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A Gnawing Worry

Did anti-Semitism factor into the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords?

The papers have mentioned it mainly in passing. Had this happened a decade ago, I would not have fixed on this detail. But Gabrielle Giffords is Jewish. And her alleged assassin, Jared Lee Loughner, is reported to have admired Mein Kampf and claimed ties to the anti-Semitic hate group called American Renaissance. Was this an anti-Semitic attack? There is no significant evidence to conclude as much, since we know hardly anything about the suspected killer. And yet, I’m confident that I’m not the only one today with a gnawing worry.

Shortly after September 11, 2001, Jonathan Rosen wrote an essay for The New York Times Magazine that quickly became a near-classic, an essay in which he described a childhood free of the fears of anti-Semitic persecution that had plagued his—and my—parents’ generation. But, among the many casualties of the attacks, Rosen wrote, was the sense of security, the (false?) comfort that murderous Jew-hatred was a thing of the past, at least on America’s shores. Not much younger than Rosen, I shared his experience, and his foreboding. The news of the years since September 11 has been full of more anti-Semitism than any decade in my lifetime, from the murderous kind in Mumbai and the banlieues of Paris to the “genteel” variety espoused by Caryl Churchill and Stephen Walt and John Mearshimer. Much of it has been blithely tolerated.

Let me be explicit: None of these people is in any way responsible for the Arizona murders, any more than is Sarah Palin (who endorsed a map with crosshairs over politically targetable districts, including Giffords’s). I think it’s demagogic to blame words and speech, however objectionable or contemptible, for a killer’s action. My point is not to place blame but rather to call attention to the chill in the air, the silent worry—harbored, I suspect, in more quarters than we will hear from in the news media.

Forty-two years ago, when Sirhan Sirhan murdered Robert F. Kennedy because of his support for Israel, Americans everywhere despaired that the nation was coming apart at the seams, but Jews felt no special sense of fear. Today, in contrast, for all the Tea Party extremism, the streets are still calm. And yet, the sense of anxiety felt specifically by the Jews of America is, I suspect, considerably more acute.

Contributing Editor David Greenberg is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars for the 2010-11 academic year.