I have spent most of the past two decades involved with near-daily monitoring, researching and translating of venomous anti-Semitism emanating from the Middle East media, and studying how it has now, thanks in part to social media, spread across Europe and to the United States. Nevertheless, what happened on Oct. 27 at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood was unimaginable—and very close to home.
The Police Department Zone 4 Station, two blocks away, that dispatched first responders just minutes after the shooting began, is where one of my grandfathers served for decades as a sergeant. Throughout my youth, I attended Tree of Life Hebrew and Sunday school three times a week; what I learned about Jewish history and anti-Semitism remains with me to this day. I have never forgotten one teacher, a Holocaust survivor, who spoke to each class about how she, as a child, along with her family and the rest of the local Jewish community, were rounded up like animals and sent to concentration camps. At the end of her talk, she rolled up her sleeve to reveal to us the numbers branded on her arm by the Nazis.
European-style anti-Semitism in America
The Tree of Life attack, which comes against the backdrop of the rising tide of anti-Semitic incidents and attacks throughout the West, may signal a dark turn towards the emergence, and normalization, in the United States of the type of violent anti-Semitic attacks like those in Europe. A survey released December 2018 of Jews in Europe—the most extensive ever conducted—found that anti-Semitism is now not merely “pervasive” but has become “disturbingly normalized.” Hundreds of respondents said they had experienced a physical anti-Semitic attack in the past year.
In France, beatings and murders of elderly Jews, even Holocaust survivors—by assailants shouting “Allahu Akbar”—have been joined by explicit anti-Semitic elements in the current “Yellow-vests” protests, with French President Emmanuel Macron widely being called “whore of the Jews.” Protesters are now routinely targeting Jewish businesses and figures; the French government recently announced a 74 percent rise in the number of anti-Semitic attacks in 2018. In Germany, yarmulke-wearers have been beaten, and others have had Stars of David ripped from around their necks. Some 1,646 anti-Semitic acts were reported there last year—a 10-year peak.
In the United Kingdom, more than 100 anti-Semitic incidents are recorded every month, and a hate-crimes inquiry into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is underway. Jews in England, including in Scotland, as well as in France and all across Europe are considering, or even planning, emigration.
The now near-daily anti-Semitic incidents (some, albeit, on a smaller scale, in the form of graffiti and vandalism) in the United States include the recent case in Los Angeles, where police arrested a man outside a synagogue, head and face wrapped in a keffiyeh and brandishing a sword like an ISIS fighter about to behead a prisoner. In December, authorities announced the arrest of an Ohio man for “planning a violent terrorist attack on behalf of ISIS … target[ing] a Jewish synagogue in the Toledo area” who told federal agents, “I admire what the [Tree of Life shooter] guy did. … I can see myself carrying out this type of operation.”
Days earlier, a man was arrested in Aventura, Fla., in connection with damaging Jewish property and attempting to force his way into a Jewish center. According to police, he said, “Six million dead wasn’t enough.” Incidents like these are occurring all over the country.
Anti-Semitism at school
Likewise, Jewish students daily face anti-Semitic incidents in U.S. schools and universities.
These include some disturbing actions against the homes of Jewish Connecticut high school students; a Philadelphia fifth- and sixth-grade teacher maintaining a wrestling persona as “Blitzkreig,” giving Nazi salutes and shouting “Sieg Heil”; an official junior prom photo of more than 50 Wisconsin high school students giving the Nazi salute, like other students in Indiana and Minnesota; and swastikas found at multiple middle and high schools in Maryland, Georgia, New York City and Upstate New York. In California, high school students saluted “Heil Hitler” over a swastika made of cups of beer.
Anti-Semitic vandalism has taken place at the University of Minnesota and Goucher College in Maryland; anti-Semitic posters at Tufts in Massachusetts; and “Yid” was found spray-painted on the office of a Jewish professor and Holocaust scholar at Teachers College at Columbia University.
Anti-Semitism in politics
Anti-Semitism can be found in many other places across America—politically, for example, associated with leaders of the Women’s March earlier this year, and Rep. Ilhan Omar’s continuing tweets and statements of anti-Semitic tropes. The same vile words about Jews that she repeatedly made are also espoused weekly in mosque sermons, media and schoolbooks across the Middle East.
They are now are being spread throughout America as part of anti-Semitic sermons, some even including calls for violence, at mosques in California, New York, New Jersey, Texas, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Virginia, Illinois and Washington, D.C., as well as in Canada and across Europe.
Several weeks ago in Detroit, Imam Bassem Al-Sheraa ranted, in a lecture, about how the Jews “amass gold and money, and would spread usury,” which he called “a peculiar Jewish philosophy.” All “the global banks, the billionaires … are from among” the Jews, who “control people’s resources through such tricks and deception.”
In his recent sermons at the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society in Philadelphia—a mosque deeply involved in interfaith activity that openly condemned the Tree of Life attack—Imam Abdelmohsen Abouhatab called the Jews the vilest of people and claimed that the “nefarious” Jewish media convince people that the Muslims are “oppressive and predatory,” and that the Jews “own and control the riches of the world.”
Recently, we found that the imam of a mosque less than 10 minutes away from Tree of Life had given sermons and lectures that included references to Jews as “apes and pigs,” and to “Jews running everything” and having “all the money.” He also recently spoke at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, a congregation honored as “Pittsburgher of the Year” for its activity leading fundraising for the Tree of Life victims.
The Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004
In the immediate aftermath of the Tree of Life attack, news outlets and pundits accused U.S. President Donald Trump of fostering the climate that led to it, resulting in back-and-forth between media and the president’s office. As part of the harsh condemnation of the attack from across the political spectrum in the nation’s capital, a bipartisan resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), representing Squirrel Hill, and eight cosponsors. The resolution “condemning the anti-Semitic attack … honoring the memory of the victims … [and] expressing support for their families, friends and community” was passed unanimously by the House on Nov. 14.
President Trump has taken many steps against anti-Semitism, including the White House Hanukkah reception shortly thereafter, at which he promised: “In the aftermath of that wicked assault, we reaffirmed our solemn duty to confront anti-Semitism everywhere it occurs. We must stamp out this vile hatred from the world.”
More recently, he signed the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, that calls preventing genocide and other atrocities a “core moral responsibility” of the United States. And on Feb. 3, after a two-year absence, he appointed a Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism; this post is set out in the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004.
As groundbreaking as that act was at the time, 15 years have passed, and it needs to be updated for the era of social media, and expanded to include working with tech companies to monitor and fight anti-Semitism on online platforms. The act was first introduced by the late, legendary Congressman Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, and one of Washington’s leading bipartisan voices, now sorely missed, on human rights.
The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) worked with Congress in preparing the act. Under it, the Special Envoy and their Office in the State Department “thoroughly document acts of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic incitement” worldwide for “inclusion in annual Department of State reports.” The envoy is responsible for assessing and describing “the nature and extent of acts of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic incitement” and for “monitoring and combating” them in foreign countries.
Given the disturbing incidents now occurring daily in the United States, there is an urgent need for an initiative to create a similar domestic office, for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism here at home. The victims of the Tree of Life attack should be commemorated with the establishment of this new proposed office.
This initiative should be championed by members of Congress and sent to President Trump for his approval.
*Steven Stalinsky is executive director of MEMRI.