Benjamin Anthony
Co-Founder & CEO, The MirYam Institute

Pittsburgh: The outrage that didn’t shock me

Throughout the ages, diaspora Jews have sought to alert the leadership of their host nations to the encroaching forces that seek to darken the prospects of the Jewish community. They have done so with a will born of bitter experience and with varying degrees of success.

Given our history, one would think it understandable that we frequently reference the evils perpetrated against us in our past as we seek to avert the dangers in our present or future.

In so doing, we evoke tragedies that are seared into the memory of our people, both ancient and modern. And yet, perhaps partly due to the endless examples we are tragically able to furnish, our tales of woe are often dismissed, disbelieved or ignored; both by members of our own community and by individuals or groups beyond that fold.

Concerns for our safety are regularly argued away as belonging to an era long passed – until tragedy strikes.

Rarely are we forced to evoke evils as contemporary and sinister as the horror that took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh less than a week ago. Even in the midst of our mourning, if we are to limit the occurrence of such dreadful happenings in the future, it is imperative that the lessons of this horrendous event are learned immediately and in real time.

Of paramount importance among such lessons is the recognition that Jew-hatred and anti-Semitism target our people now, as ever before; and that both of these viruses are sustained, real and far from extinct.

These malevolent hatreds and their hosts seem only to grow, shifting their shape at various times and shedding their deceptive skins as needed. They do so only in order to return to hunt their prey once again beneath the guise of a regrown camouflage.

For millennia, these evils have seeped into different environments, giving rise to deeds that are profane and murderous. In this latest instance, the attack was launched by an American, against American Jewry in America.

Carriers of these sickening hatreds expertly exploit the zeitgeist of the day, arguing that they target Jews not because they are Jewish, but because Jews obstruct the pathway to realizing the larger interests of the nation state. Jews, they will tell you, are the few who must be removed for the benefit of the many. What the claimed “benefit” of the day may be is largely unimportant. It chops and it changes, but the hatred remains constant.

In the battle to ensure that the future of American Jewry is bright, rather than bleak, it is imperative that we identify, speak of, educate about and combat these realities. We must do so in a demeanor that is unequivocal and forthright, regardless of how uncomfortable that process may be.

We must eschew all attempts to nuance what has taken place into something it is not. We must not be distracted from what has occurred by falling prey to the pettiness of politics. The evil prejudices that gave rise to such a heinous event are infectious and contagious – and they must be isolated, tackled, excised and destroyed.

Doing so will require the absolute focus of all of us, to the exclusion of most any other issue to which people seem ready to attribute this dreadful crime.

What took place in Pittsburgh is a clear cut, horrific example of the evils that can, have, and tragically will be launched against Jews simply because they are Jewish.

Intellectualizing these murders is an ill-judged pursuit. Permitting their politicization for the sake of partisanship is worse yet. Attempts to do so are extremely dangerous and ought to be curbed. If we as a people either permit or join in with the politicking of this rampage, we will seal a fate for ourselves wherein our tragic past will become our prologue.

When a man enters a synagogue and murders innocent Jews at worship while declaring that our people entire must die, he is committing an act born of Jew-hatred that should enrage and shock all peoples of this earth. The murderer engaged in a wickedness that predates politics and traverses partisan leanings, and we should greet it with collective outrage, not nuance.

And yet, as outraged as I am, I am not shocked. As much as I, like all of us, may wish this atrocity to be undone, I am not shocked by it.

I am not shocked because both by way of my childhood in England and my travels to Jewish communities around the world, I realize that decades ago, in a great many countries, it came to pass that the surest signs of a Jewish place of worship are no longer the Stars of David or the Menorahs atop the spiers.

No! Such symbols of Jewish presence have been replaced by the walls and the guards and the metal detectors and the patrol cars and the perimeters that surround our communities in order to protect our people from what lurks just beyond.

Throughout the course of my work I have learned to look for the fences and the security cameras, and the men who approach me with an earpiece and a torch. The sight of such things affirms that I have arrived at a Synagogue.

From Pretoria to Panama City, London to Los Angeles, Berlin to Brussels, San Francisco to San Antonio, Antwerp to Amsterdam and beyond, the story is the same.

As a Jew from Great Britain, I have always understood the need for such measures. Fortification has long been a central feature of communal Judaism, not because Jews are secretive, but because we are scandalized, slurred, pursued and, in the absence of protections, murdered.

European Jewry has long characterized the Jewish community of America as something of a Diaspora Masada, an outpost of triumph, success and inclusion in the context of the deeply embattled, global, Jewish story. But the fatalistic among us have done so with something of a cautious heart, for even as we pray that such a fate will not befall our American brethren, we must grudgingly concede that the real Masada ultimately fell to the will of our enemies.

These are some of the reasons that I, a Jew from Britain, am not shocked. I wish I could say otherwise. In my view of the Diaspora, across time, it has been the absence not the presence of anti-Semitism that has constituted an anomaly. Sociocultural good fortune is merely a fortuitous glitch for Jews, a glitch that will ultimately yield to the march of Jewish history.

