Years from now, October 27, 2018, may be remembered as an inflection point in the way America regards its Jews, and in the way that Jews regard themselves.
The brutal murders of 11 congregants at prayer in the supposed safety of a synagogue demolished any lingering, quixotic notion that anti-Semitism in this country had been relegated to history’s back burner.
The enormous wealth and unprecedented access to raw political power enjoyed by some Jews did not prevent other Jews from being massacred in Pittsburgh. Biblical characters with wealth and power — Joseph, Esther — used their proximity to supreme authority to save their people. Today, the Jews closest to the president — Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Sheldon Adelson — didn’t even try.
But if Jews woke up that autumn day one month ago to the bloodiest consequence of rising anti-Semitism enabled, if not encouraged, by the highest official in the land, we also realized something else: The problem is ours alone to address — not Israel’s, not Europe’s. We have the will and the capacity to do s o in a very Jewish vernacular. It is also clear that other Americans — the vast majority, anyway — are ready to join in that struggle.
The terrorist attack at Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh was the worst act of anti-Semitism in America. It was hardly the first time Jews have been targeted for injury and death within the shores of a nation that is supposed to offer refuge and acceptance, and it certainly echoes the threat to Jews worldwide.
But what is happening now is a peculiar 21st-century phenomenon, occurring in a specific homegrown political and social context. This is not Germany in 1938. It is not Israel since 1948. It is not Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in Great Britain today. It is America, 2018.
The attack was an outgrowth of a surge of white nationalism that has drawn succor from the campaign and presidency of Donald Trump and those who enable him with their words, and with their silence. As we all know now, the gunman was obsessed with the legendary HIAS (as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is known) and was furious that Jews were aiding immigrants and refugees — the very people whom Trump has demonized since he first announced a run for office in 2015.
Unfortunately, that is not how some Israeli officials framed the attack. Naftali Bennett, minister of education and Diaspora affairs, rushed to Pittsburgh to rightly condole with the victims, but he wrongly equated the terrorism here with the terrorism there. Labor Leader Avi Gabbay urged American Jews to give up and come to Israel. Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer praised Trump’s statement denouncing anti-Semitism as the strongest ever by a president, blithely ignoring the loathsome tweets that preceded and followed his scripted words.
The gunman didn’t rail against Palestinians and Zionism; rather, he claimed that HIAS was importing “invaders to kill our people.” He didn’t support Trump, but only because he thought the president didn’t go far enough, as long as Jews “infest” the country.
These conflicting responses highlight the disconnect between Israeli official views and the American-lived experience. A J Street poll released just after the midterm elections said that 72% of American Jews thought that Trump’s comments and policies are “very or somewhat” responsible for the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh.
That’s not simply because a majority of American Jews disapprove of the president (though they do). It’s also because we know what has happened to public discourse since Trumpism legitimized this nation’s most troubled instincts. Just look at the days before the attack:
On the Thursday prior, lethal bomb packages were sent to former presidents and their wives, top Democratic officials, the New York newsroom of CNN and other Trump critics. A white supremacist with virulently pro-Trump, racist and anti-Semitic stickers on the van he lived in was arrested the next day.
On the Wednesday prior, a white gunman stormed a Kroger supermarket in Kentucky after being locked out of a predominantly black church. He killed two black people, reportedly after making a racist remark. He spared another man, who was white, telling him, “Whites don’t kill whites.”
Trump condemned the mail bombs but then blamed the media for sowing hostility (even though “media” was among the targets). Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, from Kentucky, called the Kroger murders a hate crime. Trump said nothing.
Then the synagogue was stormed and the connection was clear. Some Jews added to their prayers the two murdered African Americans, along with their brethren murdered in Pittsburgh. For them, the list of victims that week was 13, not 11.
That is one small example of a broader phenomenon: The Pittsburgh attack brought Jews even closer to other minority groups.
