I teach a class on Crime and Punishment, in which we begin by reading Dostoevky’s eponymous novel and move on to examine the dangerous intersection between ideology and politics that impacted two of the leading totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Along the way, we pause to reflect on the judicial systems of Imperial Russia and later on, the Soviet Union. I broach the subject by offering Dostoevky’s observation: “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Indeed, the moral fabric of a civilization is to be judged not only be its heroes, but likewise the ways in which it dispenses with its villains.
Time and time again the moral fabric of the United State of America has been tested; to wit, our past and present is fraught with injustice. And yet, as a scholar of anti-Semitism and Jewish history, I cannot help but lend my observation to the most heinous acts of anti-Semitism to occur on American soil: the murder of eleven Jews at the Tree of Life Congregation of Pittsburgh.
To the question, does America have an anti-Semitism problem? I say, no. Unlike in the Soviet Union, where anti-Semitism existed both on the streets and was institutionalized on the government-level at various times of Soviet history, America’s is a different story. Here, anti-Semitism exists in small bubbles of white supremacy groups and higher institutions such as universities, where the left has made some unsettling alliances with hate groups.
And yet, it is precisely what happened after the slaughter of the Jews in Pittsburgh that I arrive to the conclusion that America is not an anti-Semitic country. The nation mourned together by waving the flag at half-staff, public and private schools addressed their students and likewise waved their flags at half-staff, the President spoke in the most clear terms, calling the event an act of anti-Semitism, Google commemorated and raised awareness via posting a black ribbon, news outlets from across the political spectrum reported on the event, and incredibly, the Muslim community of Pittsburgh raised over $190,000 for the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill. In short, the American people rejected anti-Semitism and came together to mourn and commemorate the victims.
In the midst of this turmoil, I am reminded of a letter written by America’s first president, George Washington, to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790. Assuring the Jewish people that “the Government of the United States, which gives bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” Washington concluded with a wish for the “Children of the Stock of Abraham who dwell in this land, to continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants.” Although written well over two-hundred years, this letter points to the undeniable respect and acceptance of a United States intent on seeing the Jewish people as their brethren. It is no wonder, therefore, that at the turn of the twentieth century, Yiddish poets referred to the United States as the Goldine Medine!
The murder of the Jews at the Tree of Life Congregation of Pittsburgh is a painful reminder that anti-Semitism exists. But America’s collective reaction to this evil is an expression of moral