Thoughts in the Wake of Pittsburgh

AP, associated press, Pittsburgh, religious freedom

Oct. 27, 2018 vigil held in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh, following a shooting at Tree of Life Congregation | Matt Rourke/Courtesy The Associated Press

On Tuesday, Oct. 30, in the wake of the massacre of 11 Shabbat worshippers at Congregation Tree of Life, I traveled to Pittsburgh as part of a support mission organized by my synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom in Potomac, MD. We attended the funeral of Cecil and David Rosenthal, brothers who were among those murdered on Shabbat just three days before for no other reason than that they were Jews. Afterwards, we walked over to the site of the massacre, at the time still roped off as a crime scene, where we stood outside in solidarity. On the sidewalk, there had been placed many stones (in line with the Jewish practice at gravesites) and flower bouquets, as well as Stars of David inscribed with the names of the victims.

It happened that our visit took place on the Jewish calendar anniversary of the passing of my father (his “Yahrzeit”). As is the custom on Yahrzeit, I said Kaddish when our group concluded afternoon prayers There was something both ironic and fitting that on this, of all days, I would be saying Kaddish. My father was a survivor of Auschwitz who was nearly killed by, and lost family members to, the same baseless and obsessive hatred that allegedly motivated the Pittsburgh shooter. I felt very much that my recital of the Kaddish was not only for my father but also for those whose lives had been cut short just days before.

It was at once gratifying, and at the same time only what one should have expected, to see at the gathering in front of the synagogue, and earlier at the funeral, a markedly diverse representation from both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities, with one and all there to recognize that what had taken place was an assault on both the Jewish community and the larger American community of which it is a part. My Religious Freedom Center colleague Asma Uddin has written movingly about the solidarity and acts of support emanating from the American Muslim community in the days after the massacre.

The funeral held earlier in the day for the Rosenthal brothers — both intellectually disabled and much loved in their community for their cheerful, giving natures — focused on their lives and all they had meant to those who knew them, rather than on the savage act that took them, or on an effort to draw social or political lessons as to how their murder came to happen at this time and place. The family and the community seemed determined, at that moment, to place the brothers at the center of attention — not the killer or his perverse ideology. As one of my fellow congregants observed, the eulogies and remembrances would have been much the same if the brothers had died of natural causes in the fullness of time.

But if that focus was appropriate at the funeral, we are left to grapple — and there has been much grappling in the general and Jewish press and on social media — as to how it is that in this great nation, where Jews found refuge from the hatred and persecution they had known in other lands, there could take place in the first quarter of the 21st century the most deadly attack on Jews in American history.

To be sure, this is but one of a series of mass murders that have targeted minorities seen as a threatening “other” by hateful souls, attacks that have taken the lives of African Americans, Sikhs and Muslims, among others. And Pittsburgh is also part of a sad pattern documented by the FBI’s 2017 Hate Crimes Statistics Report, issued subsequent to the massacre, indicating that the number of hate crimes reported to the bureau in 2017 increased 17 percent over the prior year. Of these reported hate crimes, 20.6 percent were based on religion.

Every hate crime, whether based on religion or otherwise, is an assault not only on the individual victims but also on the sense of well-being and inclusion of the targeted community — indeed, that is the intended impact of such acts. But even that being the case, it is impossible not to take notice that, although Jews are about 2 percent of the nation’s population, more than half (58.1 percent) of religion-based hate crimes were anti-Jewish, an increase of 37 percent from 2016. And, based on FBI hate crimes reports for earlier years, there is, alas, nothing new in the disproportionate targeting of Jews for hate crimes.

From where does this hatred come and why is it on the rise? First, we must remember that while the United States has been a haven for Jews, it has been far from perfect. Jews faced anti-Semitism and discrimination from the earliest days. Even into the 1940s, anti-Semitic rhetoric was a mainstay of American discourse and, as a recent academic study in Politico discussed, Jews were stalked and assaulted by right-wing groups in Boston and New York with little response from law enforcement officials. Revelations after World War II of the sweep and horror of the Holocaust largely drove anti-Semitism underground for a half century, but the burgeoning (if still marginal) white nationalist movement demonstrates that the story is not done yet.

Anti-Semitism today, as has been the case historically, has been a phenomenon associated at various times (or simultaneously) with white nationalism, Islamist extremism, the far left or anti-Zionism. As has often been observed, Jews have been condemned for being communists and for being capitalists, for being insular and for being cosmopolitan, for being cowardly and for being militaristic and so on. Through it all, as Jeffrey Goldberg observed several years ago, “Ideologues and demagogues of many permutations have understood the Jews to be a singularly malevolent force standing between the world and its perfection.”

