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Anti-Semitic acts on rise before shooting

NEW YORK — Swastikas scrawled into Jewish students’ notebooks. Head­stones toppled and desecrated by vandals at Jewish cemeteries. Jews falsely blamed for challenges facing the nation.

The shooting rampage that killed 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday is being decried as the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, allegedly carried out by a virulently anti-Semitic gunman. The carnage, however unprecedented, is not an aberration.

Year after year, decade after decade, anti-Semitism proves to be among the most entrenched and pervasive forms of hatred and bigotry in the United States.

Jews make up only about 2 percent of the U.S. population, but in annual FBI data they repeatedly account for more than half of the Americans targeted by hate crimes committed due to religious bias. The Anti-Defamation League identified 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. in 2017, up from 1,267 in 2016, and also reported a major increase in anti-Semitic online harassment.

Anti-Semitism surfaces often in the research conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks various U.S. hate groups, including neo-Nazis, white nationalists, skinheads and others.

“They’re all anti-Semites — that’s the tie that binds them,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the center’s Intelligence Project. “They believe Jews are pulling the strings behind bad things happening in this country.”

Of the thousands of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. in recent decades, only a handful were deadly. Among the most recent:

– In June 2009, a gunman who had anti-Semitic writings in his car killed a security guard while trying to enter the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

– In April 2014, Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. fatally shot a 69-year-old man and his 14-year-old grandson at a Jewish community center in suburban Kansas City, then killed a woman at the nearby Village Shalom retirement center.

Long before those incidents, many synagogues and Jewish organizations in the U.S. had been ramping up security measures.

Fifteen years ago, the Anti-Defamation League issued a 132-page guidebook titled, “Protecting Your Jewish Institution: Se­cu­ri­ty Strategies for Today’s Dangerous World.”

It includes detailed ad­vice on controlling access to the premises, and also urged leaders of institutions to think carefully about whether or not they wanted to hire armed guards.

After hearing news of the Pittsburgh shooting, Pres­i­dent Donald Trump speculated that the death toll would have been smaller if an armed guard had been in the building.

Stephen Cohen, a co-president of one of the congregations that used the Tree of Life Synagogue, said leaders of the facility had conducted active shooter drills in the past, and considered themselves well-trained in how to handle security crises. However, a rabbi-emeritus at the synagogue, Alvin Berkun, said guards — while used during the major Jewish holy days — were not on duty Saturday.