Last month’s attack on the Jewish community in Pittsburgh might be the pinnacle of anti-Semitism in the United States, but it certainly isn’t the only one etched into the narrative of this religious minority.
A gunman, Robert Bowers, intruded on a Saturday morning service at the Tree of Life Synagogue, yelling “All Jews must die,” and then opened gunfire on the congregation, killing 11.
The spirit that defines the Jewish identity has never allowed for a submissive approach to such violent onslaughts. This one is no different – it isn’t just another chapter in the story. The attack’s disruption of American quietude serves as a wake-up call for Jews and non-Jews alike. Anti-Semitism has always existed on the fringes of society in the form of propaganda and snide remarks. Unfortunately, the history of the Holocaust, for example, proves just what it takes to spark the swift escalation to a massacre.
Thankfully, most Jewish members of Generations Y and Z have not experienced anti-Semitism on the same scale as the attack in Pittsburgh. However, many can tell of a time when they were the target of a joke or the victim of hostility. Naftali Hanfling, the rabbi for Jewish Awareness Movement, said a stranger once disrupted him with an outburst of profanity when he was doing some work outside a coffee shop in Westwood.
“The place where anti-Semitism is strongest is where there aren’t many Jews,” Aaron Boudaie, a fourth-year political science student and student leader at Hillel at UCLA and the Orthodox Union Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus said.
Boudaie recounted stories of friends in the South and Midwest who get made fun of for their last names or for wearing kippot, the traditional skull caps worn by Jewish men.
Just as Pittsburgh has a thriving Jewish community, UCLA was recently ranked third in the nation for Jewish life according to a report by the Forward. Yet just three years ago, some students objected to the appointment of a Jew to the judicial board of the Undergraduate Students Association Council solely because of her Jewish identity and her affiliation with Jewish organizations.
It’s not just a problem at UCLA. That same year, vandals spray painted a swastika onto the primarily Jewish fraternity house of Alpha Epsilon Pi at the University of California, Davis, which is currently ranked among the top 60 in the nation for its Jewish population. In 2014, flyers blaming Jewish people for 9/11 circulated on the UC Santa Barbara campus, a university ranked 21st in the nation by Hillel in 2017 for its Jewish population.
More broadly, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses skyrocketed by 89 percent in 2017. The New York Times proposed many reasons for this increase in anti-Semitic behavior, which were largely linked to the increasingly hostile divisiveness of the American political climate.
Attributing the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism on college campuses to the institutional encouragement of free thought and speech would be shortsighted. Hate crimes against Jews occur everywhere and the First Amendment doesn’t justify libel. the Anti-Defamation League reported that in 2017 alone, there was a 60 percent increase in anti-Semitic events nationwide.
One such event was the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia where a demonstration to legitimize “white culture” proved to be synonymous with neo-Nazism. Demonstrators waved swastika flags and chanted “sieg heil,” a phrase used by the Nazis during World War II to praise victory.
Evidence suggests it’s possible that after 2018, the upward trend of anti-Semitism will continue. Within days of the massacre in Pittsburgh, an Irvine synagogue was vandalized with anti-Semitic profanities, 12 swastikas spoiled the exterior of a home in Vegas, and a temple in Brooklyn was desecrated with messages such as “Die Jew rats we are here.”
“Anyone who knows Jewish history knows that this (Pittsburgh attack) wasn’t out of the blue,” Boudaie said.
Since people feel reassured by the safety of their screens, some say social media provides a forum for hate to brew and therefore contributes to upward anti-Semitic trends. Boudaie said he calls on the executives of social media platforms to join in the fight to keep anti-Semitism at bay by following guidelines for what’s defined as hate speech.
“If (the executives of Facebook, Twitter) say that they’re going to delete and block people, they need to be consistent and I don’t think anti-Semitism is taken as seriously so that’s why it’s allowed to fester,” he said.
More than anything, the attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue illuminated the salience of anti-Semitism and lit a fire under those who believed in its latency.
“Many people felt very comfortable blending in and not thinking about their Jewish identity,” said Dovid Gurevich, the rabbi at Chabad at UCLA. “When our identity is attacked, we can’t let them intimidate us, but rather stand up and be a little bit more proud—more engaged in our Jewishness.”
The Jewish community has prevailed through its history of discrimination through resiliency. When their songs become muffled by hateful discourse, they sing a little louder. When gunshots interrupt their Shabbat morning prayers, they pray a little harder.
Despite this resiliency, anti-Semitism still exists. The consensus is to work towards combating it with empathy.
At a UCLA vigil the Monday following the attack, participants lit candles both in memory of the 11 lives lost and as the first effort to fight darkness with light. Susan Klein, the rector at the St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Westwood, said Christianity has a similar response to Judaism after tragedies of this nature.
“Christianity teaches that the only effective weapon against hate is love,” Klein said. “Christians who follow Jesus are brothers and sisters of the Jewish people, and we stand in solidarity with the Jewish community.”
Hanfling said this response reminds him of an idea proposed in “Ethics of our Fathers,” or “Pirkei Avot”. The Hebrew quote translates to “The whole world belongs to me.” Hanfling said he ultimately believes this means each person has a responsibility for the entire world.
To help bridge the gap between Jews and their non-Jewish counterparts, Hanfling wants the community to learn about the essence of Judaism.
“Learn what Judaism is, learn about the light, learn about the perspectives and support your Jewish neighbors,” he said.
As the Jewish community moves forward, it is important they remember the nature of the term “never forget,” which has often circulated after tragic events like this one.
“It doesn’t mean never forget how they died. It means remember why they died,” Hanfling said. “What they died for is what we have to live for.”