In themes apparently very much at the heart of the Pittsburgh shooter’s actions, the white nationalist movement is replete with anti-minority and anti-immigrant beliefs that are all-too familiar — “whites” are regarded as superior to other races and ethnicities and therefore members of disfavored groups should be separated from whites, if not exterminated and enslaved. At the center of this detestable belief system is the idea that the Jews are spearheading a diabolical conspiracy to undermine and destroy Western civilization. Thus, Charlottesville, with its chilling torchlit march at which white nationalists chanted, “The Jews will not replace us! The blacks will not replace us! Immigrants will not replace us!”

In the weeks before the massacre, suspected shooter Robert Bowers began posting on social media about the “caravan” on its way from Central America, increasingly portrayed by President Trump and some Republican candidates as a coming threat — and pointed to Jews, in particular HIAS, a Jewish refugee resettlement agency, as bringing in “hostile invaders to live among us.” Just before the massacre, Bowers posted, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”

White nationalists and other far-right extremists have killed far more people in the U.S. than other types of domestic extremists — according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), some 71 percent of extremist-related fatalities between 2007 and 2018 were committed by members of far-right movements. It is the killers themselves who are, of course, responsible for their actions. Nevertheless, we have seen over the last few years an increase in incendiary rhetoric directed at immigrants, Latinos, Muslims and (arguably, as a placeholder for Jews generally) George Soros. Moreover, in 2018 there was a small number of candidates for office who trafficked in explicitly anti-Semitic tropes and themes. It seems likely that this toxic environment has played a role in the heightened expression of abhorrent beliefs and an increase in the numbers of people who have been moved to act on them. Much greater focus and additional resources are needed on understanding what gives rise to, and how to counter, these radical actors, including critically needed self-reflection about the nature of our national discourse, and in determining what can be done to thwart the dissemination of, and receptivity to, extreme messages of hate.

The problem is not all on the right. Much has recently been made of the failure of leaders of the Women’s March to disassociate from Louis Farrakhan and condemn his anti-Semitic and homophobic rhetoric. In response, some have said that the focus on Farrakhan is a diversion from the greater threat from the right. But the problem is not only that these leaders have failed to put enough distance between themselves and Farrakhan. There is far more at play here, both in the statements that have come directly from the mouths (or Tweets)  of these leaders, and how that intersects with the phenomenon of the anti-Semitism that is often associated with, if not congruent with, virulent anti-Israel activism.

To be sure, just as for any other nation on earth, Israel is not immune from criticism. However, in too many cases, including in the case of those very Women’s March leaders, we have seen invocation of anti-Semitic tropes, often disguised as “anti-Zionism.” Thus, we regularly see claims that “Zionists” or “Jews”— take your pick — have inordinate power over government and the media and are more loyal to Israel than the United States — allegations that are not the sole preserve of one end of the political spectrum.

We have also seen progressive Jewish activists ostracized because they refuse to renounce their support for Israel — even when these activists may themselves have substantial criticisms of Israeli governmental policy. Of what other ethnic/religious group is it demanded that they deny a normative part of their identity, in this case Zionism (which is nothing more than support for the return of the Jewish people to, and their exercise of self-determination in, their historic homeland), in order to be part of the social justice project? Or that they must demonstrate their bona fides on a foreign affairs issue as a litmus test for being allowed at the table on domestic issues, such as civil rights, immigration or religious freedom?

Again, the far right presents the greatest present threat to American Jews. But the ADL report cited above — finding that the great majority of extremist-related deaths came from the far right — also indicates that 26 percent of such killings were committed by Islamist extremists, with the other 3 percent of deaths having been carried out by extremists not falling into either category. Even since Pittsburgh, there have been anti-Semitic attacks that manifestly were not the work of white nationalists, including attacks on Jews in Brooklyn and an attempted vehicle attack on a Los Angeles synagogue. This  alone should be enough to demonstrate that the expressions of anti-Semitism that emanate from virulent anti-Israelism are ignored at our peril.

There is also the case of Europe that should raise alarms about what is to come. While, in the U.S., the bulk of anti-Semitism coming from anti-Israel activists has to date occurred in incidents in which Jews have been marginalized and harassed, there is no guarantee that these actions will not increasingly metastasize into overt violence. In Western Europe, the greatest threat to Jews comes today not from the right but from those who single out Jews as a proxy for a demonized and delegitimized Israel. Jews, including small children on their way to school, have been targeted and even killed in Brussels, Paris and Toulouse, among other places. It has become a commonplace observation that Jews have more to fear, to the extent of avoiding wearing kippot or other markers of identity while in public, in Western than in Eastern Europe.

Perhaps the least constructive response to Pittsburgh has, therefore, been the political tropism of both the left and the right to point each to the other side as having been uniquely responsible for the rise in anti-Semitism, not to mention other forms of extremism. One can well believe that there is more blame on one side, and at the same time see the need for greater vigilance across the political spectrum toward discourse and actions that, whether explicitly or implicitly, treats Jews as the “other” — and thereby makes them more likely targets.

Richard Foltin is senior scholar at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. His email address is: [email protected].

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