I feel the need to respond in three ways to the murder of Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue. As a human being, as an American and as a Jew.
As part of humanity, the only proper response is sorrow. Each and every day, around the world, people do abominable things to each other. Sometimes it is to people they know, other times to strangers. Sometimes a specific group is targeted, other times attacks are seemingly random. As a member of the human race, one must sadly deplore this.
As an American, I grieve as I have grieved too many times in the past. It is a tragedy that human beings are targeted whether it is when they go to synagogue or to a Batman movie, to school or to a country music concert, to work or to church. I grieve that we do not know how to identify or deal with the dangerously mentally ill among us. I am sickened by those whose first reaction to the tragedy on Saturday was a political one. Their hatred of President Trump informed their first reactions and suppressed their ability to respond with love to the families and friends of the victims.
I worry about the ease with which malevolent ideas are spread on social media and also about the dangers of tampering with the First Amendment. I fear that we are incapable of having reasoned discussion about so many topics that need to be faced, not in isolation and not with arrogance but in one far-reaching conversation, including but not limited to: guns, social media, violent video games, abortion and the devaluing of life, the entertainment industry, the press, education, politics, and the place of God and religion in society. The litany is almost endless, but each area affects all others.
This massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue received attention for a number of reasons. Unfortunately, there have been many acts of hate in the United States that go beneath the radar screen. Did you read about Jewish photojournalist, Jerry Wolkowitz, who recently died after being beaten by Jamil Hubbard in New Jersey back in May? I didn’t think so. The prosecutor’s office said the victim was targeted because of his race. How many times have you read about white people attacking black people because they are black and black people attacking white people because they are white? How about savages who attack people with disabilities? I could go on. All these things have been happening in this country for years and only a chosen few instances get media attention. There is a lot of hatred and anger out there and many people and institutions, including self-righteous ones, stir the pot and rile people up.
Upon rereading it, that last paragraph sounds depressing. Yet, with about 327 million people in the United States, the number of good people handily overwhelms the number of evil people. We do have to vanquish the latter, but we mustn’t allow their actions to define our nation. As an American, I refute the claim that the act of one venom-filled man turns a country into a seething cauldron of anti-Semitism.
I also reject that idea as a Jew. This is the third lens through which I view Saturday’s assault. If six degrees of separation apply to everyone, within the Jewish community there are probably two degrees of separation. While the families mourning in Pittsburgh today individually resemble countless families who have mourned at mass tragedies – and have much in common with those who have lost loved ones to individual but less publicized acts of violence – personally, this time, even though I know no one in that synagogue, they are my extended family.
Jews are a small group and for good and for bad we are responsible to and for each other. Neither God nor society ever lets us forget that. It is an amazing fact that as a Jew I can land any place in the world with a Jewish community and find people to whom I can turn in an emergency. I may not share a language, level of religious commitment or culture with that community, but I will be embraced.
As part of the same package, over and over again in history, I will be considered the enemy and hated, regardless of any individual position or identification I make. People will seek my blood claiming they do so because I am a capitalist or socialist, too wealthy or too poor, too assimilated or not assimilated enough. Religious regimes and atheist regimes have tried to destroy us. The excuse is irrelevant; hatred is the common theme. That too is part of being Jewish. (One of the tragedies of Judaism over the past few hundred years is that too many Jews know little of the majesty, wisdom and joy of their heritage and know only its sadness and suffering.)
One of the reasons for this prolonged hatred is simply because we survive. As recipients of God’s promise making us His people, we are still here. That means that we have been persecuted in greater numbers in more centuries and more locations than anyone else. At one and the same time, the myriad various persecutions are horrendous and also attest to our eternal existence.
On a recent long drive my husband and I listened to a few hours of James Michener’s novel, Poland. It was eye-opening. The barbarism and terror under which people lived in Europe for centuries was brutal. The gratitude I feel for living when and where I do intensified with each chapter.
