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Weinfeld: A turning point for Jewish life in America?

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A man kneels to light a candle beneath a police cordon outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 27.. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images/JTA)

Shabbat was shattered on Oct. 27, when Robert Bowers allegedly gunned down 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue. As the worst act of violence ever directed towards the Jewish community in the U.S., the tragedy sticks out like a sore thumb in the usual trajectory of American Jewish history. I know because I’ve been teaching that history for several years.

Historians of American Jewry are in agreement: the United States has been good to the Jews. Because the overwhelming majority of American Jews were – and are – white, they never stood at the bottom of the oppressive racial hierarchy in America.

Jews weren’t enslaved. They did not suffer from Jim Crow segregation. Jews certainly experienced anti-Semitism, but compared to Europe, it was mild. Indeed, until the 20th century, anti-Catholicism was a stronger form of bigotry than anti-Semitism. American anti-Semitism never dominated any political party and was usually tied to anti-immigrant nativism. As scholar Stephen Whitfield put it, when it came to anti-Semitism in the U.S., “the dog did not bark.”

After the Second World War, American anti-Semitism went into steep decline, as it was discredited due to its ties to Nazism. Jews succeeded economically and socially. Quotas at elite universities were eliminated and Jews flocked to them in great numbers, rising up the socioeconomic ladder and earning professional success in medicine, science, business, finance, law and the arts. With increasing integration, more Jews married non-Jews, leading some to believe that assimilation, rather than anti-Semitism, was the greater threat to Jews in America.

Did Pittsburgh change that trajectory? On the surface, no. Most American Jews live their daily lives largely unmolested by acts of anti-Semitism and are thoroughly integrated in the non-Jewish community. Jewish communities in the U.S. are economically stable and successful. American Jews and non-Jews continue to befriend, date and marry each other. Life goes on.

And yet, it feels different. And it has felt different since U.S. President Donald Trump began running for office in 2015. Racists have been emboldened. Social media has amplified the voices of anti-Semites. Neo-Nazis marched on Charlottesville, Va. Robert Bowers allegedly spewed hatred online and then shot up a shul. He claimed to dislike Trump, who wasn’t bigoted enough for his taste, but there is little doubt that Trump’s rhetoric fostered an atmosphere in which Bowers felt empowered to act on his evil impulses.

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And so America, with its lax gun laws and prejudiced president, feels a little less safe for the Jews. Even Toronto, with its stricter gun laws, feels less safe, as a gang of teenagers recently assaulted four teenage yeshiva students while hurling anti-Semitic insults their way.

In Canada, however, the federal government is not permeated with prejudice. The same cannot be said for the U.S., where Republican politicians regularly win elections by appealing to thinly veiled white nationalism. Indeed, for a troublingly large minority of Americans, patriotism is white nationalism.

This white nationalism has long vilified African Americans, Latinos and Muslims, but Jews are increasingly targeted today. As Trump and the GOP seek to erode democratic norms, through hateful rhetoric and voter suppression, minority populations become more and more vulnerable. Now is the time for these populations to band together, to fight for progressive change, for gun control and, most importantly, to strengthen the diversity that makes America great and has allowed American Jewish communities to thrive.

Many pundits are making pronouncements about Pittsburgh and American anti-Semitism. Some see an ominous increase in this oldest hatred, while others see an aberration, a speed bump en route to further assimilation. Only time will tell who is correct. But one thing is clear: the most significant anti-Semitic threat in the U.S. today stems from right-wing white nationalism empowered by Donald Trump. I hope American Jewish voters who feel otherwise wake up by 2020.

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