While appalling and tragic in its effect on those intimately involved, the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre also raises uncomfortable questions about the larger subject of anti-Semitism.
In the democracies, almost all public officials and clergy deplore a dislike of Jews and have said so for decades. So why does it persist? Why, after centuries, does it remain potent enough to cause someone like Robert Bowers to equip himself with three guns and kill 11 Jews in the midst of their prayers? What keeps this neurotic anger alive? Will it be with us forever? (Or just as long as there are Jews to hate?) The answer is that anti-Semitism still has friends and admirers among us, people who pass their hatred around quietly, so as not to arouse suspicion. When their twisted personalities erupt in violence, the world learns (as we now have learned about Bowers) that these haters have been spewing their outrage among the like-minded for a long time.
It may be that anti-Semitism does not get as much attention as it deserves. We hear often of minor incidents but usually we nod quietly and move on. After Pittsburgh, Slovie Jungreis-Wolff, a teacher and author, wrote a piece about Jew hatred in our time: "Anti-Semitic incidents rose 57 per cent in 2017 with 1,986 documented events, and many of these increases were seen in high schools and college campuses. There is Jew-hatred, Israel hatred, boycotts and bashing of Israel. Students are afraid to identify themselves as Jews. There are open shouts and web posts calling for the killing of Jews." Many of us were brought up to think of anti-Semitism as an idea of the past that vanished in our more liberal and multicultural times, as we learned to despise the Nazis and their Holocaust. Pittsburgh proves, in the most emphatic way, that we were wrong.
Phyllis Chesler, who has been tracking this issue for many years, says "Jews have been sleepwalking." Someone is attacking them but they have not been on a war footing.
"Some among us," she says, "refuse to identify as Zionists because that would be too tribal, and Jews belong to the only tribe that is seen as suspicious for their tribal loyalty." She asks, what have so many American Jews forgotten or cannot bear to understand? "For millennia, Jews were slaughtered, first by pagans, then by Christians, and then by Muslims all over the world, century after century. The Jews as a people have never done anything that can justify torture, murder, or exile." Her conclusion is that bigotry towards the Jews has more to do with the hater's psychology and propaganda than with the victims' actions.
Palestinians do their best to portray Israel, the Jewish homeland state, as a colonial power. That, in their view, means that even the worst of their terrorism carries high moral value, like the struggles for independence of many African and Asian nations. In the West, those conflicts won widespread approval.
The idea of colonialism makes self-righteous students campaigning for BDS confident that they are on the right side of history. Palestinian publicists support that notion when they unfairly accuse Israel of practicing apartheid, like the old South Africa. If they play this analogy long enough they can predict that Israel will crumble from within, like the British Empire. Ignoring the ancient history of the Jews, they claim Israel is not a real nation-state, just an expedient invention. For that reason, Israel cannot be recognized. The two-state solution is a non-starter.
Is it fair to consider the BDS people anti-Semites? Can they be accused of creating a climate of hostility against Israel and Jews, spreading it around the world? Who knows? Some BDS enthusiasts probably believe they're innocent of bigotry. Some probably know they're not. But if they spend all their time vigorously campaigning against the only Jewish state in the world, my mind is made up.