The persecution of Jews for practicing what they believe — for just being Jewish — is as old as the faith itself. As surprising as a recent spike in hatred toward Jews may be, as appalling as the murders of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue in late October 2018 are, anti-Semitism in all its ugly, despicable forms is something that Jews know all too intimately. It is part of their history, part of their being. And so, it's something we all have to own.
If the horrors in Pittsburgh have taught us anything — which is yet to be determined — it's something that we probably should have known all along. Anti-Semitism is real. It is lasting. And it's not going away anytime soon.
What Is Anti-Semitism?
Simply, anti-Semitism is a persecution or a hatred toward Jews for being Jewish. The term itself wasn't introduced until the late 19th century, by a German journalist, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. But the hatred has been around much longer than that. From the USHMM:
In many countries, Jews were separated from the rest of the populace, made to work menial jobs and prohibited from owning land. The persecution of Jews culminated in the Holocaust, the systematic massacre of more than 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany and its sympathizers from 1933-1945.
Though Jews have continued to make important inroads into societies all over the world since then — Joe Lieberman became the first Jew on a U.S. presidential ticket in 2000, when he ran for vice president alongside Al Gore — anti-Semitism continues to infect many countries, including America, at many levels. In 2017, protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, marched while chanting slogans like, "Jews will not replace us." And on Oct. 27, 2018, a 46-year-old trucker opened fire at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue, killing 11 people and injuring six more in what the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said was the deadliest attack on Jews in American history.
"While the events [in Pittsburgh] were horrifying, devastating, just heart wrenching, I think if you were to ask most Jews, they would say it wasn't that shocking. We were kind of waiting for something like this to happen," says Allison Padilla-Goodman, the Southeast region director of the ADL. "Jewish people are feeling anti-Semitism on almost a daily basis now. It is kind of part of how we're living. Extremism, leadership not speaking out, social media amplifying anti-Semitism ... these are all things that are bringing it much more into the mainstream.
"And that's where we get really concerned, is when we see anti-Semitism kind of moving from the margins to the mainstream. It's been underground for so long, and now it's kind of erupting."
Are Things Getting Worse?
According the ADL, 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. were reported to the group in 2017, a jump of 57 percent over the numbers reported in 2016. Incidents were logged in every state for the first time since 2010 and included, even, a big rise in incidents in public K-12 schools. Most of these events are categorized under harassment (say, bomb threats) or vandalism (swastikas painted on driveways or in schools, for example). The number of outright assaults actually dropped, the group says.
But the overall spike in anti-Semitic acts is undeniable, and it prompts a simple question with no easy answers: Why? Why so much hate?
"We're seeing national leaders retweeting content from white nationalists, or using words and phrases from white supremacists in public speeches," Padilla-Goodman says. "We're seeing religious leaders, like Louis Farrakhan, who have been calling Jews 'termites' forever and continues to do so, being more openly embraced by the left. We're just seeing a lot more anti-Semitism entering into the mainstream than we're comfortable with."
This move toward a more hostile public discourse plays out in anti-Semitic acts, Padilla-Goodman says. And, like anti-Semitism itself, it is not new.
Throughout history, she says, when anti-Semitism has spiked or manifested, it's always during times of economic or social crisis, or during times of unrest. "It's times when we hearken back to fear-mongering or hatred. Anti-Semitism is always there and always goes hand-in-hand with almost any other kind of bias and bigotry," Padilla-Goodman says. "We understand that those who hate the Jews generally hate someone else. We understand that it is our responsibility, as Jews as well as people fighting hate, to speak up for everyone."
What Lies Ahead?
In tumultuous times like these that are seemingly filled with anger and hatred, it's hard to see anti-Semitism as something that ever will be relegated to a historical footnote. But local groups, as well as national and international ones, continue to reject the hatred associated with anti-Semitism and work to educate young people on its dangers.
Much of that effort begins with those who are in positions of power and influence.
"I want to give the same message to the president of the United States as well as the student government president," Padilla-Goodman says. "I think leadership at all levels right now needs to speak up and denounce anti-Semitism, denounce hatred, denounce white nationalism and white supremacy, and claim very strongly and forcefully, and clearly, that this is not who we are."
The Tuesday after the Pittsburgh murders, people gathered in Atlanta — much in the way people did all over the country — for an interfaith vigil at The Temple, described as one of "American Judaism's most religious institutions." They met at a place, more than 150 years old, that was bombed 60 years ago in 1958 by an anti-Semite.
They met to honor those killed and to show people all over the world that the hatred of anti-Semitism is something they will fight forever.
"This is the time when we're seeing people really show up," Padilla-Goodman says. "Just being there — the head of the Islamic Speakers Bureau here in Atlanta, a dear friend of mine, as I'm leaving came up and gave me a big hug, and she was like, 'This is where I need to be. I can't imagine not being here.'
"That's what we need from everybody right now."