Takeaways: American Jews reconsider American exceptionalism

While the news cycle has flipped many times over since the Oct. 27 mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, many American Jews are still reeling from the aftermath. According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents and reports of online harassment have increased in frequency in recent years. In 2016, American Jews were reported as being victims of hate crimes more than any other religious minority, according to CNN. The attack that left 11 dead was perpetrated by a neo-Nazi who said, without reservation, that he believes “all Jews must die.” It was the deadliest antisemitic incident in U.S. history. 

The horrific act led many American Jews to ask questions that they simply did not have to consider for a few generations. Questions that seem natural to Jews elsewhere in the diaspora in France, Iran, Britain or Turkey. Much like the wide American exceptionalism of the general population, American Jews, having become “white” from the 1940s to the 1990s, saw the U.S. as exceptional in the realm of antisemitism; A breath of fresh air from the entrenched antisemitism of Europe or the Middle East; A safe haven after the Holocaust. The disconnect was clear in the different reactions between me, another diasporic Jew, and American Jews. While we were all distraught and disgusted, I unfortunately was not shocked. I wish I were, but this attack happened only a week before the commemoration of the 2003 attack that happened on my community’s central synagogue — the third deadly attack in less than 60 years.

With Pittsburgh, this edifice is crumbling. Much like many other countries, antisemitism exists in all corners of the U.S., and American Jews are increasingly taking notice. The Forward, one of the most prominent and longest-running Jewish publications in the U.S., recently published a series of opinions by young American Jewish leaders answering the question “Is America still safe for Jews?” The sheer fact that The Forward asked this question is a major departure from the norm. This is not a usual question that third or fourth generation American Jews have to ask themselves. While there were different perspectives, a strong faction of the leaders had given up on American exceptionalism in antisemitism.

The major event shifting the communal view was undoubtedly the Charlottesville rally. The chant “Jews will not replace us” was clearly heard by Jews. Security in synagogues was heightened. Charlottesville’s white supremacist gathering was one point in the rise of antisemitic incidents in the U.S. This trend has continued and culminated in the deadliest attack on American Jews.

David Shraub is correct when he says “there is no reason to believe America will eternally be immune to global anti-Semitic currents.” Like in every country, this will ebb and flow. Right now, with the president’s rather thinly-veiled tacit approval, antisemitism is on the rise. All we can do is fight it continuously and hope we have weathered the peak.