My Word: Choosing life and unity after the Pittsburgh Sabbath massacre

We can’t let hatred have the upper hand. Campaign. Vote. Educate. Try to change things – peacefully – for the better. In the words of Deuteronomy 30:19, “Choose life, that you and your seed may live.

Candle lit-vigil in memory of the 11 Pittsburgh victims at Jerusalem's Zion Square on Sunday, October 28, 2018. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Candle lit-vigil in memory of the 11 Pittsburgh victims at Jerusalem's Zion Square on Sunday, October 28, 2018.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
I felt like I lost my Uncle Jerry this week. And my Great-Aunt Rose. And my cousins, Cecil and David. And so many more. I never met any of the 11 victims of the Saturday morning attack at the Tree of Life synagogue complex in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, but I knew them. Or people like them. My people.
I can imagine them, chatting as they prepared food in the kitchen for a “kiddush” after prayers. Prayers that never ended. I bet that the congregation has those who talk during the service and those who try to shush them; those who sing loudly but off-key; those interested in quietly communicating with God and many who see the weekly prayers as a social gathering, an essential part of their identity. Their Jewish identity. The reason they were killed.
Rose Mallinger, 97; Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, 59 and 54 respectively; husband and wife Sylvan and Bernice Simon, 86 and 84; Joyce Fienberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Daniel Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 88, and Irving Younger, 69. Look at their names and ages. Robert Gregory Bowers, the 46-year-old white supremacist who was still yelling about wanting to “kill all the Jews” when he was arrested, having also wounded several other prayer-goers and policemen, found easy targets.
The youngest of the victims, the inseparable Rosenthal brothers, were much loved for the innocence and good nature that shone through their developmental challenges. Bowers must have felt so strong and brave mowing them down with his assault rifle. He’d got the Jews. Just as he’d always threatened. But nobody paid attention – his right to free speech apparently was greater than the right of a bunch of elderly Jewish worshipers to live, to worship freely at Sabbath prayers in a quiet Pennsylvanian neighborhood that will never be the same again.
The massacre was shocking. But hate crimes, particularly against Jews, have always taken place, even in America. Indeed, the late Hebrew University historian Robert Wistrich called antisemitism “the longest hatred.”
Israelis were saddened by the murders, but not surprised. Being prepared for terror attacks and hate crimes has become part of our DNA and way of life. Jews in Europe, South America and elsewhere also have learned to incorporate stringent security measures in synagogues and Jewish community centers as a necessity. Is nothing sacred? The answer according to Bowers and his ilk is a resounding “no.” Attacks on Jews in synagogues, Black people in churches and Muslims in mosques are in their twisted way of thinking legitimate, the same way as Islamists, fueled by their particular form of hatred, attack “the other” at prayer.
It did not take long for fingers to start pointing. The accusations rang out like more bullets.
The first target, predictably, was US President Donald Trump, who was blamed for fostering the environment in which such hate crimes thrive. Yet Trump, with his Jewish son-in-law, daughter and grandchildren, clearly does not want someone targeting his family and friends. And Bowers would not have hesitated in including Trump’s family in his personal efforts to continue Hitler’s Final Solution. He was not a Trump supporter.
Trump antagonists quickly picked holes in the president’s initial response in which, with his typically poor speaking skills, he said that had there been armed protection inside the synagogues “the results would have been far better.”
Israelis find the American gun debate puzzling. An armed guard could of course be a deterrent and also a responder who can prevent a gunman or terrorist from adding to the casualty toll. But an armed guard should carry a pistol. Nobody apart from soldiers on active duty should be carrying an assault rifle. The right to possess a weapon should take into account that no good is going to come of members of the general public arming themselves for a private war.
The second target of blame, equally predictably, was the victims: the Jews. Or more to the point, the Israelis. Baroness Jenny Tonge, she who in 2010 called for an inquiry to make sure the IDF search-and-rescue team that traveled to Haiti following a major earthquake hadn’t done so to harvest organs rather than help, was at her Israel-bashing best. In a Facebook post she later deleted, the peer who sits in the British House of Lords wrote of the Tree of Life Synagogue attack: “Absolutely appalling and a criminal act, but does it ever occur to Bibi and the present Israeli government that it’s [sic] actions against Palestinians may be reigniting anti Semitism? I suppose someone will say that it is anti Semitic to say so?”
Well, yes. I am willing to say that it is antisemitic. It is also utterly ridiculous. Bowers did not mow down Jews in Squirrel Hill because of any action Israel took to defend itself from the ongoing Palestinian attacks from Gaza. He hates Palestinians as much as Tonge supports them.
Those on the far Left who were quick to blame Trump and Israel not surprisingly ignored the horrendous rhetoric that can be found closer to home. Some recent examples of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s toxic tropes include accusing “many Israelis and Zionist Jews” of having “key roles in the 9/11 attacks” and stating in a sermon delivered in May: “Satanic Jews have infected the whole world with poison and deceit.”
The hatred of Israel is what unites the far Right with the far Left (and the Islamists). It’s an explosive combination. Both extremes ignore the fact that the Jews are a minority, with a population of 14.5 million worldwide (6.5 million of them in Israel). By comparison, the population of just the State of Pennsylvania, for example, is 12.8 million.
The Jewish population in global terms is tiny. And not nearly as powerful (or smart) as our enemies like to make out. Our strength lies not in controlling world media and finances (both claims which I personally heard and challenged a few weeks ago at a UN-sponsored seminar in Russia). Our strength lies in our unity, in the precept “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lezeh,” that all Jews are guarantors of each other.
AS ISRAEL marks the 23rd anniversary of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin this week, we can’t help but remember where incitement and divisions can lead. But turning the rally in Rabin’s memory on November 3 into a political event, where anybody who identifies with something other than the Left, liberal camp has no place, is equally dangerous. The polarization into black and white; good and bad; Them and Us is lethal.
In his best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Conservative rabbi Harold Kushner sets out his philosophy that we can’t control everything that happens to us but we can control the way we respond.
We can’t let hatred have the upper hand. Campaign. Vote. Educate. Try to change things – peacefully – for the better. In the words of Deuteronomy 30:19, “Choose life, that you and your seed may live.”
At the end of the synagogue service, mourners recite the Kaddish prayer. At the Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha congregations in Squirrel Hill last week, worshipers didn’t get to finish the service. This week, we are all mourners. Let the last words of the prayer reverberate: “May He who makes peace in His heights, make peace upon us and on all Israel; and say, Amen.”
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