A Deeply Unsettling Moment

Jewish history is replete with stories of expulsion and exodus. Knowledge of the Holocaust includes the story of immense difficulties European Jews faced in finding open doors to flee and find haven.  Even after the Nazi Holocaust, the barriers to migration remained high for Jewish survivors.  More recently, Jewish history has continued to be marked by expulsion and exodus — from the new Arab nations built on the ruins of colonial empires in North Africa and the Middle East, from the collapse of the former Soviet Union from Russia and Ukraine, and from the disarray of nations in Latin America, including Argentina and Venezuela.

Hence it is hardly surprising that, as a group, American Jews should have formed into a significant liberal lobby on behalf of welcome and generous aid to refugees.  American Jews have been openly committed to liberal refugee policy, whether affecting Russian Jews in the 1970s and South Vietnamese boat people in the 1980s or Syrian victims of a bloody civil war in the current decade.  American Jews also have supported important defense organizations that are prominent supporters of liberal refugee policies like the American Jewish Committee as well as more specialized organizations that have emerged from within Jewish experience, like the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Service (HIAS) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), each of which earlier specialized in assisting Jewish migrants but now focus on aiding refugees more generally.

The Jewish connection with and support for migration and liberal refugee policy obviously weighed heavily in the fevered neo-Nazi imagination of Robert D. Bowers, the armed gunman who shouted “Kill all the Jews” as he entered and shot up the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh on Saturday, October 27, killing eleven worshippers.  In Bowers’ mind, the Jews are the major force advocating for and supporting the migration of refugees, including Muslims and others whom some Americans have been tutored to fear, and these refugees comprise a serious threat in a critical moment in world and American historical development.  In an online message on the mysterious social site Gab not long before the mayhem, Bowers insisted: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t stand by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.” Bowers’ strong view, shared also in posts on Facebook, was that “Jews are waging a propaganda war against Western civilization and it is so effective that we are headed towards certain extinction within the next 200 years and we’re not even aware of it.”  Bowers also believed we inhabit “a critical time in history” with only limited opportunity “to snap our people out of their brainwash.”

A day after the massacre, on Sunday, October 28, the dark meaning of the horrific event grows sharper.  This is the largest antisemitic attack on Jews in American history, the Anti-Defamation League suggests.  The gunman, armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and three Glock handguns, struck down defenseless congregants, many in their 70s and 80s, including one woman who was 97. He also shot four police, leaving one in critical condition. We are in a new era when one man, filled with sufficient hate and strategically armed, can carry out a pogrom all by himself. After his arrest, the gunman told police that the Jews are committing genocide, an affidavit reports, and he wanted all Jews to die. A review of the gunman’s social network messages shows he believed Jews were the catalytic force behind the migration of Muslims and others to the United States, that such immigrants, legal or illegal, were “invaders” in his mind, transforming the country, and that somehow the flow of foreigners was producing an outcome tantamount to a genocide.  “Diversity means chasing down the last white person” he observed on Gab. Jews were “the enemy of white people.” His profile on Gab states “Jews are the children of Satan.”

Alexandra Schwartz of the New Yorker writes one day after the massacre that the violence at the Tree of Life Synagogue is the deepest fear of every synagogue, Hillel, day school, and Jewish community center in the United States.  It is the age-old Jewish expectation of anti-Jewish persecution married to contemporary American reality.  American Jews have been glancing warily at European Jews for some time in recent decades and at the worrisome signs of rising antisemitism there, defended against only by the presence of armed troops set up at the perimeters of Jewish institutions.  Now, Schwartz suggests, it seems antisemitism has burrowed into the American mainstream in a way not seen since the late 1930s and early 1940s when it combined with conservatism and isolationism during the American First movement and the beginning of World War II.

Jonathan Greenblatt of the A.D.L. sees and talks about things similarly: “American antisemitism has moved from the margins into the mainstream,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press a day after the shooting in Pittsburgh. It festers in the space of social media; it is promoted by white supremacists and by others dredged up, enlivened, and promoted by the Trump nationalist revolution. The deep sense that it won’t and truly cannot happen here, that America is just not Europe, is already sharply diminished in the wake of this shooting, and American Jewish institutions are again newly hastening to inoculate Jews against outrageous calumnies and conspiracy claims and to upgrade security practices and policies in Jewish institutions.  A study of the attacks on Jewish communities since 1970 reported in Tablet Magazine in 2016 indicates that most attacks have focused on synagogues (51%) or on other communal institutions like community centers (14%).  Almost no one believes this will be the last attack of its kind.

There is a deep malaise and unsettling working its way at this moment through Jewish America; it is as if a primary tenet of American Jewish life, that we’re guaranteed to be safe in our communities and institutions, no longer holds.  President Trump thinks things would be better if Jews armed themselves and carried weapons to shabbat services. The moral vacuity of the President’s statements after the attack, despite the remarkable actions by first responders and  the FBI and others, and the wonderful statements and gestures of Pittsburgh’s mayor and Pittsburgh’s people generally, indicate that the United States is in the process of reneging on the promise of maintaining the domestic tranquility and preserving equal rights.   Church shootings as in the Emanuel A.M.E. Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015 and synagogue shootings like the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh in 2018 raise these questions about America in the present.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.
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