The murderous attack on Jews at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue, on October 27, put a bloody exclamation point behind in today's growing sense of unease in today's America.

Over the past two years, the entry into the country's mainstream of extreme right wing views, including a militant strain of white nationalism, has made it clear that the social and political climate is changing, and not for the better.

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No one, however, expected a crazed gunman shouting "all Jews must die" to start a synagogue on a normal Shabbat morning and carry out the worst massacre of Jews in American history. While it is still too soon to assess all the implications of this horrific event, anti-Semitism is sure to be on Jewish minds and, most likely, on the minds of others, too, as we approach the midterm Congressional elections.

Until this unprecedented hate crime, most American Jews of this generation, if any, would say they usually go over their daily lives without encountering antagonism.

In earlier decades, however, American Jews have varying degrees of discrimination and exclusion. A hard-edged anti-semitism was a prominent part of the public discourse of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and during these years Jews were frequently accused of disloyalty, economic profiteering, and war-mongering.

Acts of aggression against individual Jewish and Jewish institutions have thus occurred over the years and continue to this day, with frequent reports of assault on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and elsewhere.

The United States has almost never accepted anti-Semitism, yet most American Jews have long been widely accepted, are fully integrated into virtually all strata of American life, and believe themselves to be secure and at home in the United States.

Well before the Pittsburgh shootings, though, recent events have begun to feel secure. Anti-Jewish hostility has been on the upsurge globally since the turn of the millennium, and Jews have begun to feel more vulnerable.

Members and supporters of the Jewish community come together for a candlelight vigil for victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in front of the White House, Washington, DC. October 27, 2018

The Anti-Defamation League's most recent report reveals that 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents took place in the U.S. in 2017 – a 57 percent increase over the previous year's total. Most involved vandalism and verbal abuse and not physical assaults.

Common to the situation in European countries, where physical attacks against Jews, some of them lethal, are far more common, it has long been thought that the situation in America has been relatively safe. Nevertheless, given the uptick in anti-Semitism in both words and deeds and the general sense of tension and confrontation in today's highly polarized American society, there is need for increased protection – a need that is sure to increase dramatically in the aftermath of Pittsburgh.

In response, a recent extended defense organization, Community Security Services, has already trained some 4,000 Jewish volunteers to protect synagogues and other Jewish institutions in America. That number is now sure to grow.

Beyond these problems, manifestations of anti-Jewish hostility have become evident in extreme segments of the political right, the political left, and political Islam. The first of these nowadays seems to be threatening.

The public displays of hard-right, white supremacist, and anti-Semitic in the infamous rally of neo-Nazis, clansmen, and others in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017 came as a shock. Many Americans looked at it with dismissal, which was compounded when President Trump remarked that there were "very fine people" on both sides of that violent event.

File photo: White nationalists marching in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

One wondered if it was an aberrant, one-off happening or heralded the revival of re-energized passions on the extreme right.

A second rally held one year after the Charlottesville gathering only a small handful of supporters, though, it seems to be the "old-right," a loose collection of diverse, counter-cultural types on the reactionary right, had for now retreated mostly to its previous online existence.

But the Pittsburgh assault signaled that it would not have been a virtual anti-Semitic existence anywhere in cyberspace. Robert Bowers, a previously unknown Jew-hating activist, his head of delusional notions about non-existent Jewish threats, He did just that, guns blazing, took the lives of 11 innocent Jews.

Ominously, and in another sphere of public life, several extreme figures, including Holocaust deniers and openly declared anti-Semites, are running for local, state, and national office, mostly as Republicans, in several U.S. Patents. states.

The most notorious of these is Arthur Jones, an avowed white supremacist, anti-Semite, and former leader of the American Nazi party, who is on the ticket as the uncontested Republican candidate for a Congressional seat in Illinois' third district.

Jones is an extreme case but not an isolated one, and for some others racist and anti-Semitic views are in contention for political office, and not for the first time. Otherwise they would have had.

Trump's more extreme America First policies, as well as his often incendiary rhetoric, some of them are becoming intolerant and even xenophobia among groups in the country, and the situation worsens. Factor in America's pervasive gun culture, and the potential for still more violence becomes obvious.

In addition, an increasing hostile scene for Jewish students on some U.S. college campuses, anti-Semitic exhortations issuing from imams in a number of american mosques, louis farrakhan's continuing preaching against "Satanic Jews," and the anti-Jewish hatred make it understandable many american Jews are feeling They have not previously known.

Older Americans may recall rabid anti-Semitic propaganda in the years of Father Coughlin and the Christian Front, Henry Ford and "The International Jew," and the swastika epidemic of 1959-60. For most younger Americans, though, today's toxic rhetoric and the violence that can accompany it are new and alarming.

The Jews living in European countries, most American Jews live unthreatened lives. The America they have long been known as stable and hospitable, however, is in a phase of social, political, and ideological tumult, in which extreme views of many kinds have come to prominently to the fore. Anti-Semitism flourishes in such an unsettled climate, as other types of racial, ethnic, and religious hostility.

Just how this troubled sense of things will accompany them to the ballot box remains to be seen, but it should not be discounted.

Alvin H. Rosenfeld is Professor of English and holds the Irving M. Glazer Chair in Indian Studies at Indiana University, where he is also director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism at Indiana University. He is the editor of Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives (Indiana University Press, 2013) and Deciphering the New Antisemitism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2015)


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