Comments on Pittsburgh from a Young Diasporic Jew

“Everybody always talk about Hitler exterminating 6 million Jews…but don’t nobody ever asked what did they do to Hitler? What did they do to them folks? They went in there, in Germany, the way they do everywhere they go, and they supplanted, they usurped, they turned around, and a German, in his own country, would almost have to go to a Jew to get money. They had undermined the very fabric of the society.”

These are the words of Nation of Islam (NOI) leader Louis Farrakhan at a speech given in 1993 at Kean College, New Jersey. This was not a one off occasion for Farrakhan – on the contrary, this is the sentiment that Louis Farrakhan has oft repeated, albeit in different words, to his many followers across the United States and around the world. In fact, in one of his most recent attacks on Jewish people, Farrakhan ‘warned’ his audience about the “Satanic Jews who have infected the whole world with poison and deceit” – by the way, in this same speech he accused former President Barack Obama of having been “under Jewish influence” when he advocated for the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States. At no point in the aftermath of this virulently anti-Semitic and homophobic speech did any progressive, nor Democratic leaders in the United States, feel inclined to condemn Farrakhan’s words. At no point did they consider distancing themselves from him. At no point did they speak out and say that this sentiment was not only wrong, but it was dangerous. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Leaders of the Women’s March in the United States instead came to Farrakhan’s defense. Following Farrakhan’s 2017 Savior’s Day speech wherein he denounced the “Satanic Jews”, Tamika Mallory tweeted her support for Farrakhan by responding to Jewish critics that “if your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus, they may not be THE leader”. 

When American Jews voiced their concerns with Farrakhan’s statements, noting how anti-Semitic sentiments were already on the rise in the United States, Linda Sarsour chose to engage Twitter users by responding that Ministers of NOI were “too blessed to be stressed” by such concerns. Let that sink in for a moment – when American Jews raised their voices about the danger Farrakhan’s vitriol posed not only to the Jewish community but to the greater community at large, they were ignored and in some cases, told that they themselves were being bigoted.  Our white ‘privilege’ prevented us from possibly being the victim of racism or discrimination.

Even last week – in the same week that this tragedy occurred – when Farrakhan exclaimed that he was not “anti-Semitic, only anti-termite”, neither Sarsour nor Mallory spoke out; yet when tragedy struck our community, a different tone was taken. When tragedy struck the Jewish community this past Shabbat (27 October 2018), the same individuals who had denigrated Jewish Americans concerns all of a sudden claimed to be there in solidarity with us. Sarsour tweeted again, this time writing that “whomever did this is a monster”.

But let’s look at the parallels between Robert Bowers, the perpetrator of this heinous crime, and Farrakhan. Farrakhan refers to the Jewish people as the “Satanic Jews”. On his social media accounts, Bowers wrote that “Jews are the children of Satan”. Where Farrakhan sees the downfall of American society as being the fault of ‘Jewish power’, Bowers does as well writing that, “there is no #MAGA, as long as there is a kike infestation”. Perhaps their target audience differs, but make no mistake: both share the same virulent hatred of Jews. Not left-leaning Jews or right-leaning Jews; not Republican Jews or Democratic Jews; not Reform Jews or Orthodox Jews; not any Jew in particular. Simply all Jews. Anti-Semitism is primordial; it is a plague that has followed the Jewish people throughout our 3000 years of existence.

All of my grandparents and their parents fled one country or another because of persecution towards Jews. My mother’s parents survived the Holocaust in Hungary. My mother’s mother’s parents fled the pogroms in Poland. My father’s grandparents arrived in South Africa after their parents had fled Holland, Spain, Poland and Russia for the same reason. Every Jew can trace the route that our ancestors took in order to live life free from persecution simply because they were Jewish. I am grateful to live in a country that appears a beacon of civility in what are clearly some very dark times. But make no mistake, in the back of my mind is the ever-present ‘what if?’, a what if that was once again actualized in its most odious incarnation in the attack at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.

There is another thought, one that is more comforting, in my mind. In the aftermath of this devastating attack on our collective community, on Klal Yisrael, I am filled with gratitude for one thing. I am grateful to know that for the first time in our history in exile, attacks such as this one no longer pose a threat to our existence as the Jewish People. Why? Because for the first time in 2000 years, since our exile began, we have the choice to return Home. We are no longer at the mercy of our adopted homelands to protect us. This is a thought that I wish my grandparents and their parents had been lucky enough to have as well – that there is a sanctuary for me. A safe-haven. I am able to go home. To Israel.

I am not alone in this sentiment. In fact, I would argue that the majority of Jewish people living in the diaspora feel similarly. Immigration to Israel from the diaspora has been on a continuous up-streak for the last twelve years. Many of these immigrants have come from France – once home to one of the largest Jewish communities outside of Israel – who have chosen to make ‘aliyah’ because of an increasingly prominent anti-Semitic sentiment in the country. Others have come from Ukraine, Russia, the United States and increasingly, the United Kingdom. Of the 14.5 million Jews worldwide, over a third (around 6 million) now live in Israel and more are joining every year. There are absolutely domestic issues to be resolved in Israel but make no mistake, the vast majority of diasporic Jewry is aware that our safety increasingly depends on the existence of a Jewish state in our ancestral homeland. Attacks such as the one in Pittsburgh may pose a threat to our morale but they will never again pose a threat to our existence because we have the State of Israel. Our greatest concern should be defending Israel from those who seek her destruction. Which brings me to my next point…

The same people who refuse to condemn Farrakhan yet preach solidarity with their Jewish brothers and sisters in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh attack – is this solidarity selective? Is it dependent on these ostensible ‘brothers and sisters’ voicing their disapproval of the Jewish state? When individuals like Sarsour proclaim that Zionism is ‘creepy’, that being a Zionist is ‘incompatible’ with being a feminist, when she excludes progressive Zionist Jews from the Women’s March, not only does she promote a dangerous agenda of exclusion and divisiveness, she delegitimizes the experiences and beliefs of the vast majority of diasporic Jewry.  There is only one form of anti-Semitism that Sarsour, amongst others, believes is worthy of solidarity – that which comes from white supremacists. And while that is appreciated, as Emily Shire so eloquently put it, “if you are going to claim to fight anti-Semitism, you cannot be selective about which forms of it to denounce”.

Sarsour has frequently repeated her insidious vitriol that she does not believe in the right to the Jewish State and has called for the dismantling of the State of Israel. She has stated that Israeli Jews should “not be humanized”. But as I previously mentioned, nearly half of the world’s Jewish population now calls Israel home. It is inevitable that this number will continue to rise. Those of us who remain in the diaspora do so because we were born here, we were raised here, we love our adopted homes and are proud, patriotic citizens. For the vast majority, we are also Zionists; we believe in the right to Jewish self-determination in our national homeland.

If leaders like Sarsour and Mallory exclude those Jews— if our ‘allies’ perpetually qualify which Jews do and do not warrant to exist — who is left?  My mind can’t help but return to an earlier point – those who seek our downfall do not distinguish between which of us are Zionists, who is religious and where we fall on the political spectrum – it is simply Jews who are the object of their invective, their hatred and their terror.

In this period of extreme grief and mourning for the entire Jewish community – no matter where we live – it is disheartening to see our pain politicized for political ‘brownie’ points by individuals across the political spectrum. Those on the left blame one person, those on the right blame another. But do not claim to speak for us, to be in solidarity with us, if you do not recognize us. If you negate the value of our sheer survival.

About the Author
Tiphaera Ziner Cohen is a recent graduate from the School of International Relations at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Her research focus was primarily in political thought and intellectual history as well as international terrorism. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her family.
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