By Steve Rosenberg
It has been two years since the Jewish community in my hometown of Pittsburgh was the target of violent anti-Semitism. A deranged gunman, radicalized by online hate groups and outraged by Jewish values of equality and acceptance, killed 11 innocent people. It’s a day we will always remember, and one that the next generation of Jews will know as the day everything changed.
While anti-Semitism had been on the rise for the past few years, the Tree of Life tragedy was in some ways a catalyst for the hate and terror still to come, such as the violent acts in Poway and Jersey City. Now, in the COVID-19 era, dozens of Jewish synagogues, schools, and community centers have been targeted by vandalism and Zoom bombers. In 2019, the Philadelphia chapter of the Anti-Defamation League counted 109 anti-Semitic incidents in Pennsylvania, a 22% increase from the year before. The loss of life in Pittsburgh, and our nation’s response, didn’t repress anti-Semitism — it added more fuel to an increasingly hot fire.
The 2020 election cycle, thankfully now concluded, offered yet another vehicle for hatred of Jews to thrive. Jewish candidates for public office were targeted with threats and other anti-Semitic messages, including having their nose enlarged in ads or leaving anti-Semitic threats at their own front door, as happened to Pennsylvania state Rep. Aaron Kaufer (R-Luzerne County).
While Jews in both parties continue to be targets of hate, our votes are highly courted. While we are only 2% of the U.S. population, we are reliable voters, with an estimated 85% turning out on a given election, much higher than the national participation average. To attract us, the two major parties tend to claim the high ground, telling us we should vote as they do because the other party is unwelcoming and inhospitable for our people.
The truth is that both the Democratic and Republican parties are home to anti-Semitism. The extremist views of the far-left and the far-right are no longer on the fringe: A QAnon candidate, who has espoused a plethora of dangerous Jewish tropes, won a congressional Republican primary in Georgia. Candidates who support the anti-Semitic boycott, divestment and sanctions movement are gaining ground in Democratic circles. The U.S. House of Representatives will be home to members with anti-Jewish views next year, a fact that’s alarming to Jews of all political persuasions.
Our leaders’ failure across the board to address this problem is wildly disappointing. Elected officials and party leadership frequently refuse to address anti-Semitism, as well as racism and other forms of bigotry that pop up within their own caucus. More often than not, they act to distract, by pointing to anti-Semitism on the other side. By not acknowledging this problem, or attempting to dismiss it, our political leaders are allowing the hate to flourish, and placing Jews in the, sadly familiar, role of the outcast.
The only way forward is for our political leaders to acknowledge, accept and make a plan to eradicate the anti-Semitism that exists within their own ranks. As the election winds down, and the votes are tallied, there will be a new or altered governing body that will be tasked with uniting a divided country and combating the pervasive bigotry within our midst. Anti-Semitism is thousands of years old; it will take a worldwide effort to eradicate it entirely. But if America’s political parties can critically examine their own role in incubating and spreading anti-Semitism, the rest of the world might just follow suit.
As we gather to commemorate and mourn the lives lost two years ago in Squirrel Hill, let’s hold the thoughts and prayers. It’s time for leaders in the Democratic and Republican parties to show their support to their Jewish communities by confronting and eliminating the anti-Semitism in their own backyard.
Steve Rosenberg is the chief operating officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. This op-ed first appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer.