Let’s unite over Sinai, not Auschwitz – or Pittsburgh

Years ago, Rabbi David Hartman warned Jews not to build an identity on a covenant of Auschwitz. Sadly, we’re still stuck in the old, familiar Jewish trauma cycle.

October 30, 2018 20:49
A woman bows her head in front of a memorial on October 28, 2018, at the Tree of Life synagogue

A woman bows her head in front of a memorial on October 28, 2018, at the Tree of Life synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on October 27. (photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP)


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After the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, a Canadian friend asked what the Israeli reaction was. “Most Israelis I know are sad,” I reported, “but not surprised.”

Unfortunately, we know what it’s like to have our sacred places profaned. We know what it’s like to have our vulnerable slaughtered. We know what it’s like to have to soldier on when your life hasn’t changed; other people’s lives have; and their trauma ultimately shakes you to the core – even though you don’t know them. We know what it’s like to scan a list of victims, feeling guilty that you get some scintilla of relief when the slaughtered skew older rather than younger. We know what it’s like to try being normal again – returning to the scene of the crime, first playacting and failing at it, then getting better and better at it, until you return to the routine, kind of. We know what it’s like to be targeted as Jews. And, sadly, we know what it’s like to be blamed for it – as if anything justifies shooting a 97-year-old woman praying in a pew; or butchering a 59-year-old rabbi in a Jerusalem synagogue; or kidnapping and killing three teenagers hitchhiking home; or crushing a five-month-old baby’s skull with stones.

In fairness, that take may be too Israeli. The historian in me knows it’s not the same. As amoral as it might sound, as unfair as it might be, different societies develop different tolerances to similar problems, given what they endure. Israeli Jews have been forced to acclimate to terrorism; American Jews have been largely insulated from it.

Moreover, the American historian in me appreciates American exceptionalism, the marginal nature of American antisemitism, the remarkable success story that has been American Jewry. So, yes, it’s logical that Israelis were appalled but less surprised than American Jews. Most Israelis also compare Pittsburgh to Paris or Munich or anywhere else hutz la’aretz – abroad – where Jews have been targeted as Jews.

And both are correct. The Pittsburgh massacre is an all-American hate story and an American Jewish anomaly. If past is prologue, the trend lines will continue. The next generation of American Jews will be even more insulated from Jew hatred, continuing the march away from discrimination each American Jewish generation has enjoyed.

The Squirrel Hill slaughter is also a profoundly Jewish story. One more heartbreaking chapter in a centuries-old march of maniacs attacking us, sometimes for being anti-Muslim; sometimes for being too pro-Muslim – as in this case; sometimes for being capitalist; sometimes for being Communist; sometimes for standing out too much; sometimes for fitting in too much. Antisemitism is the longest hatred, as the late historian Robert Wistrich called it. Antisemitism is also the most plastic hatred – artificial, enduring, but surprisingly pliable, adaptable.

AS THE Jewish world – and much of the civilized world – rallies around the hurting, healing, Jews of Pittsburgh, it’s depressing that, once again, we needed tragedy to unite us. It’s also demoralizing that few of the conversations I heard at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America accepted the kinds of complexities, anomalies, differences and similarities I seek to point out regarding antisemitism.

I learned at the GA that the phrase “Israel-Diaspora relations” actually means to many American Jewish liberals the main reasons why Israel offends me and provides me an excuse to abandon the Jewish community. Too many leaders’ agendas for Israel-Diaspora relations read like a litany of liberal complaints about Israel. Like Haman’s children, it often came out in one breath: “the rabbinate, the Nation-State Law, Israel’s drift rightward, Bibi’s friendship with Trump and” – if the leader was being honest – “the occupation.” Such passive-aggressive finger-pointing is the kind of one-way, you’ve-ruined-my-life shouting matches that trigger breakups, not makeups.

American Jewish leaders must stop using Israel as an excuse for their community’s failures. And American Jewish leaders should learn from their oft-ignored followers, many of whom delight in many things Israeli and are often less ideological and categorical and hypercritical in their approach to Israel.

Alas, I also learned at the GA that the Prime Minister’s Office thinks American Jews are either stupid enough or gullible enough or unimportant enough to buy a line praising Benjamin Netanyahu for building the prayer platform at the Western Wall – without acknowledging that the same Benjamin Netanyahu destroyed the careful Kotel compromise at said Wall that Natan Sharansky negotiated so painstakingly.

I publicly plotzed – bursting out of turn on a panel that had been deemed to be out of time – when one of the prime minister’s advisers tried peddling that line. I don’t blame her. These talking points are cooked up collectively. But beyond proposing that our prime minister shouldn’t insult the intelligence of our brothers and sisters, Spin Doctoring 101 would have advised some acknowledgment of the hurt feelings and divisions over the issue, to win over the audience at least partially.

I don’t blame the GA for these and all the other ideological misfires; that’s like blaming the turkey, or the hosts, when warring siblings ruin Thanksgiving dinner.

Years ago, Rabbi David Hartman warned Jews not to build an identity on a covenant of Auschwitz – shared fate from shared enemies. Build a covenant of Sinai, he urged, a shared destiny from a shared – and inspiring – vision. Sadly, we’re still stuck in the old, familiar Jewish trauma cycle. This month we once again proved so much better at rallying in response to an enemy than finding ways to rally around our closest cousins and most natural allies.

The writer is the author of the newly released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.

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