Aftershocks from Pittsburgh’s synagogue massacre have surfaced fissures and faults that riddle Jews in the US, in Israel, and between. Deep ideological divisions over who is responsible for American anti-Semitism and how to tackle the problem reveal the crumbling foundation beneath worldwide Jewry. At the same time, the cosy, secure feeling that existential threats toward Jews do not happen in America has shattered. Commonsense dictates that our footing must be restored because anti-Semitic storm clouds gather on the horizon and our survival as a people is at stake.
Hatred, an Old Disease
In 2015, a gunman killed nine people in Charleston, South Carolina, during a Bible study session at an African-American church. Racial and religious hatred is nothing new. Anti-Semitism, in particular, did not start yesterday either and cannot be attributed to any specific US president or political party. It has been present throughout history and has increased over the years. We have lived in denial, believing that this scourge of the past was dead and could never strike in America, until the murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue struck a deep chord in our collective consciousness and shook us into the reality that there are no sacred spaces that can shield us.
These are the stark facts: over the last decade since the FBI began registering hate-crime cases, Jews have been the most targeted victim group in America, despite being less than 2 percent of the American population. Fully 54% of religiously motivated hate crimes have singled out Jews. Yet, the decade saw nothing compared to the Pittsburg shooting that took the lives of 11 people, the worst attack on worshipping Jews in American history.
Jews vs. Jews
The deadly shooting in Pittsburgh has prompted an interfaith outpouring of solidarity for the victims and the Jewish community in general. However, among the Jewish community itself, there is no such solidarity. While the American Jewish Committee (AJC), launched the #ShowUpForShabbat campaign, “determined to ensure that love triumphs over hate, good over evil, unity over division,” Franklin Foer, a Jewish writer for The Atlantic called for the excommunication of Jews who back Trump and their shunning from religious congregations: “Their money should be refused, their presence in synagogues not welcome.” Moreover, Israel could not be left aside when looking for a place to pin the blame for anti-Semitism, as GQ writer Julia Ioffe asserted that the moving of the American embassy to Jerusalem motivated the synagogue attack.
In the meantime, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Synagogue, who is still trying to overcome the trauma of the massacre in his congregation, reported receiving hate mail for welcoming President Trump to the victims’ memorial site in Pittsburgh. In addition, the synagogue tragedy has become an excuse for political pundits from both sides of the Atlantic to fan the flames of division between Israel and the US Diaspora over ideological principles on a variety of issues that have eroded relationships and deeply split Jews in the last few years: the Iran deal, the Kotel, conversions, the move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the definition of who is a Jew, to name a few.
Blame Game to Connection Game
It is always easy to blame someone else when a problem arises, but by doing so we eliminate the possibility of finding solutions by diverting attention away from its root cause. To find the cause of Jewish suffering we need look no further than ourselves.
The enemy is within us. To be more precise, the disorder is between us, in our detachment from each other. Jews have succumbed to the blame game instead of holding each other tight in response to adversity. Moreover, when our unity crumbles, hatred against us strengthens.
During the trying times of World Word II, prominent Kabbalist Rav Yehuda Ashlag, Baal HaSulam, expressed it this way in his paper “The Nation”:
“It is clear that the immense effort required of us on the rugged road ahead requires unity as strong and as solid as steel, from all factions of the nation without exception. If we do not come out with united ranks toward the mighty forces standing in our way then we are doomed before we even started.
Our sages knew that we are a strong-headed people and knowingly left us a plethora of wisdom to follow to heal our rifts and find strength to face threats. As was written in The Book of Consciousness by Rabbi Eliyahu Ki Tov, “We are commanded at each generation to strengthen the unity among us so our enemies do not rule over us.”
How Can We Reach Unity Under the Current Climate?
There are Jews from the left, Jews from the right; less observant, more observant, not observant at all Jews; Jews who oppose Israeli policies, Jews unconditionally pro-Israel. To our enemies, these distinctions don’t matter. To them, we are one. But why should we depend on haters to remind us of our shared Jewish heritage? We can easily follow the path of our ancestors to solve our disputes: “Although Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel were disputed, they treated each other with fondness and friendship, to keep what was said (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin, 13b).
We have been one unique people since the times of ancient Babylon, when Abraham the Patriarch gathered us as a Jewish nation, as those willing to unite above differences following our seminal principle of “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
The internal conflicts between us back then were just as vivid as ours today. Each individual’s ego burned with its own views and demands, but each understood that the only way to repair their broken relationships was adherence to the tenet, “love will cover all transgressions” (Proverbs 10:12).
Jews are a mini-model of humanity. We are to function as a prototype of connection between people, between opponents. This is possible and doable with the method of connection we were given in ancient Babylon: the wisdom of Kabbalah. Kabbalah contains the “know how” to fix the world. Its treasure holds the glue to put all the broken pieces of the Jewish puzzle together again in a most amazing way where every different piece is indispensable to complete the whole picture. Our perfect Jewish connection is meant to be radiated from inside out like a kind of fractal pattern for the rest of humanity.
It is written in The Book of Zohar about the Jews’ special role, “as the organs of the body cannot exist in the world even a minute without the heart, all the other nations cannot exist in the world without Israel.” Rav Yitzhak HaCohen Kook (the Raiah), elaborated on the need for unity when he wrote, “The construction of the world, which is currently crumpled by the dreadful storms of a blood-filled sword requires the construction of the Israeli nation … in anticipation of a force full of unity … that is found in Israel.” (Orot [Lights], 16)
Shining Light for Ourselves and the Nations
Spreading unity and light in the world is our role, whether we currently agree to it or not. Kabbalists have long stated that the sooner we realize and implement our role, the sooner we will see anti-Semitic hatred dissipate and disappear. This is so because our foundational identity as a people was in unity and mutual responsibility. We are expected to pass it on to humanity. By not doing so, we bring resentment, hostility and destruction down upon our heads.
We can replace hatred with love by drawing closer to one another above our frictions. Let’s accept our current shattered state as an opportunity to truly become one people again. Then let’s continue to build layers of mutual trust, love and understanding after this tragedy fades away in the news. While tragic or happy events come and go, our role is an eternal promise. As it is written by Rabbi Simcha Bonim Bonhart of Peshischa, “this is the mutual guarantee on which Moses worked so hard before his death, to unite the children of Israel. All of Israel are each other’s guarantors, meaning that when all are together, they see only good” (A Broadcasting Voice, Part 1, Balak).