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November 6, 2018 10:44 am

An International View of the Pittsburgh Murders

avatar by Manfred Gerstenfeld

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People pay their respects at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Oct. 29, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Cathal McNaughton.

The killing of 11 Jews at an American synagogue has now inserted itself into a sequence of other murders targeting Jews and their institutions in past decades.

Among the list of murders of Jews outside of Israel, the most lethal tragedy took place in South America in 1984. In the bombing of the AMIA building in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 85 people were killed. The largest terrorist murder aimed at Jews in Africa was the 2002 bombing of the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombassa, Kenya, where 13 people were killed. In Europe, two of the most deadly attacks against a Jewish target took place at the Goldenberg restaurant in Paris, where six people were murdered in 1982 — and in a 2012 terrorist attack on a bus transporting Israelis near the Burgas airport in Bulgaria, where another six people were killed.

There is one major difference between the murders of Jews in the US and the three other continents. In Pittsburgh, the murderer was a white supremacist. In the other attacks, the perpetrators were Muslims. Even a superficial look at mega-antisemitism in the world shows that antisemitism coming out of parts of the Muslim world is currently the greatest threat to the Jewish people. Only there does one find heads of state who promote extreme hatred not only against Israel, but also against Jews. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, for instance, has a long record of verbally attacking all Jews. There is nothing similar among heads of state in much of the Western world.

Liberalism and democracy by necessity overlap to a substantial extent. But they are not identical. France and Germany have learned from their pasts. Both limit hate speech. In Germany, one can spend a number of years in jail for insulting a part of the population. Many Europeans understand that the principle of free speech doesn’t mean that hate speech should also be tolerated.

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When speaking with Americans over a number of years, they were usually shocked when I expressed my view that the First Amendment of the US Constitution is setting democracy back rather than promoting it. I explained that enabling extreme hate speech is a deficiency in any society. I usually felt in these conversations that I had said the unspeakable by touching on this taboo.

Louis Farrakhan can call Jews “termites” without his words being punishable. Even if Facebook and Twitter remove Farrakhan’s words, his hate speech is still available on the Nation of Islam website. If he were an extreme white rightist he would not be welcomed in decent company. Yet Farrakhan is from time to time seen in the company of prominent Americans.

The Nazis biologized language. In that framework, Jews became “bacteria,” “vermin,” “parasites,” and so on. Farrakhan’s “termites” belong in this category, which prepared the German people for genocide.

One of the key characteristics of American Jewry has been the perception of an exceptionalism due to the country in which they live. They did not see themselves like Jews in other exiles. American Jews could feel at home more than other Jews abroad, in view of the way that the country’s democracy is structured. The Pittsburgh killings make a strong case for responsible leaders of all Jewish institutions in the US to see to it that major security measures are installed. As far as security is concerned, American Jewry should not act differently from Western European Jews.

A survey by the ADL in 2013 reported that 26 percent of Americans believe that Jews killed Jesus. 30 percent of Americans think that US Jews are more loyal to Israel than the United States. The BDS campaigns at universities exceed those of almost any other place in world academia. The number of reported antisemitic incidents in the US surged by 57 percent in 2017, to reach 1,986 according to the ADL. Yet in 1994, the figure was larger, at 2,066. With so many incidents, the threat of violence has been there for a long time. This is one more question mark next to the concept of the exceptionalism of Jews in America.

American Jews should reach the obvious conclusion: Jews in the world, including in the US and Israel, are a community whose fate is one and the same. They are subject to similar threats, which may differ only in the way and the time frame in which they occur.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is the emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs think tank.

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