Reflections on Pittsburgh, Anti-Semitism, and Jewish Peoplehood

Reflections on Pittsburgh, Anti-Semitism, and Jewish Peoplehood

On Saturday, Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in the leafy Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The congregants were gathered not only for Shabbat morning services but also for a brit milah—the momentous male circumcision ritual on the eighth day after birth, a joyous celebration of covenantal renewal and new life. Shouting “All Jews must die,” Bowers opened fire, slaughtering 11 Jews and wounding nine others. The shooting was the deadliest attack on the American Jewish Community in its 400-year history.

The attack has left the American Jewish community fearful for its future. In much of Europe, particularly in France, Jews are constant targets of hate crimes and violence, and as a result they are fleeing Europe in record numbers. Even in communities that don’t face frequent terror and violence, synagogues have been transformed into fortresses protected by heavily-armed guards. Across South America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East (the few Jews that remain in Arab countries), prayer times are often not listed publicly, and many houses of worship and community centers require passport verification and Ben-Gurion-esque security questioning upon entry. My own family’s synagogue outside of Boston sent out updated security protocols earlier this week.

In one form or another, this constant fear has been standard fare for Jews across the world over the past two millennia, the American Jewish community constituting one of the few and very fortunate exceptions. Now, Jews across the United States are wondering if this country is simply late to join the party. Anti-Semitism in the United States may not be mainstream like it is in some other countries, but it is still very real. We cannot wish it away as a thing of the past or as a scourge that has spared America.

In recent years, Stanford has experienced its own spate of anti-Semitic occurrences. Just a couple of years ago, there were multiple instances of swastika graffiti found across campus and on buildings in Palo Alto (including the message “No Jews Allowed”). In 2016, Student Senator Gabe Knight claimed, at a Senate meeting, that the “Jews [control] the media, economy, government, and other societal institutions.”

After all of these incidents, the campus community has rallied in support of its Jewish population. So too after last week’s Pittsburgh shooting: Sunday’s vigil in commemoration of the victims saw hundreds of students, faculty, and community members—many, if not most, not Jewish—assemble in solidarity.

Nevertheless, at Stanford and across the United States, there remains a widespread unawareness and lack of concern about anti-Semitism. The vast majority of students I know—even those that were here two years ago—were previously unaware of Gabe Knight’s comments and the swastika graffiti. Some of them have even looked at me curiously when I bring up the Gabe Knight incident, almost as if to say, “but isn’t he right about Jews?”

I am grateful for the full-fledged support that the Stanford community has given Jewish students in the immediate aftermath of anti-Semitic events. But the general ignorance on campus about anti-Semitism, combined with the uptick in anti-Semitism nationwide, makes continuous conversation an imperative. It is not enough just to come together after the fact.

Antisemitism and terror-laden violence are not the only forces threatening Jewish America. The Pittsburgh synagogue shooting has doubtless heightened the American Jews’ sense of fear for their physical safety and security, but it has also left the American Jewish community reeling for another reason.

Ron Kampeas writes that the shooting “laid bare a festering difference among American Jews.” Most Left-leaning Jews believe that President Donald Trump, regardless of his own personal feelings about Jews, is largely responsible for creating an atmosphere that breeds anti-Semitism. Many Jews on the Right, however, argue that Trump has done more for world Jewry (through his support of Israel and the Embassy move to Jerusalem) than all previous presidents. Since the attack, this rift along Party lines has only deepened, perhaps past the point of repair.

Again, Stanford is no exception. At Sunday’s vigil, many students shared their own personal experiences with anti-Semitism. Others offered prayer or poetry or stories about the victims. However, a sizable portion of the vigil was dominated by political speech, some of it needlessly divisive and accusatory toward other Jews.

Given the nature of the attack, this partisan rhetoric did not come as much of a surprise. The immediate translation of tragedy into a call for political action is a paradigm we have come to expect. Still, the fractured response to Pittsburgh by the Jewish community, both at Stanford and across America, is deeply troubling.

Do not misunderstand me: there is a time and place for politics and disagreement. Political reform can and does have a real impact on preventing tragedies like the Pittsburgh shooting, and political action and disagreement are thus extremely consequential. However, the immediate aftermath of communal tragedy is the time for mourning and unity, not politics.

This point could perhaps be generalized to include national responses to tragedy, but it applies most urgently to the Jewish community. A key reason for Jewish survival and flourishing despite millennia of persecution has been an unfaltering sense of Jewish peoplehood and unity. When we lose this element of peoplehood, we risk losing everything. Indeed, our tradition teaches that some of the greatest tragedies in Jewish history—including the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the beginning of the 2,000 year exile—were spawned by baseless hatred (sinat chinam) between Jews.

One might argue that the spirit of debate is also a foundational Jewish value and therefore that intense disagreement after tragedy is only natural and should even be encouraged. But we Jews have never struggled to disagree with each other. “Two Jews, three opinions” is and will always remain true. Jewish peoplehood, on the other hand, should not be taken for granted. It requires much care to maintain, especially in the face of hardship and tragedy.

The Jewish community’s collective mourning, irredeemably tainted by partisanship and division, has demonstrated that the vital foundation of Jewish peoplehood is under threat. Before we can expect Stanford and the rest of the non-Jewish world to address anti-Semitism, we must work to restore a deep sense of connection and unity among Jews.

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