Generations of Jews long saw the United States as a safe haven, a place to get away from the horrors of anti-Semitism, a place to raise their families in harmony and peace.
But more recently, there’s been reason to be concerned. Anti-Semitism has skyrocketed in the United States, with 1,986 incidents in 2017, a stunning 57 percent increase in the last year, the biggest one-year jump since the Anti-Defamation League started tracking data in 1979.
We’ve seen swastikas on synagogue walls and headstones, in parks and internet memes. We’ve heard speeches, once made just to small groups of like-minded haters, but now proudly out in the open. Most recently, billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who is Jewish, became a target of the hate, and even the center of a despicable conspiracy theory accusing him of funding the caravan moving through Central America toward the United States.
What were once dog whistles have become screams from the rooftops.
Those voices turned deadly this weekend when 11 Jews praying on a Sabbath morning were gunned down in their synagogue in Pittsburgh, allegedly by Robert Bowers, who spread anti-Semitic vitriol on social media. It was likely the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, according to the ADL.
Enter the “false flag” claims.
Very shortly after reports of the shooting, those on the far-right began to claim the tragedy was an effort by deep state Democrats to wreak havoc before the midterm elections to hurt President Donald Trump, to trumpet the need for gun control or a so-called “Zionist agenda.” As some of the same people did with last week’s mail bombs, they questioned whether the shooting happened at all. If it did, they said, it was an engineered event, perhaps one in which Jews killed fellow Jews.
It’s today’s version of Holocaust denial — and I use that phrase very purposefully.
Academics and other experts warn against comparing anything to the Holocaust because it was so horrific that it’s in its own category. And that’s true. But the flip side is that if people don’t compare anything to the Holocaust, they might not see the similarities until the damage is done.
During the Holocaust, there were those in America who doubted the details of what was happening in Nazi Germany and beyond, who hesitated to act. It was that America that sent an ocean liner called the St. Louis back to Europe in 1939, likely leading to the deaths of as many as 250 of the 900 refugees on board.
In the decades since, there has been an active cohort who believe the Holocaust never happened. Not surprisingly, they include many of the same people who are spreading doubts about what happened in Pittsburgh.
They used to be given little credence or attention. But now, in part due to the internet and social media sites like Gab, which Bowers used, and in part due to attempts to blur what’s true, those voices are more distinct than before.
That means the rest of us have a harder job to do. It means we must fight not only against the more-prevelant strain of anti-Semitism, but also the disgusting false flags and claims of fake news that accompany it.
Many of the 11 Jews who were killed this past weekend were of an older generation that grew up when the atrocities of the Holocaust were more raw, more recent, who likely experienced their share of anti-Semitism, and who even might have run into a doubter or two.
So, let’s be clear. Anti-Semitism and hate led to the deaths of 11 Jews on Saturday. For them, we must speak and understand the truth, combat any effort to deny it and refuse to repeat mistakes of the past.
Randi F. Marshall is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.