Ben Kasstan
Stuck in the wilderness years.

Challenging injustice after the Etz Chayim attack

On 27 October I read the news that a synagogue, the holiest of shelters, had been ambushed in Pittsburgh. All Jews must die, the White nationalist had yelled before taking eleven lives. Each passing detail made the massacre more heart-wrenching. The synagogue was called Etz Chayim (tree of life) — a synonym for the Torah that has nourished and sustained countless Jewish generations since it was handed down to Moses at Mount Sinai. A boy, it was reported, was having an ancient covenant inscribed on his new-born body, a marker of life for both the family and congregation. Most pertinent was the fact that the synagogue was home to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a Jewish charity that ‘rescues people whose lives are in danger for being who they are.’ The attacker had posted on Twitter, ‘HIAS likes to bring invaders to kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.’ The synagogue was targeted because these Jews observed the sacred obligation to care for those in need of refuge (‘for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’) rather than seeing vulnerable people as ‘invaders.’ The sanctity of life enveloped in the synagogue was, within minutes, desecrated in an act of sheer hate and brutality.

Some non-Jewish friends and colleagues were surprised by how the attack had left me feeling numb, bereaved. I tried to explain that if it could happen in Pittsburgh then it could surely happen at my synagogue in Brighton, or maybe at the Jewish sheltered housing block in Liverpool where my great(est) aunt lives. It was a scenario many of us fear and expect; and a reminder why synagogues and community centres have guards outside. The current reality of reported hostility and hate crimes against Jews maintains the need for this security and vigilance, but how to address the root problem of prejudices against minorities in UK society is another question. Discussions with Jewish and non-Jewish friends have prompted this article as a way to reflect on what the attack and vigil could mean for us in the UK.

I attended a vigil hosted by JW3 and the Board of Deputies of British Jews (a representative body) on Monday 29 October. It was clear that hours and hours of work and determination had gone into making the memorial happen so quickly. Dignitaries and a diverse range of Jewish leaders had dropped their plans to address an anxious and grieving audience, and sought to offer reassurance and humanity at a time of crisis. Speakers at the Vigil included the US Ambassador to London and Sajid Javid, the current UK Home Secretary, who said:

We know that antisemitism doesn’t come out of a vacuum. People aren’t born with conspiracies and prejudices in their minds. This tragedy comes after antisemitic incidents in the US increased by a shocking 60 percent last year.

Yet it was hard to hear these officials talk about prejudice when leading an institution that has proudly implemented a hostile environment against vulnerable people seeking to live safely in the UK, or when representing an administration that promotes the enabling conditions for hate and violence against minorities (or ‘invaders’ as Trump has put it) to be expressed. It was also hard not to hear religious and communal leaders call out the ways in which politicians, especially in the UK, US and recently Brazil, have campaigned on a politics of hate which has, in turn, inspired people to act on their prejudices. We shouldn’t be naïve about the engine propelling these incidents against Jews, as the Trump administration has a clear track record of deploying anti-Semitic tropes as part of a nationalist agenda — which Mehdi Hasan has pointed out so eloquently on Twitter:

Representative bodies must pursue the right of Jews to feel secure, but this must be done alongside the Jewish responsibility to pursue a just society for everybody to feel safe in. The latter is a mandate enshrined in Deuteronomy (16:20) and reiterated in the clearest possible terms, ‘justice, justice you shall pursue’ (tzedek, tzedek tirdof). All Jews are responsible for one another (kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh), but equally we have a responsibility to resist all forms of injustice and oppression. Anti-Semitism is, as Jonathan Sacks has put it, a pathogen that mutates according to the prevailing social or economic anxieties of the times. Yet it might only be eradicated when challenging it as part of all forms of discrimination in the increasing prominence of ultra-nationalism and white supremacy observed across Europe, the US and South America. Scaling-up this approach towards justice and safety for all minorities would, in my view, be the most appropriate way to honour those murdered in Etz Chayim synagogue last week, and their way of life. With Mitzvah Day approaching on Sunday 18 November, Jews have an opportunity to reflect on their involvement with social justice projects and how they can support initiatives to challenge all forms of prejudice against ethnicities, genders and sexualities.

Exactly a week after the massacre I walked to my local synagogue — Brighton & Hove Progressive — to teach young Jews on social justice and to join the weekly Shabbat service. Martin, a non-Jewish friend of the synagogue, volunteers his time (in all weathers) to keep the community safe and was there to greet me and open the door. I entered and passed the growing collection of donated goods for Brighton Voices in Exile, a charity supporting asylum seekers and refugees in the local area. Michael then handed me a Siddur for the service, as he does so kindly each week. Our Rabbi, Elli Tikvah Sarah, opened the service by reflecting on the events in Pittsburgh and pointed out that chayim is a plural word in Hebrew, encapsulating how life involves joy and sorrow. These are the kinds of people who form the lifeblood of any synagogue, and Etz Chayim in Pittsburgh would have felt their absence sorely as its own congregation gathered for Shabbat.

I was delighted to see the synagogue so full, and to hear the many voices of a people carrying the Torah through the sanctuary. This scene would have been experienced across synagogues across the UK and around the world as community leaders called on people to ‘show up for Shabbat’ in solidarity with Etz Chaim. But to truly honour the lives of those killed in Pittsburg, Jews must also think about the ways they can show up for all minorities feeling vulnerable in the times we live. After all, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” (Pirke Avot 1:14)

About the Author
Ben Kasstan is a social and medical anthropologist based at the University of Sussex (UK).
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