The murder of 11 Jews in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh Saturday morning thrust anti-Semitism center stage into the American conversation.
It was the deadliest attack against Jews in American history, but it wasn’t the first, and its roots go back centuries.
We asked John Efron, Koret Professor of Jewish History at UC Berkeley, about the attack, about where it came from, about what it means, about how it relates to President Donald Trump and about where we can go from here.
Q. What should we take away from this weekend’s shooting in Pittsburgh?
A. I think that the major issue is that anti-Semitism has not been taken seriously in this country, even by Jews, both rank-and-file and communal leadership. It is not considered to be a major issue.
There’s been an understandable focus on all the groups that Trump has targeted. Jews are not one of those groups, although he’s made anti-Semitic remarks in the past. However, for anti-Semites and neo-Nazis, the belief is that every one of those groups are manipulated by Jews as a means to control the United States.
If you look online, the conversation among right-wing extremist groups is less about immigrants per se and more about their firm conviction that Jews are bringing them into this country with the goal of destroying this country. Those groups are also anti-gay and anti-LGBTQ, too, and in far right circles the talk is about Jews pushing a gay agenda.
Q. Where are we historically?
A. No one has ever shot up a synagogue and caused as many deaths as happened Saturday. So this is an alarming high point in our history.
However, for anyone paying any attention, and it’s been an occupational hazard for me, anti-Semitism has been going on for years. Anti-Semites remained in the shadows in the dark corners of the internet. But since Trump began running for the presidency, they have become emboldened. They’ve come out of the woodwork, and they know they have a supporter in the president.
And now the widely anti-Semitic view has become standard Republican fare. (Sen. Chuck) Grassley, who is a completely mainstream Republican, invokes George Soros (accused by anti-Semites of financing caravans of immigrants headed for the U.S.). Kevin McCarthy, who’s in the Congress, has gone much further, saying we must not allow Soros or (Michael) Bloomberg or (Tom) Steyer to buy this election. And he capitalized the word `Buy.” These are the types of claims that date back to the 19th century in Europe.
Q. What was it about 19th century that unleashed this?
A. Two things. Democracy and Jewish emancipation. With the rise of democracy came the rise of political parties. And they cater to different electorates. One of those were people disaffected with modernity and who blamed Jews for its supposed ills. Political antisemitism spoke to these people’s prejudices and frustrations, one of which was a very large Jewish refugee and immigrant Jewish population, which anti-Semites believed were a threat to the nation.
With the emancipation of the Jews in Germany in 1871, most but not all restrictions on them were lifted and Jews enjoyed a remarkably rapid ascent into the middle class and the professions. And to that success, there was an anti-Semitic backlash. The core of it was that this ascent was too quick, too successful, and part of a Jewish conspiracy that would see Jews take over the culture of the country. Modern anti-Semitism is a response to the overrepresentation of Jews in the world, that there at too many Jewish lawyers and doctors and Jews in the arts and that all of these Jews are using their power for world domination. They say the Jews control the media, the banks, and government itself. Once fringe ideas, you now hear it from so-called respectable Republicans. These aren’t fringe lunatics saying this; they are part of the political establishment, so you see a shift from the margins on the right to the center.
Q. Where is the center on this issue?
A. It’s difficult to say where the center is. If you mean establishment politicians, in Germany, even people who were not in favor of the extermination of the Jews, while most of them would never have hurt a Jew themselves, they said something has to be done about them. That happened eventually in every country in Europe to one degree or another. Those doing the slaughtering were not part of the center. But the idea that there was Jewish problem was widely believed across Europe. The thought was, “Something has to be done.” And that can mean a multitude of things.
Q. How has the Jewish community reacted?
A. They’ve never been confronted by anything like this before. There was a lynching in the south, a man named Leo Frank, accused of murdering a white woman in 1915. Generally speaking, the Jewish community has been extremely weak and reluctant to come forward. In particular, Jewish politicians in the Congress have not spoken out clearly.
For example, when there is a hate crime in black community, the Congressional Black Caucus stands as one and makes a very clear denunciation, to their great credit. There isn’t a congressional Jewish caucus, and that’s because of anti-Semitism. If there was one, it would be seen as a cabal by anti-Semitic groups. That is typical. People don’t think about this.
