In the wake of Pittsburgh, there is no Jewish future in turning inward

So now it is not the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston (nine dead, three wounded), or the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church outside San Antonio (26 dead, 20 wounded).  Now the poisons circulating in our politics, with a heavy dose injected by Donald Trump and his discourse of hatred, have killed 11 members of Tree of Life Congregation in the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, and left their mark on the whole American Jewish community.

We were never going to be immune from those poisons.  Our relative wealth, our political power beyond our numbers, our outsize achievements and role in America, were never going to protect us.  Sheldon Adelson and all his chummy Jews who made their pact with the Trumpian devil, who financed and enabled him, Jews like Stephen Miller who helped plan and disseminate the hatred of Muslims, of Mexicans, of Guatemalan migrants fleeing persecution heading our way in caravan, this is your work – own it.  Your chickens have come home to roost. Once you let the demons of hatred loose, it is awfully hard to get them back in the bottle.

Robert Bowers lived 46 years without committing a crime.  His only (petty) offense was a traffic ticket. He was, to all intents and purposes so far, a law-abiding American citizen.  He thought he was a patriot. He thought he had identified the true enemies of his country – the white Christian country he believed “USA, USA!” to be.  The New York Times reports today that he posted on the web that immigrants were “invaders.” His President has said as much, over and over. And because HIAS, a Jewish refugee settlement agency, helped settle these invaders in Bowers’s country, he identified Jews as the “enemy of the people.”  Not the media, the Jews. When your President touts the concept of “enemy of the people,” you tend to start looking around for other such “enemies.” Because hatred blinds, sometimes the vision of the hater gets a bit blurry, making it difficult to identify the enemy correctly, even if you feel you have a license to look around to see who the real enemies might be.  And so Robert Bowers explained in his final message: “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.”

Yes, when you feel you are in danger, when you are afraid, when you are angry, optics matter a lot less.  Trump and his Republican allies have cared little for optics, for the institutions and conventions that have helped keep us together as a people, for civility, and for truth itself.  They have made fear and hatred of the Other legitimate, have maximized it, and have used it to elect themselves. This started half a century ago. But Trump has been a master at it, willing and able to ratchet it up as baldly and directly as few before him.  And we have seen the result, in a country where guns are a national religion, and access to AR-15s and other weapons of mass destruction is being constitutionalized. When mixed with fear and hatred, these weapons are a potent stew.

The rank hypocrisy in the reactions of Trump and his political allies is hard to stomach.

  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions:  “Hatred and violence on the basis of religion can have no place in our society.”  Sure Jeff, but hatred and violence on the basis of religion and ethnicity (Muslims, Mexicans) was a basis of your electoral strategy in 2016 and your policymaking since then.
  • Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center:  “If it [these anti-Semitic attacks] is not nipped in the bud, I am afraid the worst is yet to come.”  Sure, Rabbi, but you prayed at Trump’s inauguration, putting your moral and religious imprimatur on his appeals to hatred and violence.
  • Prime Minister Netanyahu:  “I am heartbroken and appalled.”  Yes, Bibi, we all are, but how about tamping down the hatred and violence you have incited and imposed for decades on innocent Palestinian civilians, in 2014 in Gaza (2,104 killed, 1,462 of them civilians, 495 children and 253 women, 10,000 seriously wounded) and this year at the Gaza fence protests (hundreds killed and thousands injured by IDF snipers).  And how about ending your silence about the premeditated killing of Jamal Khashoggi by your new pal, Mr. Bone Saw, the new young impetuous ruler of Saudi Arabia?

In Istanbul a few years ago, when we wanted to visit the synagogue, we found it locked and guarded.  Locking up the temple, hiring armed guards, bringing guns into the sanctuary, is a far cry from the Jewish religious principle that the stranger should be welcomed into our midst.  But many synagogues, community centers, and other Jewish communal institutions are going to find it difficult to resist the calls for more security. It’s a Hobson’s choice, really.  Guns make many people nervous, no matter who wields them, and increased security is not likely to reverse the trend, for years now, of declining synagogue attendance which beset the Tree of Life and other Jewish congregations in Pittsburgh, and in the wider American Jewish community.

My fear is that this incident will increase our communal sense of victimhood, the fear and trauma of which has, for the last 70 years, prevented us from seeing in our Semitic brothers and sisters – the Palestinians – potential partners in the Holy Land.  In the wake of Pittsburgh, there is no Jewish future in turning inward, either physically, spiritually, or politically, here in the United States, or in the Middle East. The insecurities of the nation and world we have made and live in since the Second World War are widely shared by all except those who have accumulated the money and power to escape them.  Rather than locking ourselves away, it is to the Others we must turn – white, black and brown, Christian and Muslim, poor, working and middle class – if we are to have any hope of Tikkun Olam.

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