During a trip to Central Europe almost 25 years ago, my wife and I went on a self-guided walking tour of Vienna, which included a stop at a synagogue. There, a particular line in the tour itinerary caught my eye: Visitors might well see an armed security guard on the premises because of the threat of antisemitic violence.
How lucky we were in the United States not to need armed guards at places of worship, I thought.
Fast-forward two decades. On Oct. 27, 2018, an antisemitic terrorist with an AR-15 assault-style rifle allegedly killed 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history. Six others, including four police officers, were injured.
Even before that attack, synagogues in the United States had been installing cameras and stepping up security measures, since they had long been the subject of antisemitic graffiti, hate mail, vile voicemail messages, and the like.
“That has just been a way of life for many religious minorities,” noted Peggy Shukur, deputy regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “But obviously with Pittsburgh, things crossed a line and there can be no return from that.”
Scores of synagogues around this country now have armed guards.
“The security measures taking place within the Jewish community are unprecedented in American Jewish history,” Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, said in an e-mail.
The administration’s initiative is particularly welcome because it stands as a recognition that antisemitism isn’t a problem only for Jews but rather for all of us in America. That’s especially so since antisemites hardly confine their bigotry to one religious or ethnic group.
Sarna compared our current period to the 1920s, “an era of antisemitism, anti-Catholicism, the Klan, and anti-immigrant nationalism.”
A common question, at a time like this, is what average citizens, whether Jewish or not, can do to counter that bigotry. The website Antisemitism 911, a joint project of a number of Jewish organizations, offers a variety of modulated approaches for responding to antisemitic comments from acquaintances, colleagues, or strangers. (I wrote two related columns last year, soliciting people’s experiences and thoughts. You can find them here and here.)
Shukur stressed the importance of reporting all incidents to the ADL or other bigotry-battling organizations, whether or not they rise to the level of crimes or threats. That lets the ADL analyze incidents and trends in anti-Jewish bigotry and helps it keep people updated on the latest antisemitic episodes with its tracker. The organization has also developed an interactive online map that lets viewers examine antisemitism by location and incident type.
People shouldn’t be hesitant, in everyday conversation, to raise awareness about the level of antisemitism in America, Shukur said.
This is not just a problem precipitated by skinheads or pinheads, or one of physical attacks or spiteful epithets. On a subtler level, Jewish college students are sometimes accosted about whether they are Zionists or made to feel uncomfortable or excluded by those upset with the policy of Israel’s right-wing government toward Palestinians. Although obviously not as serious a problem as violence, that hostile behavior is nevertheless disconcerting for those on the receiving end.
Brandeis University has begun a broad initiative with the Robert Kraft family and its Foundation to Combat Antisemitism to raise awareness about — and work to combat — antisemitism at both the college and the K-12 level.
“Brandeis, as the only secular institution founded by the American Jewish community, has a role and a responsibility to address rather than ignore it,” university president Ronald D. Liebowitz said in an interview.
More broadly, Liebowitz said, when it comes to antisemitism, “People should react the same way they do about any form of hate or discrimination or bigotry that they see. This is no different.”
On a simple person-to-person level, sometimes small gestures loom large. That, said Shukur, can be as basic as offering an empathetic word to Jewish friends and neighbors, something along these lines: “We know it is a tough time for your community right now. We see you and we welcome you, as Jews, to participate in every aspect of our community.”
After all, in times of trouble, real Americans should stand up for one another — and against bigotry and hatred.