American Jewish politicians only want to be seen as Americans. But the anti-Semites know them all. Every Jewish politician. They aren’t hidden. It would be nice to see them come out, not with just a general statement, but with a specific statement about this. It hasn’t happened yet; I don’t think there will be one. They have been derelict in their duties.
Q. What about the role of non-governmental Jewish entities?
A. American Jewish leadership also has not been as strong as it should be. There, it is more complicated. A number of them have been conditioned to think that America, which by any standard has been an excellent country for the Jews — to think that anti-Semitism happens somewhere else. You come to America to get away from it. That ignores the history of anti-Semitism.
We are at an elite university here. Would it surprise you to know that Yale had quotas on Jews into the 1960s? That was not that long ago. Wall Street banks were closed to Jews for a long time. Advertising, too. If you look at Madison Avenue, it’s full of Jews now. But watch Mad Men (a TV show based on early 1960s Madison Avenue). There are no Jews. That didn’t change very quickly. And there were housing covenants. In La Jolla (suburban San Diego), there were housing covenants. They lasted until the university (UC San Diego) came there. There’s a long history of these things.
Q. How are the U.S. and Europe different, or are they?
A. Balanced against fact that millions of Jews came here and flourished despite some adversity, there is no comparison with Europe. The Anti-Defamation League has been monitoring anti-Semitism since its inception (in 1919). The things that are said about Jews and many, many of the things (said) about Israel are drawn from a long history of anti-Jewish tropes and stories that at so deeply ingrained in the culture here that even people who are not anti-Semitic are nonetheless spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. I don’t think Chuck Grassley is an anti-Semite, but when he attacks Soros, he’s using anti-Semitic rhetoric that goes back into the last century. The same for Louis Farrakhan. He accuses Jews of running the slave trade, of infesting black neighborhoods with crack. You can go on and on. Farrakhan was freely allowed to speak in Sproul Plaza in 2012. He was being applauded, cheers, supported and hosted.
Q. What does this university need to do to move forward?
A. Just what everybody else needs to do, to take anti-Semitism seriously. To see that it is, as the journalist Maria Hinojosa told Joy Reid, the “core ideology” of neo-Nazism and the alt-right. We need to move out of the mindset that bigotry and discrimination are only directed to a small handful of target groups. And Jews are never considered as a target group because they are seen to be doing well. But no white nationalists consider Jews to be white.
But they can pass as white, and they think Jews thus infiltrate white society to bring it down. These are insidious ideas. Universities need to focus political and intellectual attention on groups that are obviously facing discrimination. Anti-Semitism is the hatred that is hidden in plain sight. Hatred of Jews isn’t based on skin color or poverty or underrepresentation. It is based upon fantasies of Jewish world domination. Anti-Semitism is based on an entirely different model of bigotry, and universities have a very difficult time understanding that.
Q. How much of this is based in fear?
A. Anti-Semitism is totally based in fear. That’s the difference between anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. If you look at other forms of racism, the target group is to be suppressed, held down, held back. But you could search online, and no matter what you won’t find that any white nationalist or neo-Nazi makes the case that African-Americans control the U.S. They believe that of Jews, though. They believe Jews to be endowed with a particular intellectual brilliance combined with cunning and malice. When you have those together, you have a dangerous enemy, and not one you can suppress.
As the shooter in Pittsburgh said, “All Jews must die.” Their theory is that they only way to suppress Jews is to annihilate them. You would have to be pretty smart to take over every economy, every country. But with Hitler and Germany, they had posters where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin were all on strings, all supposedly controlled by Jews.
Q. How did the shooting impact you?
A. I was just distraught when this happened. I was distraught because I knew it was going to happen. I’ve been saying it for a couple of years now. I’ve been talking about it in class, about the explosive rise in anti-Semitism, which seemed to move very few people. There was an anti-Semitic cartoon in the Daily Cal recently concerning Alan Dershowitz. If you went to the Daily Cal, you wouldn’t, I’m betting, find one person there who would consider themselves anti-Semitic. But they printed something right out of Nazi Germany.
Q. Where do we go from here?
A. We are not going to get rid of anti-Semitism, it’s too deeply entrenched in our culture. It’s been around too long. To think that we could get rid of it would be Pollyannaish. I wish I had an answer. Over the years Jews have offered up answers, and none have worked. It’s a social policy question and a cultural question. To this point the culture hasn’t seen anti-Semitism as an issue. It took 11 murdered Jews to raise consciousness a little.