More than one writer and speaker commenting on the slaughter in Pittsburgh has referred to it as a “loss of innocence” for American Jews, who, supposedly, have assumed such things happen or once happened in Europe, or in Israel, but don’t happen here. But, explains Jonathan Sarna, American Jews had a similar reaction in 1958 after a bomb equivalent to 50 sticks of dynamite—likely planted by anti-Semitic opponents of desegregation—destroyed a synagogue in Atlanta, even though there had been at least a half-dozen bombings or attempted bombings of Jewish sites in the South during the previous twelve months. To Sarna, these expressions of astonishment that “it can happen here” are a perennial feature of American Jewish life. He urges a sense of perspective:
Previous generations of young American Jews have experienced the same “loss of innocence” now being witnessed in the wake of Pittsburgh. For example, back in the late 19th century, when the term “anti-Semitism” first took root and American Jews experienced heightened social discrimination, many a young Jew despaired at how conditions in their new homeland had unexpectedly deteriorated. . . .
Prudent as it is for Jews to be circumspect given what has occurred, it nevertheless bears recalling that critical factors still distinguish America from other diaspora countries where Jews have lived. . . . In America, [first of all], Jews have always been able to fight back against anti-Semitism freely. Never having received their emancipation as an “award” (which was the case in Europe), Jews have had no fears of losing it. Instead, from the beginning, they made full use of their freedom, especially freedom of speech. As early as 1784, a “Jew broker,” probably the famed Revolutionary-era Jewish bond dealer, Haym Salomon, responded publicly and forcefully to the anti-Semitic charges of a prominent Quaker lawyer, not hesitating to remind him that his “own religious sectary” could also form “very proper subjects of criticism and animadversion.” . . .
American anti-Semitism has always had to compete with other forms of animus. . . . Precisely because the objects of hatred have been so varied, hatred has generally been diffuse. No one outgroup experiences the full brunt of national odium. [Finally], America’s religious tradition—what has been called “the great tradition of the American churches”—is inhospitable to anti-Semitism.
Of course, the fact that America has been “exceptional” in relation to Jews should not obscure the sad reality that there has always been anti-Semitism in America, as well as violence directed against other minority faiths. That history, as I read it, gives cause neither for undue celebration nor for undue alarm.