The shooting massacre of 11 worshipers at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh Saturday was the deadliest attack on Jewish people in U.S. history.
It is difficult not to see the attack — which was carried out by a man whose social media posts made clear he wanted to eradicate Jews — as the extreme tip of a trend. Anti-Semitism has always been present in American society, but in the last two years it has been especially visible.
Jewish community centers around the country received dozens of bomb threats last year. The 2016 presidential campaign included anti-Jewish imagery. White supremacists have marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Va., with torches chanting, “Jews will not replace us!”
Data show the problem getting worse. The number of anti-Semitic incidents and crimes has been rising rapidly after years of decline, though the most recent annual tallies are still below the peaks of the last two decades.
The Anti-Defamation League has tracked anti-Semitic incidents since 1979, drawing on reports from victims, police and news publications. The worst year was 1994, with 2,066 incidents. By 2013, the total fell to 751. It has been rising ever since, with the biggest all-time annual jump coming last year, when the tally climbed 57% to 1,986.
The majority of those incidents were harassment, which rose 41% to 1,015 incidents, including 163 bomb threats against Jewish community centers and synagogues. Vandalism rose 86% to 952 cases.
The number of physical assaults actually fell 47% — from 36 to 19.
“We’re not necessarily seeing a historic rise in anti-Semitism when you zoom out,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino. “But the anti-Semites and white supremacists are more emboldened.”
The FBI began monitoring hate crimes, including anti-Semitism, in 1992. It defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”
Hate crimes targeting Jews peaked at 1,013 in 2008 and declined to a low of 609 in 2014.
The total increased the next year to 664 and again in 2016 to 684. The 2017 numbers are expected to be released next month.
Anti-Semitic crime has risen and fallen with hate crime in general, consistently accounting for at least half of all those involving religion.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2017 count of hate groups, released in February, showed that the number of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups rose to 121 — a 22% increase from the 99 a year earlier.
Some of those groups, such as Vanguard America, took part in that summer’s Charlottesville rally, which jarred the country with one of the most public demonstrations of anti-Semitism and racism in decades.
Most anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. do not happen at large events or through deadly violence.
Earlier this year, the Anti-Defamation League reported that “4.2 million anti-Semitic tweets were shared or re-shared in English on Twitter” over a yearlong period ending in January.
“A lot of anti-Semitism has now gone from public spaces to virtual spaces,” Levin said. “We have a fragmentation of hate groups. We now have loners, autonomous actors and small local groups filling the gap where the largest groups had previously exerted some kind of prominence. Not anymore.”
The Anti-Defamation League and other civil rights groups have pointed out that the steep rise in anti-Semitic incidents corresponds to President Trump’s rise to power and blame him for fueling anti-Jewish sentiment.
The groups said the president’s anti-immigrant and anti-refugee pronouncements have emboldened white supremacist groups, which have embraced him.
The president has also tweeted anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim memes from known extremists, including a campaign tweet that featured a symbol similar to the Star of David, images of cash and the phrase “most corrupt candidate ever” to describe Hillary Clinton. Late last year, Trump tweeted anti-Muslim videos from the far-right group Britain First, drawing condemnation from Prime Minister Theresa May.
Activists said Trump’s vilification of liberal philanthropist George Soros, whom he has accused of hiring people to protest conservative causes, has played into conspiracy theories about wealthy Jews.
Trump’s supporters deny that he has stoked hate, pointing out that hate crimes were already rising before he took office and that he has denounced anti-Semitism, most recently after the Pittsburgh shooting, and has a Jewish daughter and son-in-law.
Trump “adores Jewish Americans as part of his own family,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday.
The president is scheduled to visit Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
Amid the debate, one question has been whether the violence carried out by a small number of extremists represents more widespread feelings against Jews.
One study suggested that such sentiments are limited and on the decline.
A Pew Research Center survey last year found that of all major U.S. religious groups, Americans gave Jewish people the highest favorability ratings. In the survey, respondents rated Jewish people compared to Catholics, mainline Protestants, evangelical Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, atheists and Muslims.
In the survey, which asked a representative group of 4,248 U.S. adults to evaluate religious groups on a “feelings thermometer,” in which warmer ratings corresponded to more positive views, Jews received a rating of 67 out of 100. That was an improvement over the last such poll.