At a vigil for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers told attendants, “My holy place has been defiled.” He spoke the bitter truth that terrorism defiles mankind, no matter where it strikes.
This was all the more poignant to me, as a Pittsburgh native who has lived for the past 46 years in Israel, where terrorists have murdered thousands of Israelis before this assault on an American synagogue. This latest antisemitic atrocity pointed out some of the differences in these two communities, but also the fears that Jews everywhere share.
The shocking TV coverage of the news from my hometown was terribly familiar. Initial reports from the scene focusing on security forces and emergency vehicles looked so much like the aftermath of countless terrorist attacks in Israel—then the realization sunk in that this was a synagogue attack in my old neighborhood.
After a terrorist attack in Israel, people scramble to contact relatives or friends for assurance that they are unharmed. In Jerusalem, we waited for the names of the victims to be announced the following day. It was then I found the name of Irving Younger, 69, who had been a high school classmate.
I recognized his photo from our yearbook, but I did not know him. There were more than 600 seniors in the 1967 graduating class of Taylor Allderdice High School and he and I had no classes together. But living in Israel, I knew why he and 10 other Jews were murdered in a synagogue on the Sabbath.
Contrary to common wisdom, US President Donald Trump did not invent antisemitism in the United States, nor did he incite Robert Bowers to murder Jews. Antisemitism had been increasing in the US since before his election. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Trump has exploited the antisemitism of a large part of his base, as he has its antipathy toward immigration and his ongoing failure to renounce alt-right disciples who target liberals. No matter what the spin, there were no “nice Nazis” in Charlottesville.
Jews have been persecuted for centuries. The same antisemitism that brought the forced conversions and expulsion of Jews from Spain, spurred pogroms in Russia and then the Soviet Union, and saw the rise of Hitler is the same sickness that led Bowers to storm the Tree of Life and murder innocent worshipers. It’s the same antisemitism behind attacks in Toulouse, Mumbai, Copenhagen, Brussels, Paris and Kansas City. As Jews recall every year at the Passover Seder: In every generation our enemies rise up to destroy us.
I’ve never been to Charlottesville, but it was a life-changing moment to see self-avowed Nazis parade through American streets. A similar moment occurred at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday. Both events brutally metamorphosed the comforting commonplace into a killing zone.
My first visit to the Tree of Life was at the age of five, when I was the ring bearer at my aunt’s wedding. I got a Mickey Mouse watch. Fast forward to my senior year at the University of Pittsburgh, when I taught a high school class at the School of Advanced Jewish Studies, which met at the Tree of Life school building – on the third floor where gunman Bowers was captured in a shootout with police.
After graduation I moved to Israel, knowing of the ongoing danger of terrorism, but accepting it as part of the price of Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Growing up in Pittsburgh, which is consistently rated as one of the most livable cities in America, I had no previous experience with people wanting to kill me because I am a Jew. Living and raising children in Israel, we accept dealing with the threat of terrorism as a given.
As a former demonstrator against the war in Vietnam, I never dreamed of the necessity of a strong military for self-defense that is second nature to Israelis. On the other hand, as a typical Israeli family, I and my four grown children are veterans of the Israel Defense Forces. Being anti-foreign-war in a philosophical debate does not compare with serving at home in a citizens’ army dedicated to self-defense.
While Pittsburgh and Jerusalem are both strong, vibrant Jewish communities, both must withstand the constant threat of terrorism. Israel’s battles against the scourge are recorded with numbing frequency almost daily, but America has yet to deal with it. At least not in Pittsburgh, where the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle reported that, from January until September 2018, there were more than 50 antisemitic incidents.
One dominant reaction to the massacre expressed a resolve common to both American and Israeli Jews. Said Wendy Kobee, a 55-year-old Tree of Life congregant, “Do we stop everything or do we continue life? We continue living. This will not define us.”
The author is editor of jerusalemworldnews.com and is a former editorial writer of The Jerusalem Post.