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A year after Pittsburgh attack, study finds almost 1 in 3 Jews sometimes hide their faith

A sign hangs on a fence surrounding the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Sept. 17. The first anniversary of the shooting at the synagogue is Oct. 27. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

In 2019, a significant share of Jews in America sometimes hide the visible markers of their Judaism.

Almost 1 in 3 American Jews has avoided displaying or wearing something — like a skullcap or a Star of David necklace — that would reveal their Judaism, according to a study by the American Jewish Committee released Wednesday that examines how Jews perceive anti-Semitism in the year since the massacre of 11 worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

“It’s been a rough year, and it’s been an eye-opening and awakening year,” said David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee. “Perhaps there was a time when some Jewish institutions … felt somehow more or less insulated from [anti-Semitic attacks]. The fact that the attacks took place in Pittsburgh and Poway triggered a feeling that we’re all at risk everywhere, equally — it can happen anywhere.”

The survey of more than 1,200 Jews across the country, conducted nearly a year after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting on Oct. 27, 2018, found a large majority worry about anti-Semitism and a significant minority personally experience bias.

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According to the study, 84 percent of American Jews said they think anti-Semitism has increased in the United States in the past five years, while just 3 percent said they think it has decreased. One in 5 said they had been the target of anti-Semitic remarks online in the past five years, and 23 percent said they had been targeted by anti-Semitic comments in person or through mail or phone. Just 2 percent said they had been the victim of physical attacks because they are Jewish.

For the first time, the American Jewish Committee — which despite its name focuses on anti-Semitism worldwide — asked a question it had not even thought to ask in its surveys before the deadly Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., synagogue shootings in the past year: “Do you ever avoid certain places, events or situations out of concern for your safety or comfort as a Jew?”

One-quarter said yes, they have stayed away from certain events or places.

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“Frankly, it’s a question that is regularly asked in surveys of European Jews,” Harris said. “We never thought some of the questions asked in those surveys in Europe might one day be very pertinent to the United States. There was always the sense that it was there and not here.”

When American Jews do go to synagogues or other Jewish institutions, they sometimes confront hatred. One-third said that they are affiliated with a Jewish institution that has been the target of vandalism, threats or attacks.

And Jews are keenly aware of the measures that their synagogues are taking in response to these threats. Well over half said that their synagogues have hired security guards and they have seen police posted outside; almost 1 in 4 said their synagogues trained members on what to do in case of an attack.

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The Secure Community Network, which helps synagogues protect their buildings and members, said in a statement that it received about 500 requests for assistance from Jewish groups in the year before the Pittsburgh shooting. This year, it has received about 2,000 requests.

The survey asked questions about which groups Jews worry about experiencing anti-Semitism from, including the far right, the far left and Muslim extremists, and found fairly high levels of concern about all three.

But Harris took a more nuanced view in his answer to the question: “We’ve seen what’s happening in the United States as part of a larger phenomenon of growing anti-Semitism worldwide,” he said. “Even a few years ago, things that would never have been said about Jews — maybe because of greater sensitivity to the Holocaust, or just a sense that in a liberal democracy we don’t say such things about other groups — those guard rails are down. … Liberal democracy itself is in crisis in many parts of the Western world. So those barriers that kind of contained the spread of anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred — those barriers are being weakened.”

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.