Death in Pittsburgh
The massacre of eleven Jews in a synagogue in Pittsburgh is not just about current antisemitism. Of course, the leprosy of antisemitism is as deep in the USA as it is in almost every county in the Western and Islamic world today. A quick search on Google will turn up a veritable sewer of Jew hatred. The legacy is long and very deep. Its tentacles have been nurtured and its filth fertilized in every generation. It is not by any means the only case of poisonous prejudice, but it is the most widespread and long-lasting of all the prejudices on earth.
In the USA it began as a Christian phenomenon imported from Iberia and Europe. We know that despite the noble sentiments of the founding fathers, prejudice of all sorts was always endemic. Antisemitism infected early governors and generals in the Civil War. It increased with immigration from Germany and other European countries in the 19th century. It was nurtured by Henry Ford and the Catholic Father Charles Coughlin in the 20th. Jews were communists, capitalists, and all evils in between. It was adopted by the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan and its malignant Grand Wizards. It is now endemic in black communities where the despicable hatemonger Louis Farrakhan is welcomed by the black Democratic elite. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, together with former president Bill Clinton, cosied up to Farrakhan at Aretha Franklin’s funeral. No one seemed to care about Obama’s association with antisemitic preachers. It was the norm amongst American academics fearing that Jewish brain power might put them out of a job. And now it has been adopted by the Left under the guise of anti-imperialism.
All these phases of antisemitism were to be found in the USA and Europe long ago. Most Americans have overcome them. Everywhere the Church spread, the virus spread too. Now sadly the same can be said of Islam. Only those places where Christianity and Islam did not control the cultural narrative seem to be relatively impervious. Yet it would be wrong and dangerous to generalize and suggest that in Christianity or Islam everyone has been infected. And in truth agitation comes from politicization as much as preaching.
I am no admirer of President Donald Trump. But the almost universal desire of the anti-Trump media and opinion to blame him is as dangerous a prejudice as that which they pretend to abhor. All these features, antisemitism, the gun culture, the easy access of the mentally deranged to killing machines, the slaughter of innocents on all sides, existed and manifested themselves under previous presidents too. If we lay this all at Trump’s door, we are equally guilty for failing to understand the true nature of American society, where each group fosters and festers its own agenda and violence is often glorified. We all share responsibility for failing to act. To play politics over this tragedy is a disgrace, but the norm nowadays.
And yet despite the evil vapors in the atmosphere, Jews have survived and thrived in the USA and parts of Europe. I guess it is rather like the germs in the air. We know they can infect and kill. But most of the time most of us are impervious. And the unfortunate truth is that each assault, physical or verbal, only strengthens Jewish identity and resolve. And those whose natural tendency is to assimilate and be like “everyone else” realize that it is no guarantee of protection. Instead of running away, they often come back.
I understand that people of limited intellectual ability like to see conspiracy theories and look for simplistic answers to crises that only confirm their prejudices. But thinking human beings should always seek objectivity and balance. Which is why I condemn unequivocally the pathetic statement by the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel who ought to know better. His attempt to demean the non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism by refusing to call the Conservative synagogue in Pittsburgh a synagogue was a disgrace. It shows that prejudice exists within our own ranks too. And let us not forget Baruch Goldstein.
I also excoriate the Haredi schools in the UK and elsewhere who object to teaching about (they are not being asked to approve) other value systems be they religious or civil such as gay rights. You can teach about the existence of other ideologies while still teaching a commitment to your own. But if you want the state to support you, you owe it to the state to support its commitment to accepting difference regardless of whether you approve or agree or not. They do this already over civil marriage in general, even if they choose privately to have religious ceremonies only.
No one is without sin when it comes to prejudice. But the vast majority of people regardless of their prejudices want to live where differences are tolerated and accepted. Which is why for all its faults the USA still remains an attractive place for Jews to live. More so than Europe, because this vast country is made up of so many different communities — religious, cultural, and political — that provide checks and balances. One simply has to accept others if one wants to thrive.
The wonder of multiculturalism is that the state grants equal rights to everyone who obeys the law. The danger is that tolerance goes too far when it prevents authorities from prosecuting offenders simply because of their faiths. But multiculturalism can only work if each minority allows others to coexist without violence or aggression. The process of compromise involves both parties, political and religious.
We should not confuse a bonfire with a forest fire. There are bonfires of prejudice wherever you look. All the time. Just as there is universal crime regardless of the standards of any society. The challenge is to ensure the fire does not turn into a conflagration. And it takes a tragedy to act as a brake for a while if we are willing to allow it to.
May the names of the martyrs be sanctified and remembered for good.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.