The Danger of Blaming Trump for Pittsburgh
The Jewish community’s overwhelming sense of shock and grief at the senseless, callous, brutal mass murder of 11 people at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh on Saturday is heart wrenching.
The extraordinary outpouring of solidarity throughout the American Jewish community — indeed the entire Jewish world — is not only warranted, but an affirmation of the truth that the Jewish people is one “family” in which each feels responsible “one for every other.”
No less important is the extent to which the non-Jewish community has stood with the Jewish community at this horrific moment. Their outrage and support is yet again a testament to the tsunami of goodness that rises in the hearts and souls of people of good will when others must endure a grave desecration of life.
The Jewish community of Pittsburgh is not alone in its sorrow. It is enveloped in an embrace of compassion and love. The Internet resounds with beautiful words of comfort.
Moreover, if the Pittsburgh massacre reveals anything about America it is the extent to which “hate” is an anathema to the people of our nation. There has been an immediate and total rejection throughout our country — from governmental officials to the man and woman in the street — of hate in general and antisemitism in particular.
The American response should be seen and appreciated for who and what the American people are and the extent to which the history of Jewish America is the pinnacle of Jewish Diaspora life unparalleled by any other “Golden Age” of Jewish history.
But there is a self-destructive response threatening to undermine Jewish perspective on the murders in Pittsburgh.
There are those in the Jewish community who are now blaming Donald Trump for creating “a climate of hate” that is the cause of Saturday’s shooting.
Whenever a tragedy like Pittsburgh occurs, there is a natural reaction to try to “make sense” of the event — to find “a reason” — to affix “blame.” But such responses tend to succumb to hysteria that creates ghosts, demons, and enemies where there are none.
According to a recent Mellman Group poll, more than 75 percent of American Jews disapprove of Donald Trump. Many Jews detest and despise the man. The upcoming midterm election is seen by many as a referendum on the Trump presidency, and they hope that a “blue wave” will change the political landscape significantly.
But it is simplistic and self-deceptive to blame Donald Trump for the murders at the Tree of Life Congregation. Such a suggestion is an ignoble expression of partisanship that threatens to fashion a frightening fiction of an emerging wave of violent antisemtism in America — demanding a series of responses by the Jewish community that threatens to distort the Jewish future.
Calmer heads must prevail for the Jewish community to emerge from this tragedy with an honest sense of what it means to be a Jew in America.
In reality, the Pittsburgh shooting has no more to do with Donald Trump than any of the prior mass shootings have had to do with prior presidents. America has a long and wretched history of mass murders that far predates Donald Trump. The phenomenon of hatred mixed with mental illness is a profound feature of American life, compounded by America’s unique obsession with guns and a host of firearms meant to kill other people.
Tragically, during the years 2009 to 2017, there were nine mass murders. Barack Obama was president. Appropriately, no one blamed Barack Obama for creating a “climate of hate” when 27 were killed in a house of worship, the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs Texas. No group protested outside the White House accusing President Obama of having blood in his hands.
Appropriately, no one accused Barack Obama of creating a “climate of hate” when 49 people were murdered at Pulse night club in Orlando by a mentally deranged man who wanted to punish gays and exact revenge for America’s involvement in Syria. No one in Orlando told the president he was not welcome to visit the families of Orlando and express the nation’s grief.
For all of the nine mass murders during his term of office, no one blamed President Obama because Americans understood that mass murders are the acts of deeply disturbed individuals for whom “reason” is irrelevant.
Fortunately for the Jewish community, no synagogue or Jewish institution was the target of a mass murderer during the nine years of the Obama presidency.
But in July of 2006, a mentally ill Muslim man angry at Israel shot six women at the Seattle Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle — murdering Pamela Waechter. George W. Bush was president in 2006. No one blamed him or his policies for creating a climate or context that would prompt the shooting.
Seven years earlier, in 1999, a man entered the lobby of the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles and fired 70 shots that wounded five people. Bill Clinton was president in 1999. No one blamed him or his policies for the shooting.
We have always understood that the social challenge facing our nation is the extent to which violence has always been an inherent quality of the American personality, expressed in a national obsession with guns that is unique in the civilized world. America’s shame is the extent to which it tolerates, excuses, and glorifies violence — especially gun violence.
This sad reality is exacerbated by a large and ever-growing population of Americans who suffer from severe mental illness. No matter how loud health professionals beg for the funds necessary to house and treat the mentally ill, our society remains unprepared to allocate the monies required for appropriate care. As a result, mentally ill people filled with hate and rage walk our streets and sleep on our sidewalks — and sometimes go mad with one or more guns at their disposal — and people tragically die.
The object of the hatred born of mental illness takes many, many forms. Gays are murdered. Americans of color are murdered. Christians are murdered. Muslims are murdered. Jews are murdered.
The tragedy of the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh is that a severely mentally disturbed individual decided he hated Jews and would kill them all. This is the transcendent message of the tragedy in Pittsburgh — and it is a message for all Americans: America must rein in its love affair with guns and must devote economic resources to treat the mentally ill.
Those in the Jewish community who make Trump part of the story make a serious mistake. The inappropriate fixation on blaming Trump for Pittsburgh threatens to warp the Jewish community’s strategic response. It suggests that there is a looming threat of more murders and that Jews should feel less at home in America. Neither concern reflects American reality.
We Jews have a long memory that goes back some 3,000 years. The older generation today well remembers the Holocaust of a mere 80 years ago in which Jews were gassed, incinerated, and murdered in unimaginable forms of human cruelty — only because they were Jews!
When a madman murders 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue screaming how he hates Jews, it evokes waking nightmares among anyone with a sense of Jewish history. But any Jewish leader who suggests that America is becoming “Paris” is guilty of a gross misrepresentation of America and perhaps, in some institutional settings, of self-serving aggrandizement.
Are there people in America who hate Jews? Of course. There will always be antisemites in every society. But the American people and the American social fabric is wholly non-antisemitic. There once was a time in America when Jewish children were taunted for being “Christ killers,” and were sometimes beaten up by Christian gangs for the crime of deicide. Jews were denied access to colleges and neighborhoods, professional opportunities and country clubs. When my mother first met her roommate at the University of Michigan, the roommate asked “innocently” if she could see my mother’s horns.
Virtually none of this is true in contemporary America. My wife and I have five wonderful children ranging in age from 30-50. My daughters have experienced sexism. None of my children have experienced antisemitism. This is the reality of American Jewish life today.
There will always be antisemites. They should never be taken for granted. Vigilance is a Jewish mitzvah! But there is no antisemitic threat to the Jews of America. Despite the tragedy of Pittsburgh, Jews need not live in fear or feel one wit less rooted in American life.
This is the message Jewish leaders need to stress today. For whatever number of skinheads, and white supremacists, and David Dukes and neo-Nazis may exist in various nooks and crannies of our country, they neither represent any significant piece of American society nor do they represent any concerted threat to the Jews of America.
The Jewish community should now have a moment to grieve and mourn. The healing that will follow need not be confused by making our family’s tragedy about Donald Trump. He had no more to do with it than any other president has had — and to suggest otherwise dilutes and distorts both our mourning and our healing with all the members of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Congregation.
Mark S. Golub is an American rabbi, media entrepreneur, personality, and educator.