the United States, but it is not government sponsored — or government sanctioned — as has been the case in other countries, the experts agreed.

“It’s getting worse, but it is not Nazi Germany,” said Brian Levin, director of the California-based Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. “This is an inflection point for American Jews, a turning point. It’s a problem. It’s going to grow. At times of political fracture” — such as the two years of the Trump administration — “Jews are among the likeliest scapegoats.” In fact the Pittsburgh shooter singled out the work of HIAS, the historically Jewish resettlement organization for refugees of all faiths, as motivation for his rampage.

But, Levin added, “The hurricane that’s hitting Europe” — open anti-Jewish violence in such countries as France and Sweden — “is not hitting the United States.”

“The forecast is stormy weather,” said Levin, who has studied the arc of anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice in this country over the last 25 years. Most studies indicate that 90 percent of the U.S. population has favorable opinions about Jews, with an estimated 49 percent openly holding anti-Semitic views. Which means that “anti-Semitism is endorsed by millions of Americans.”

Is the current outbreak of anti-Semitism a surprise?

No, said Levin. Anti-Semitism and other forms of hate speech spread easily on the internet, he said. “You can’t ignore virtual anti-Semitism.” The biggest threat in the future, he said, will probably come not from organized groups but from “loners and small cells” of white nationalists.

Abraham Foxman, a child curvivor of the Holocaust who served as the longtime national director of the ADL, said he was “shocked by the carnage [in Pittsburgh] but not surprised.”

Anti-Semitism has “always been there … America is not immune from anti-Semitic bigotry,” Foxman said. He cited the activities of the KKK in the 1920s, and of the pro-Nazi German Bund in the1930s. “Anti-Semitism is here. It is latent. It can always explode.”

Swastikas spray painted on the outside of the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, in Fairfax, Va. on Oct. 6, 2018. JTA

Anti-Semitism in the U.S. predated the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric of President Trump that has made life uncomfortable for many minorities, Foxman said. “He is part of the problem. He’s a demagogue. He didn’t create anti-Semitism. He didn’t create anti-Semites. But he emboldened them.”

Jonathan Weisman, New York Times deputy Washington editor and author of “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump” (St. Martin’s Press, 2018), warned in a Times of Israel op-ed this week, “Don’t kid yourself that the most violent forms of hate have been aimed at others — blacks, Muslims, Latino immigrants. Don’t ever think that your government’s pro-Israel policies reflect a tolerance of Jews.”

But, he wrote, “anti-Semitism is not the worst affliction … in the Trump era.” Other minority groups have it worse — Muslims, undocumented immigrants, blacks, members of the LGBT community.

Experts point to a new Pew Research Center study that found that Judasim elicited the “warmest” feelings of any religious group in this country among 4,000 adults in the U.S. who were polled.

In the coming weeks, Jews attending synagogue services are likely to see signs of stepped-up security. And in a sign of the times, some are discussing the wisdom of arming themselves; the Jewish owner of a gun shop in Colorado has offered to give rabbis semiautomatic rifles for free.

The Baltimore-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg foundation announced last week that it is allocating $1.2 million in emergency grants to several organizations dealing with the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting. Among the recipients are the Pittsburgh Police Fund, Pittsburgh’s Jewish Association on Aging and Tree of Life synagogue, for their“security needs.”

The heightened concern is unlikely to keep Jews from attending worship services or other activities at Jewish venues, said Allen Fagin, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. “We’re not hearing at all that anyone is going to stay home.”

Yet the fear is real, summed up by a local tween boy navigating a suddenly frightening landscape.

At Temple Beth Torah in Melville, L.I., the 12-year-old told his seventh-grade Hebrew school class: “Maybe I shouldn’t tell people I’m Jewish this week because it’s a little scary.”

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