“There’s an active shooter at a synagogue in Pittsburgh”. One tweet, one news alert, but enough to make the heart of every Jewish person fall through their stomach. Not because of America’s ongoing problem with mass shootings, not because of yet another horrific act of domestic terrorism, but because we could see this coming all along.
It is difficult to identify and articulate to those who are not from the community how ingrained a fear of violence is within the Jewish psyche. Many of us have living relatives who can tell their stories from the Holocaust, of pogroms, of being forced from their homes to run for their lives from violent genocide. The Jewish community has a collective memory, an inherited fear and an entrenched awareness that your family most likely got to where you are because, somewhere down the line, people tried to kill you for being Jewish.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise across the Western world. In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party proposed a state law requiring registration of people wanting to buy kosher (and halal) meat. The AfD in Germany is now performing at second place in national polls, and Italy’s Lega has called for the abolition of a law condemning racist violence and discrimination. In the UK, the main opposition party has spent a summer tearing itself into pieces resisting the adoption of the international definition of anti-Semitism. The Hungarian president Viktor Orban based his re-election campaign on a conspiracy theory against a prominent Jewish businessman, George Soros; a man whose name has become a lynchpin for opposition to globalism and shadowy networks of international power. Donald Trump, a man who called a group of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville “very fine people”, rallied against Soros with calls to “lock him up”, just 22 hours before the shooting.
Much of this stems from a huge increase in racism globally and generally – migration crises, Islamist terrorism and global economic pressure have seen a rising tide of xenophobic and racist prejudices towards nearly every ethnic minority, with the vulnerable used as a scapegoat as populist politics thrives. Whilst the vast majority of incidents against Jewish people come from the far-right, contemporary anti-Semitic sentiment swells from support from Islamist extremists and the anti-racist far left. Whilst the type of vitriol from these groups contrasts wildly, their parallel growth in influence, power and activity have contributed to an environment in which hostility towards Jewish people is normalised.
Whilst stemming from different sources, these groups often end up singing from the same hymn sheet. Conspiratorial, elitist, blood-thirsty, money-laundering: the classic tropes of anti-Semitism lifted from the history books and used daily to speak out against Israel, the ‘Zionist lobby’, Jewish control of the media, finance and political power. A community whose collective history renders them prone to insecurity and fear have had to become accustomed to a consistent and looming dialogue around anti-Semitism. A regular drip-feed of global news stories ensuring there are fewer and fewer days where the treatment of Jewish people escapes news headlines.
Jewish people are confronted daily with anti-Semitic language and imagery online, held accountable for the actions of a foreign government, told that, despite residing here for generations, the places our families have built their lives can never really be our own. Despite the reaction of Donald Trump to suggest the worshippers should have been armed with protection, our synagogues and our primary schools are already flanked with guards in stab-proof vests. Whilst Jewish people enjoy privileges from being white-passing, and disproportionately wealthy, my community is one that feels increasingly under siege, burdened with the tragedies of the past and fears that they aren’t too far behind us.
Eleven people were murdered in Pittsburgh, and six more injured, at the Tree of Life synagogue, in what the Anti-Defamation League has called the deadliest assault on Jewish people in US history. In the UK, CST reported a record high of anti-Semitic incidents, with 1,414 reported in 2017; just this year, a synagogue five minutes from my home bearing the same name as the one in Pittsburgh, Etz Chaim, was defaced with a swastika. These are not abstract hyperboles, or tales from years gone by. Acts of terror like the one in we saw this weekend are a manifestation of a culture in which anti-Semitism is normalised, and a devastating reminder of just how real the threats to my community are, and continue, to be.
Despite the myths propagated by those who seek their demise, the Jewish community is too small a minority to exert the influence necessary to eradicate the swelling sore of anti-Semitism as it rises up once more. Electorally insignificant at the national ballot box, Jewish people are forced to rely on society writ large to amplify their voices and defend their rights. As former Vice-President Joe Biden said, we cannot continue to give hatred a safe harbour – online, on the streets, or in our governments.