Pittsburgh (Part II)
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
As the Jewish community of Pittsburgh buries the victims of Saturday’s massacre and proceeds to the period of traditional mourning, it is extremely moving to watch the entire city religiously, racially, and politically has come together to grieve as a one community. It is also a moment to try to underscore several of the probable forces in American society which contributed to a climate in which this horrific event could occur. The growth of anti-Semitism in America has truly reached epic proportions and it is coming from all ideological directions.
The rise in anti-Semitism, the White nationalist movement as well as anti-women, anti- gay and anti-immigration forces have been growing in the U.S. for several years. On the one hand, many progressive Americans have recognized the change and opportunity in the country. On the other hand, there have been politicians of all stripes who have fanned the turbulence brewing in the country.
Technology has presented fringe radicals on all sides with instant “friends”. Internet anonymity has enabled hate mongers to express their feelings and gain reinforcement all in the dark. White supremacists have found allies on web sites as they trolled for support of their hateful feelings. Controlling hate speech has become one of the greatest challenges created by the accessibility of computers and all forms of social media. Hating Jews is now simple and followers are easy to attract.
Related to these new “friendships” is the support that has developed for conspiracy theories. While there always have been advocates for bizarre and crazy theories, it was much harder before the internet for such believers to gain allies. Now if one is patient, he/she can be assured of finding similarly inclined conspiracists with no effort at all. When their voices increased, they made politicians and public officials take notice. As they became significant in number; conspiracy theories became part of the normal conversation.
Hate mongers also have sought to delegitimate America’s open and legitimate free press. There have always been opinion writers and editorials with which people disagreed, but facts were legitimate. Now American journalists are attacked by those who disagree with them as reporting “fake news”; a concept that was a created during the 2016 election. This charge has been effective in challenging the traditional news services and media outlets to maintain their reporting credibility. Because someone disagrees with a news story does not make it false or fake. In fact, the test must to be prove the story untrue or fake, rather than to attack the messengers as liars.
In addition, today there are any number of news channels which totally contradict what is reported by mainline news organizations. Attacking the free press has become a politician’s delight. It enables truth to be denied and debunked with extreme right- or left-wing sources whose factual credibility is dubious; but it can be presented on the internet with the exact same display as traditional news sources. The absence of this distinction has enabled hate speech and anti-Semitism to flourish.
Finally, hatred and alienation always have grown during times of economic dislocation. Over the past 50 years the dramatic shifts in the American economy away from manufacturing has hit many Americans very hard. Rural and industrial Americans are truly suffering. Loss of jobs and opportunities has heightened their anger. The lower middle class watched the upper class get richer and the White, working, middle class now had fewer opportunities to move ahead. Financial troubles were historically blamed on the Jews. In addition, as center cities were becoming Blacker or Browner–or alternatively gentrified–those being dislocated opted to support White nationalist groups and anti-Semites.
In this context, incidents like Pittsburgh should not be surprising. The question is how America will address the growing and festering bigotry, racism, and anti-Semitism. Blacks may be the most visible, but Jews are more vulnerable because of their numbers. Hatred of Jews is the oldest prejudice in the world; now it even has turned violent in the United States. American leaders need to remember that there was another country in the 20th Century where it was said that anti-Semitism “can never happen here.”