But we both were amazed at one particular part. As students of Jewish history we knew of the massacres of the Jewish community in Poland/Ukraine in the years 1648-1649. Under the leadership of Cossack, Bogdan Khmelnytsky, so many Jews were slaughtered so ferociously that the Jewish community still memorializes that catastrophe today. Here is what amazed us. Michener does mention the murder of the Jews, but it turns out that thousands of others, mostly Catholic Polish peasants, were also viciously massacred in vast numbers. Both my husband and I had been unaware that this was anything more than anti-Semitism as its worst.
Hatred of the Jew has been present since at least the days of ancient Egypt, but hatred between many groups of human beings has accompanied that pathology. It is simply a reality that while different groups will be targeted at different times and places, anywhere that hatred flourishes, if there is a Jewish community, it will be among the persecuted.
Here is another truth. When hatred of the Jew flares, as it did in Pharaoh’s Egypt, in 15th century Spain, 20th century Germany or anywhere else, not only the Jews but the entire nation will end up suffering. Jews may be convenient scapegoats, but when they are banished or murdered the host country inevitably suffers.
This too is a truth, though it is one that I suspect will cause offense to many of my co-religionists. As a group, we Jews are part of both the problem and the solution. If we were carrying out our mission to be a light unto the nations and to cleave to God with all our hearts, our lives and our resources, the world would be a place of peace and harmony. That is God’s promise in the Bible. If strife exists, we are failing.
Here’s the rub. We constantly argue among ourselves how to translate that mission into action. We passionately hold conflicting ideas. Most of us have immense trouble loving our fellow Jew, as we are commanded to do, while adamantly rejecting his philosophies and actions, as we must. On more than one occasion, Jews have been guilty of baseless hatred towards each other, We are a stiff-necked people as is evident by our survival, but we are also tenacious when we rebel against God and His directions, whether between man and his fellow man or between man and God.
If we are created in God’s image rather than creating God in our image, then there is a right way and a wrong way to live. We are in this world together and ignoring wrong ideas ends up leading to misery and the acceptance of evil, not to a kumbaya moment. Sadly, on more than one occasion Jews, with all their power and might, have supported regimes which oppose God, such as Communist Russia, that then turn into governments that persecute Jews.
I was in a Torah class at my local synagogue two days after the killings in Pittsburgh. Before the class started, I heard a number of women saying to one another, “This reminds us that we can’t trust anywhere. Anti-Semitism has reached America now. It is time to leave. Just as Jews in the past decade have fled France, it is our turn now.”
I was appalled at both the inaccuracy and the ingratitude of that remark. Although I understood the fear and emotion behind their comments, America uniquely has had the moniker among learned Jews as a, “Medina shel chessed,” or “Nation of Loving-kindness.” America was founded on a respect for the Judeo-Christian tradition, abandoning on a national level the animosity that existed towards Jews and between various Christian groups in Europe. Certainly, individuals failed in this quest, but the nation’s founding documents and ideals upheld it.
I held off writing this because mourning and sadness in and of themselves were the necessary response right after the incident. Sadly, the news has been full of those, Jewish and non-Jewish, who have politicized this event. Once so much of that is out there, I feel obligated to counter that with which I disagree.
One perverted anti-Semitic man running amok does not change America’s soul. I do not see existential danger from individuals. I do worry about anti-Semitism among right-wing extremists, but as long as they stay extremists, it can be countered. They can cause a lot of pain and destruction, as Robert Bowers did, but they are marginalized and countered by tens of millions of good people.
Where I see the biggest danger coming from, however, is from the acceptance and mainstreaming of anti-Semitism in the Democrat Party. That is truly scary. Party leadership and icons embrace venom-spewers like Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton. College campuses, bastions of far-Left thinking, are increasingly uncomfortable places for Jews who identify as such. There are an unprecedented number of candidates running for office in the Democrat Party about whom the case can be made that they hate Judaism (and Christianity). That worries me. And it saddens me greatly that members of my extended family, the Jews, are among that Party’s biggest supporters. There is nothing rational about anti-Semitism and there is nothing rational about the behavior of any Jew (including me) in any area of life where we exclude God’s guidance. In the absence of words thundering from Heaven telling us what we should do, each of us, deep in our souls has to answer the question whether we are motivated by our own egos and ideas or by truly seeking to act as servants of God.
May God extend comfort to the mourners of this and all other tragedies.