At an extraordinary interfaith prayer service the night after the attack at my synagogue, Ansche Chesed, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a broad array of rabbis and other clergy came together to teach, preach, sing, pray and help us console each other. I was struck by a comment made by Bari Kahn, of the Muslim Community Network, before he began his brief prepared remarks.
When he first heard of the shooting, he was afraid the gunman was Islamic; he felt relieved to learn that this was not the case.
Isn’t that what it’s like to be a targeted minority in America? How often have we as Jews had the same reaction — pride when one of us wins another Nobel Prize, finds a new cure, invents another amazing device? And then, how often do we cringe in fear when one of us is found to be a crook, a murderer, a predator, a detriment to society?
America has been a violent place for African Americans since its inception, and for other minorities for centuries. Jews have been relatively immune — privileged by the fact that so many of us are white, educated, prosperous, unthreatening, willing to fit in.
Now, the bloodstained pews of a Pittsburgh synagogue a century and a half old reflect how vulnerable we really are.
And yet, from that same city came extraordinary examples of Jews responding to the shooting in a very public Jewish vernacular.
There was the protest. As soon as President Trump announced that he would visit the grieving city, Bend the Arc: Pittsburgh, the local branch of the national social justice advocacy group, decided to respond by taking to the streets. The group had organized rallies and vigils previously, in support of immigrants and refugees, and one member — a cantorial soloist — was an experienced song leader.
So they knew what they wanted to sing: “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” (“We Will Build This World From Love”) and “Ozi v’Zimrat Yah” (“My Strength With God’s Song.”) Since non-Jews would be joining them, they wrote and distributed song sheets.
Then they created their own ritual, based on the Jewish custom of kriah, when a mourner rends his or her garments after a loved one dies. Thousands of pieces of black cloth and paper were distributed to all the protesters.
“The moment when the ribbons ripped was one of the most powerful of all our lives,” one of the organizers told me. “The march had gone silent, so you could really hear the rip of the paper. And the next moment, you could hear sobbing as we held the ribbons in the air.”
This tangible, visible expression of Jewish grief was broadcast live on national television, as if to say: “This, America, is how Jews mourn. This is how Jews protest.”
Then there was the newspaper. Readers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette woke up on the Friday morning after the attack to a startling and unprecedented front page. The first four words of the Mourner’s Prayer, the Kaddish, were printed in large Hebrew letters, followed by a transliteration and translation.
The dramatic message was Executive Editor David Shribman’s idea. “When words fail you, I began to think maybe you are thinking in the wrong language,” he told me. “I just thought it was an important statement to the community even as the community was making an important statement to itself.”
Yes, this is how Jews mourn.
And America mourned alongside. Countless Jews told of countless acts of kindness they received from friends, neighbors, strangers, Christians, Muslims and all sorts of people. Even NBC anchor Lester Holt closed the nightly news with a moving visual tribute to the 11 victims as a cantor sang the Kaddish in the background. And then, Holt, who is African American, ended with the classic Jewish phrase, “May their memories be a blessing.”
This sort of public use of Jewish vernacular did not begin with the Pittsburgh attack, but suddenly, it was embedded in the discourse, elevated.
To hear Hebrew songs speaking of love and faith and justice broadcast live. To watch a private ritual that I, too, have done now being repurposed by an entire community. To sense the pride and sensitivity in an editor’s decision. To marvel that a phrase largely said benainu, between us, is now spoken to a national audience.
Something has shifted, for Jews and for America. I won’t go so far as to say that tragedy begat blessings, for that disregards the lasting horror and magnitude of the attack. But I do believe that we will look back at this time as a true turning point.
Our illusions about a safe and secure place in America have been punctured, this time by an ugly white nationalism, the next time may be from a different source. But there’s no doubt now that progressive American Jews are owning the challenge, eager to assert themselves as Jews, in public, without hesitation.
No longer can our place in this society be taken for granted (if, indeed, it ever could be). But that is all the more reason to find our collective voice and use it, to protect ourselves, to protect others, to protect the ideal of America.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.