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Pittsburgh Massacre: Anti-Semitism -- Should We Be Afraid? What Can We Do?

Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh

None of us outside of Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue were physically killed last Shabbat; we were not among the 11. None of us were physically wounded as were those who attended services and those heroes who responded to save lives. None of us experienced the panic and terror that they did. But we were surely affected -- as demonstrated by the many who have come to rallies, vigils, and who have said or written consoling words. We were affected, as Jews, and as all people of good will.

The mass murder at the Tree of Life Congregation has been called by the ADL the worst anti-Semitic incident in US history. It happens that I spoke about anti-Semitism this past Rosh HaShanah, something rare for me (apart from highlighting anti-Israel anti-Semitism). I first cited European anti-Semitism and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ condemnations of party leader Jeremy Corbyn. I then cited ADL figures of increases in anti-Semitic incidents in the US over the past decade or so. I spoke of those who fight against many forms of bigotry, but who are consciously silent when Farrakhan demeans Jews, because they think we are powerful, and powerful disqualifies. (We are not so powerful, and when we are, we have galvanized to make this world better.) I also said that I did not believe that American Jewry was facing a Sho’ah, a Holocaust.

Statistics are important, but understanding them is even more important. Despite the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the USA, I believe there is even less anti-Semitism here than there was a generation or two ago, far less. (Some anti-Semitic incidents in the US, including desecration of gravesites, were not anti-Semitic acts by non-Jews.) I feel entirely safe as a Jew. I walk around with my kippah. Non-Jews not only seem friendly, but I detect no hint of unwelcomeness because I am a Jew and nothing averse directed toward Jewish living. Isn’t this your experience, too? Many non-Jews have consoled us and stood with us, and some are with us this Shabbat.

In the early part of last century, a mere 4-5 generations ago, this was not so; the American population that was born in the 1800’s expressed anti-Semitism, and other ethnic groups that migrated brought their (largely European) prejudices with them. The same continued until roughly the late 1960’s, although there was some decline of anti-Semitism after the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the celebrated movie “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” starring Gregory Peck, a good period movie, revealed the subtle, even concealed, nefarious effects of anti-Semitism that were prevalent even then.

In generations before and then, Jews were excluded from hotels; that exclusion was the impetus for the Catskills’ kosher hotels. Signs stated "No dogs, No Jews," along with other bigotry. Jews found hospitals unaccommodating to Jewish life, and were even subject to Christian religious pressure; they built “Jewish” hospitals (for all). Jews were discriminated against by universities via quotas, even at the most prestigious American schools. Social and athletic clubs, such as golf clubs, would not admit Jews. That social anti-Semitism prevailed.

American anti-Semitism was expressed by prominent leaders in and out of government. Restrictive immigration acts in the 1920’s -- which closed doors in the 1930’s and ’40’s to those escaping Nazi brutality -- were aimed at Jews (and others). And there were prominent Americans on the wrong side. Henry Ford funded public anti-Semitism in print and radio. St. Louisan and celebrated “hero” Charles Lindbergh was a Nazi supporter.

Still, the US never came close to the murderous regimes and popular cruelty found in Europe -- pogroms and extermination camps. It has not come close to what Jews in Arab lands experienced. And for me that is not America today.

The murderer in Pittsburgh was anti-Semitic. Like Haman of old and the Nazis and some others of these generations, he sought to kill all Jews. He is either sick or evil or both, nurtured by anti-Semites via websites and other means of dissemination. This is the price of an open society -- free speech includes not only healthy speech, uplifting speech, helpful speech -- but vile speech as well. Technology has made this more possible, as it has all words. But let us be reminded that these evil views reflect the thoughts of a very small percentage of Americans, and thankfully, of them, only a few are willing to act on it.

By contrast, many, many more non-Jews -- Christians, Muslims, others of faith, and atheists -- offered heartfelt condolences. People of other ethnic groups and races joined those designated by religion here at the rally on Sunday -- and across the nation to stand against the murderer and his views of Jews.

We need not be afraid, any more than we are afraid to drive or fly. We can be hurt when we fly, as we can when we do anything, but air mishaps are statistically very, very, very small. We can take security measures, and we will be considering some for our congregation. But by-and-large America is safe for Jews.

This Shabbat, the Shabbat after the Pittsburgh massacre, we read Parashat Chaye Sarah. Many have noticed that while the narrative is of Sarah's death and relates Abraham finding a burial spot for his wife and spiritual partner, the word chayei, is used, the plural of the word chai, life. The rhetorical comments note that although we mourn and prepare for death, we celebrate life.

This is more than rhetorical creativity. In our Torah tradition, when there is conflict between a wedding and a funeral/shivah, weddings take precedence. Mourners eat a se'udah hav'ra'ah upon returning home for shivah, because eating is a sign of life. Kaddish, although associated with death in the mourner's kaddish, is a statement of faith, praising God at a period when we might do otherwise. Israel was built after the worst human catastrophe in Jewish (perhaps mankind's) history, the Sho'ah. We mourn and grieve the 11 deaths, we should not forget what happened, but the Torah way is to live better, to deny the murderer a victory, to be stronger, not weaker, to send a message that any attack will stimulate the opposite -- because Am Yisrael Chai -- The Jewish People Live.

For real comfort, live more Jewishly. Make Shabbat significant and meaningful; spend time at Shabbat and holyday services and with other Jews at the minyan. Study Torah and learn with your fellow Jews. Come to educational and social events with your fellow Jews. Make Jewish life more important in your personal life and in your home. Make a financial commitment: Support HIAS’s work with immigrants; support synagogues and Federation.

Our way is not unfounded fear but building a better world through a stronger Jewish community, with Torah and God.

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