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What Pittsburgh tells us about the Jewish future

With US anti-Semitism at historic lows, the long-term threat to American Jewry lies in the erosion of civil society
This Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017 image shows s white supremacist carrying a NAZI flag into the entrance to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
This Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017 image shows s white supremacist carrying a NAZI flag into the entrance to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

When 11 Jews are gunned down in synagogue, on Shabbat by a white nationalist, it’s hard to not believe that something fundamental has changed for American Jews. What made it even more disorienting for me was that while evil reigned in Pittsburgh I was in Moscow for a conference on anti-Semitism. Normally, at such conferences one discusses the threats to European Jewish communities. There was nothing normal about this conference. Instead people were obsessed with the news from the United States.

What might this mean for American Jewry? In the second decade of the 21st century French Jews have experienced a sustained uptick in anti-Semitic violence – including terrorist killings. As the violence intensified, aliyah grew dramatically from 2012 to 2015. As far back as 2012 a survey of the Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union found that nearly one half of French Jewry had thought of leaving over the previous five years because of anti-Semitism. In 2018 the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn government has caused, according to one communal survey, nearly 40 percent of British Jews to consider similar options. And these are not the only sizable Jewish communities that are feeling the heat of a rising tide of anti-Semitism.

It is only natural for people to wonder in the wake of Pittsburgh if the golden age of American Jewry is coming to an end. It is a time that calls for a level-headed assessment of the true nature of the threat, the resilience of the community and what the future might hold for American Jews.

We can make one prediction with some degree of confidence. For the foreseeable future Jewish institutions – synagogues, Jewish day schools, Jewish Community Centers – will no longer be the open and accessible facilities they once were. From armed guards, to cameras, to onerous procedures for checking guests, communal security will begin to look much more European.

Yet America is still very different than Europe. The American Jewish community’s role in American society will not deteriorate any time soon. The community’s communal institutions are strong. Attitudinal anti-Semitism is very low in the United States compared to both historical standards as well as to other diaspora communities. Surveys show that Judaism in recent years has become the most admired religious community in the United States. Jews play an outside role in so many aspects of American life – business, arts and entertainment, the professions and politics and public policy to name a few. Unlike decades past there are almost no parts of American society where Jews are excluded.

Moreover, America’s robust civil society is still capable of protecting minorities and enforcing many social taboos against bigotry. So many different communities and civic leaders – Muslims, Christians, local civic leaders, local elected leaders, non-profits, law enforcement – rallied behind Pittsburgh Jewish community this week. In the aftermath of Charlottesville many of the racist marchers returned home to such derision of families and employers that some appear to have curtailed their involvement in white nationalist activities. So even though, in the short-run, security concerns will change aspects of communal life, that does not mean that we can expect Jews to become a beleaguered minority group in the United States anytime soon.

But there is no reason to be pollyannaish about the longer term. Attitudes do change. Anti-Semitic tainted conspiracy theories can take hold – witness the demonization of Soros. Fact based news and information sources can lose their legitimacy. There is no ironclad rule that American civil society will continue to play a significant role in enforcing standards of decency and protection of minorities. Especially if there are not ongoing efforts to enhance this aspect of civic behavior.

Does anyone doubt that America’s polarized political process is eroding democratic norms? Can Jewish Americans be long comfortable in their position if other racial, ethnic and religious minorities are singled out and demonized?

There are many challenges facing the Jews of the United States. To name just a few: assimilation; lack of Jewish education; the growing gap between Israelis and American Jews; and an aging population. Yet addressing these problems will provide little solace if the United States becomes a place where anti-Semitism is on the rise and Jewish life becomes increasingly insecure.

If Pittsburgh tells us anything it is that the health of American democracy, the health of civil society, should be a Jewish priority. Of course, the health of America’s liberal institutions should be a priority for all Americans. Jews alone will not fix American disfunction. For Jews, however, the historical record makes it clear that the weakening of civil society and the breakdown of American democracy would be particularly ominous.

About the Author
Ira N. Forman is a visiting professor and senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization, a senior advisor for "Human Rights First" and a senior fellow at Moment Institute. Forman served as US Special Envoy of the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism in the US State Department until January 2017 and is a former Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.