But unlike in Europe, from where I believe it expedient for Jews to swiftly depart, in America, precisely because of the success of that Jewish community, we must elongate the anomaly for as long as it is sensible to do so – and it still remains not only sensible, but virtuous to do so.

Sadly, as we work to avoid the demise of the great American-Jewish story, what must come now are the barricades and the guards and the police and the perimeters and the metal detectors; not only in the synagogues, but in the schools and the community centers and beyond, throughout the United States.

That such defenses are unwanted is understandable. The need for such measures is deeply regrettable, a sad commentary on the depths to which humankind can in some cases sink, but needed they are, and so accepted they shall be.

What is neither needed, nor acceptable though, are the cynical attempts to exploit this evil act as means of driving a wedge between our people.
We must condemn any attempt to parley what occurred at Squirrel Hill into a springboard for interdenominational criticism and inter-polar antagonism between the Jewish Diaspora and the Jewish State.

No quarter must be given to those who question the Jewishness of the victims, nor to those who lay blame at the foot of the policies of the Israeli government.

Jewish blood has been spilled in America. It has been spilled in quantities that were unimaginable less than a week ago. Our responsibility now is not to divide ourselves. Our responsibility is to recognize, and to act upon, the need to bind ourselves together, standing fast, in unison and defiance in the face of those who unite to destroy us.

We should allow nobody to ply their petty, political agenda against a particular US administration, Republican or Democrat, present or past.

They are not to blame.

Our people have been shaken and torn apart. Let us grieve about what has happened, isolating our bereavement to that and that alone. Doing so requires that we banish all partisan populism at this time.

We must not seek to differentiate ourselves one from the other, for our enemies will make no such distinction.

An American President and an Israeli Minister who come to demonstrate their solidarity with the Jewish victims and community of Pittsburgh ought not to have their presence protested. Protest and indignation would have been appropriate had they failed to present themselves, remaining absent at this hour of despair.

It is no small thing that a President would turn toward Jewish suffering rather than avert his gaze from it. History has demonstrated that presidential ambivalence can take place, and has taken place. Let us not forget that truth.

Writing on the global attitude toward the plight of the Jewish people, the Israeli poet, Amir Gilboa composed the following:

אם יראוני אבן ואומר אבן יאמרו אבן,”
אם יראוני עץ ואומר עץ יאמרו עץ,
אך אם יראוני דם ואומר דם יאמרו – צבע,
אם יראוני דם ואומר דם יאמרו – צבע

If they show me a stone and I say it’s a stone they will say it’s a stone,
If they show me a tree and I say it’s a tree they will say it’s a tree,
But if they show me my [Jewish] blood and I say it’s my [Jewish] blood they will say it’s mere color.
if they show me my [Jewish] blood and I say it’s my [Jewish] blood they will say it’s mere color.”

Friends, spilled Jewish blood is not color. And yet even on this occasion it has been cynically used by far too many to color and to highlight the barriers and divisions between us. It is abhorrent to me that this is the case.

From the blue of the Democrats to the red of the Republicans; and back to the blue and the white of the flag of Israel, all have been hijacked as cause for this most recent tragedy by various voices.

But the cause of this evil presages such things. To argue away this latest bloodletting as anything other than anti-Semitism is to consign vital lessons into the realm of the forgotten and the discarded. We must not do that, lest we render our community vulnerable to repeated attacks against us.

I believe it incumbent upon us all to speak out when we hear such cynical distortions.

For if we fail to designate anti-Semitism the cause of what took place, or refuse to speak of the clear and present Jew hatred, or we fall short of demanding the protections we so obviously require, or plead not for unity among our own number even as the tapestry of our people becomes increasingly frayed and tattered; if we hold our tongues in the face of partisan opportunism, and subjugate our voices to those who seek to sow division at a time when we must heal – we, all of us, will be guilty of engaging in a silence that is anything but golden. We will be engaging in a silence that is jaundiced and weak; and yellow. A hue such as that is neither befitting our people, nor is it one we can afford to take on at this moment.

The Jewish world entire is on a bended knee in the face of this hateful slaughter.

Together, in time, drawing upon love and vitality in the face of tragedy and loss, all the house of Israel will rise again, as one, to full height, like a tree unbowed.

May the memories of those taken from us be a blessing.

עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה!

About the Author
Benjamin Anthony is the Co-Founder & CEO of The MirYam Institute. He is an IDF combat veteran and a graduate of the University of Cambridge in the U.K. Follow the work of The MirYam Institute at www.MirYamInstitute.Org . Read Benjamin's Bio here: The MirYam Institute is the leading global forum for Israel focused dialogue, discussion and debate, and is the gold-standard for campus presentations and substantive Israel travel for elite graduate students, doctoral candidates and military cadets.
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