On Saturday, an American antisemite and nativist walked into a synagogue, one in whose halls we have both walked. A rabbi one of us knew well ducked into a dark closet and heard the execution of his congregants.
The Tree of Life Congregation reflects Pittsburgh’s historic, close-knit American Jewish community in a building that houses three different congregations. It is one among a cluster of synagogues and Jewish establishments remarkably condensed into the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood, where people wave to each other across the busy street between the kosher supermarket and the regular supermarket.
For all the recent talk about rising antisemitism on college campuses, Pittsburgh has been a place where there was hardly any of that talk, despite the fact that two universities can be found within its boundaries. As in all Jewish communities, there is no political consensus, but Squirrel Hill, in short, felt safe. That’s why Jews across several generations have stayed there, while Jews in other cities flocked to the suburbs. As the Jews of Squirrel Hill bury the dead and mourn, it is clear that Squirrel Hill will never be the same.
How can the British make sense of the events of last Saturday? Should it be seen as part of the dramatic upticks in antisemitic acts that the Anti-Defamation League has tracked in both Europe and in America in recent years? When we heard the news, as historians, it was like a blast from the past wearing today’s mass-shooting garb, in the place one of us once called home.
This incident crystallises one of the differences between British and American antisemitism and demonstrates that not all antisemitism is the same. As British antisemitism engages Zionism and attacks Jews as a way to vilify the Jewish state, American antisemitism – which the suspect, Robert Bowers, embodies – is part of longer history of nativism, antisemitism and immigration in the United States.
In his identification of immigration as destroying the nation he loved, and his claim that “HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders that kill our people,” Bowers tapped into a tradition that linked antisemitism with nativism and the desire to limit immigration. Deploying fears of immigrants, Bowers gave voice to beliefs articulated a century ago, by men such as University of Wisconsin sociologist Edward Ross, who claimed that “the endeavor of the Jews [was] to control the immigration policy of the United States”. He argued that “new” immigrants from southern and eastern Europe should not be allowed into the nation as they could not “assimilate” into American society. Echoing other scholars and members of the Senate, Ross openly embraced eugenics when discussing the United States’ “immigration problem”.
But what is key about Ross’s influential work, which led to the US immigrant quota system, is that Ross artfully combined his antisemitism and his nativism in arguments when he disparaged “the literature that proves the blessings of immigration to all classes in America emanates from subtle Hebrew brains”.
Meanwhile, in Britain, Baroness Tonge was said to have implied that Israel was to blame for Bowers’ antisemitic hate crime. The reported statement was definitely antisemitic – blaming Jews for impossible crimes using contorted logic. But it is a different sort to America’s. No one in the UK has recently blamed Jews for embracing refugees or crafting immigration policy that would destroy the nation. Brexit and recent British nativism has had no antisemitic dimension in particular.
As the world grapples with one of the largest refugee crises in a century, alongside a surge of populist politics and nativist policies, it is important to recognise how antisemitism is being deployed on both sides of the Atlantic in ways that shape each nation, both above and below the left-right divide. The attack against Jews in Pittsburgh and the response to it in the UK highlights that antisemitism is constantly evolving to fit current debates about who belongs in the nation and Jews’ place in the world; it is an ideology with a long history and no static definition.
• Jaclyn Granick PhD is a junior research fellow in Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford and writing a book on Jewish humanitarianism. She lived in Pittsburgh from 2011 to 2014. Rebecca Kobrin PhD is Russell and Bettina Knapp associate professor of American Jewish History at Columbia University, New York