WORSHIPERS ATTEND a ‘Show Up For Shabbat’ service at New York City’s JCC Harlem on November 3, a supportive response to the previous Saturday’s shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Understanding the profoundly visceral reaction of American Jews to what happened in Pittsburgh is confusing to some. Anger mixed with grief is wide and deep, and blame is rampant. The confusion comes in the inconsistency in what appears to many as a greater tolerance of antisemitism when it comes from the Left, as opposed to when it comes from the Right.
Look at what happened in Pittsburgh. Acting alone, a single Nazi unleashed a vicious attack that took only a few minutes to kill 11 Jews. No one blames the community, no one blames Pittsburgh and no one blames any of the attacker’s neighbors. Of course, none of them was responsible. However, the same cannot be said of what happened in Brooklyn in August 1991.
Then, Chabad-Lubavitch Jews in Crown Heights were attacked, threatened and could not safely walk the streets for days during continued rioting and violence by masses of people who were clearly targeting Jews.
These were not the actions of a single lone wolf, but the actions of representatives of an entire community who systematically destroyed Jewish property, spread anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and attacked any Jew they could find. And sadly, these were not isolated actions by a “few” people. It was perceived as community against community. And it definitely did not come from white supremacists. It was perpetrated by African-Americans.
The white supremacy that fed Robert Bowers was not the issue in the anti-Jewish violence that emanated from the African-American community two and half decades ago. Along with the terror unleashed against the Jews of Crown Heights came words of incitement and lies from people considered leaders in the black community. Jews were referred to as “diamond dealers” and their first responder corps, which served all New Yorkers, was labeled “apartheid.” Those leaders were blamed.
The Jewish Orthodox victims, calling the riots a “pogrom,” also found others to blame, most notably David Dinkins, faulting the first African-American mayor in the city’s history with an ineffectual response to the violence.
But what happened in the years following the riots is something that shows the difference between what happened in Crown Heights and what is happening in Pittsburgh. Slowly but surely, contacts between responsible leaders in both the Jewish and black communities of Crown Heights grew and people began speaking with other, discussing issues and planning ways to reduce tension and heal the wounds. Today, relations may not be perfect, but they are light-years away from the discord and mistrustful atmosphere that existed then.
Jewish tradition speaks of “Amalek,” the embodiment of evil whose memory the Jews are commanded to erase. Jewish scholars and commentators argue whether the commandment to “erase” Amalek is literal, as in physical annihilation, or figurative, as in erasing the “memory” of the evil. What happened in Pittsburgh was indeed different. Pittsburgh was Amalek, Crown Heights was not.
Amaleki hate is a special form of evil. It is sinister and vicious in its goals, logical in its purposefulness and determined in its behavior. Amaleki hate is not a result of misunderstanding or lack of communication. It is not about perceived grievances or claims of injustice. Amaleki hate looks for the victim when they are vulnerable and when they cannot fight back. It is an ideology of hate with which there is no compromise. It rises up in every generation to destroy, and it take many forms. Crown Heights was perpetrated by hate, resentment and antisemitism, and while hundreds acted against the Jews, they were not Amalek. Bowers is. That is why Pittsburgh is seen as uniquely threatening, heinous and fearful.
It is why the perceived enablers are blamed. But the perceived enablers of Pittsburgh are not the perpetrators and they are not Amalek.
American Jews may not be articulating that Amalek is in their midst, but that is exactly how they are acting. For them, malevolent ideology is more threatening than misguided behavior, which is why hate from the right is seen differently from hate from the left. They may be troubled by antisemitic or anti-Israel behavior of allies, but they look at coarse, insulting and rude speech that white racists happen to support as much more dangerous.
So it isn’t always what is said, it is sometimes what is heard. But while what leaders say matters, what they actually do matters more.
For Jews, one of the biggest and perhaps unintentional enablers of hate was King Ahasuerus of Persia, considered a bumbling, oafish sort of fellow who elevated Haman, the Amalekite, to a position of power in his administration. When Haman exploited his relationship with Ahasuerus and began planning to destroy the Jews, the king’s Jewish wife, Esther, and her Jewish uncle Mordechai, developed a strategy to expose Haman for what he was right in front of the king. That strategy worked. Haman’s plans were thwarted and he and his gang of killers were executed by the king. The Jews were saved, thanks to Esther, Mordechai and, of course, King Ahasuerus.
The enabler became the savior because Esther and Mordechai targeted Haman the Ameleki and not Ahasuerus the enabler. Blaming did not work in Persia, it did not work in Crown Heights and it will likely not work in Pittsburgh.
We can all learn from Jewish history.Dr. Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs where he conducts research on political psychology.
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