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Anti-Semitism doesn’t happen in a vacuum | Opinion

While America's growing anti-Semitism is concerning, equally alarming is the fact that society, seemingly, does not recognize its danger.

A group gathers outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh for an April 27 vigil to honor the victims of an attack on a synagogue in California.
A group gathers outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh for an April 27 vigil to honor the victims of an attack on a synagogue in California.Read moreGene J. Puskar / AP

Each year on Holocaust Remembrance Day, people from all backgrounds remember the horrors perpetrated in the 1940s and the threats of anti-Semitism. But for Jews, Holocaust Remembrance Day — which we recently commemorated — is increasingly a day for an even more unpleasant ritual: confronting the reality of anti-Semitism today.

Five years ago, I didn’t think we’d see white men and women, faces twisted into snarls, marching through the University of Virginia campus, screaming “Jews will not replace us.” I would not have believed we’d see Jewish cemeteries desecrated — including one in Philadelphia — and KKK fliers distributed in Abington.

Holocaust survivors echo this: They never thought they would see these kinds of things in their lifetimes. This reality is not the promise they received of “Never Again.”

But anti-Semitism never stops with rhetoric. In recent years, anti-Jewish hatred has escalated from Nazi graffiti in 2016 to cemetery attacks and Charlottesville in 2017, to two synagogue murders in six months.

National statistics confirm that these experiences represent broader trends. The Anti-Defamation League identified a nearly 60 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, the biggest such increase ever recorded. This rise in hatred is not solely directed at Jews: The FBI has tracked spikes in hate crimes for several years.

But while the growing anti-Semitism is concerning, equally alarming is the fact that society, seemingly, does not recognize its danger.

In their philosophies, most people find white nationalism and racism repulsive. But there is insufficient understanding that these philosophies often turn deadly. Anti-Jewish stereotypes are often bandied about in “polite” conversation, and most people turn a blind eye to negative comments about Jews being cheap or insinuations that Jews have an outsize influence on the economy and geopolitics. By not denouncing these stereotypes, society is condoning the growth of this subtle propaganda and being desensitized to — perhaps even absorbing — racist messages.

When an ostensibly “progressive” newspaper like the New York Times publishes a political cartoon in which a Jewish Donald Trump is led by Benjamin Netanyahu (Trump’s large-nosed, seeing-eye dog), we must contemplate how anti-Semitic tropes make it into the paper of record. When we fail to acknowledge dog-whistle anti-Semitism from the alt-right as a substantive danger, we inch closer to the conditions that enabled the Holocaust.

Because history has shown all too well that failing to address anti-Semitism can have meaningful consequences. We often refer to the millions killed in the Holocaust, but the road to the Holocaust didn’t begin with mass murder; it ended with it.

In Germany between the world wars, anti-Semitism was a progression: from newspaper cartoons disseminating anti-Semitic tropes to laws precluding Jews from practicing certain professions to concentration camps to, ultimately, the planned annihilation of world Jewry. In the 1930s, the failure to address German anti-Semitism had deadly consequences. Living in a world in which anti-Semitism is not considered a serious threat, many American Jews question whether our lives could be in danger if we don’t condemn anti-Semitism.

The Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, in partnership with the USC Shoah Foundation, recently launched the IWalk app, which pairs a guided tour of Philadelphia’s Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza with survivor testimony. IWalk offers several tour options, including one on contemporary anti-Semitism and another on Nazi propaganda, which chronicle the slow rise of anti-Semitism in Germany and much of Eastern Europe.

Sadly, the murders of Jewish worshipers in Pittsburgh and Poway are themselves testimony to the danger of anti-Semitic rhetoric. Following these attacks, a sense of dread has gripped American Jews, and many day schools and synagogues have implemented new security measures.

In this climate, failure to denounce anti-Semitism is not an option. Jews and others should condemn anti-Semitic comments vocally, and call them out for the racism and hatred that they stoke.

It’s also worth noting that anti-Semitism in Europe didn’t happen in a vacuum. The millions killed by the Nazis included disabled people, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. Similarly, murders of worshipers at New Zealand’s Christchurch mosque and the Sikh family shot in Ohio are part of the same story. Anti-Semitism doesn’t operate devoid of context: When we fight white supremacy and other bigotry, we build a safer world for everyone.

If any citizenry has the power to fight anti-Semitism, it is us, and it must happen now. Enshrined in our founding documents are protections on Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, and the equality of all people. We need to recognize that the threats to these protections are real. And we need to speak up to ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust are never forgotten.

Eszter Kutas is executive director of the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation.