As a Gay Jew, Pittsburgh and Pulse are Two Pieces of One Puzzle
I’ll never forget the morning of June 12, 2016, waking up to the horror that 49 people— mostly LGBTQ — had been killed at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando. It reinforced my worst fear that there was a price to pay for being gay.
Exactly two weeks later was the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, a moment in history that transformed the spirit of this country for good. Public support for gay rights was surging, but were gay people any safer? The Pulse massacre put all that progress into question. I never thought I’d feel that visceral shock from a tragedy again.
But two years later I relived this same nightmare.
On October 27 of 2018, my soul was shattered hearing of the 11 Jews murdered at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history. It was like experiencing the news of Pulse all over again with one key difference: I had never been afraid for being Jewish.
I understood a lot about homophobia, yet I knew very little about the mechanisms of anti-Semitism. Growing up, I thought anti-Semitism was mostly a thing of the past meant to be studied, not a present threat to be confronted. Now I know that anti-Semitism is very much alive and comes in all flavors, from homicidal rage to vilifying Jewish institutions as corrupt. Anti-Semitism doesn’t always scream in full magnitude like it did in Pittsburgh, but that doesn’t mean its whispers are to be ignored either.
Pittsburgh was different from most mass shootings in that it was attached to a specific ideology of hate— anti-Semitism and xenophobia, the cornerstones of white supremacy. A year later, it’s also clear that while the tragedy in Pittsburgh was distinct from other incidents, it’s not completely isolated.
The shooter’s manifesto spewed a philosophy that inspired the Christchurch mosque attack as well as the one at the El Paso Walmart. It’s known as “the great replacement” theory, rooted in the fear that immigrants and people of color will subvert white populations into extinction. In case you were wondering how these people feel about Jews, they consider us to be their principal enemy.
This is something that’s not well understood outside of the Jewish community. Social justice movements are focused on combating racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia. The fight against anti-Semitism is often ignored or dismissed as less urgent. The irony, of course, is that Jews make up 2% of the U.S. population, yet account for more than 50% of religiously motivated hate crimes.
If white nationalism functions like a cult, then anti-Semitism is the gospel its followers preach. It is for this reason that white supremacists target Jews with vigor the same way they incite violence towards black, Muslim, and immigrant communities.
Pittsburgh put the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville (2017) into greater context, and gave sharper focus to the massacre at the Emanuel black church in Charleston, S.C. (2015) as well. All these incidents were distinct, but linked. The impact of one attack has universal consequences.
Six months to the day after Pittsburgh, the Chabad in Poway, Calif., was attacked during a Passover service. A few weeks later, a New Haven mosque was torched during Ramadan. The timing hardly felt coincidental.
On top of the rise of violent white supremacy, the partisan tug-of-war over the Jewish community has been especially agonizing.
On the far right, support for Israel is weaponized for political points by politicians who also incite conspiracy theories about George Soros that fuel white supremacists. On the far left, it’s mainstream to think Israel and its supporters are a proxy of white supremacy.
The partisan gaslighting that tugs Jews in both directions is a calculated form of tribalism void of intellectual honesty. No one should be forced to answer “which form of anti-Semitism is worse?” We should take bigotry seriously without consideration of which side of the political spectrum it comes from.
For instance, President Trump’s comments about disloyal Jews is the kind of rhetoric that animates white supremacy and could lead to another Pittsburgh. It’s not just divisive— it’s dangerous. And when Democrats do similar things, it should not be excused, but addressed with serious integrity.
After Pittsburgh, I feel humbled when I enter a synagogue, celebrate a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or enjoy a Shabbat meal. I’m extra proud now when I see amazing contributions from Jews in all sectors of society.
I think of Roberta Kaplan, who won the landmark marriage equality case at the Supreme Court in 2013 and is now suing the organizers behind the violence in Charlottesville.
I think of Sandra Lawson, the first gay woman of color to be ordained as a rabbi. The feelings I experience I’m sure she feels just as deeply— if not more so.
I think of how meaningful it is to have Chuck Schumer’s leadership in the Senate at this delicate time. His prominence is the very thing anti-Semites loathe.
If we allow our Jewishness to be bolstered only by the toxicity that fuels our demise, we’re not truly dismantling the problems we face— we’re feeding into it. Likewise, if we completely ignore our identity and dismiss Jewishness as insignificant, that too feeds the problem by diminishing our worth.
I think of anti-Semitism as the bigotry of pseudo-intellectuals, and the best way to fight someone with bad ideas is to counter them with better ones. There’s no one way to be Jewish, but it serves us all well to be connected to our history and culture. If we ignore who we are and where we come from, we lose everything.
When I came out seven years ago, I felt very lucky to be Jewish. To me, these two aspects of my identity seemed interconnected. Being Jewish, much like being gay, is being an invisible minority that materializes into something tangible by speaking our pride into existence. Our strength comes from unabashedly celebrating our existence in full complexity.
Harvey Milk believed if every gay person came out, homophobia would be shattered. He famously said “Hope will never be silent.” It’s fitting that a decade later, Larry Kramer spoke of the AIDS crisis as a “gay Holocaust” and helped coin the mantra “silence is death.”
Both of these men are LGBTQ heroes; they’re also both Jewish. The significance is not lost on me. Perhaps the most important thing Jews can do right now is to continue to live our life with pride and purpose, keeping our traditions alive and refusing to bow to fear. It’s what Harvey Milk would want.
Peter Fox is a New York based writer. His work has been featured in The Jerusalem Post, Tablet Magazine, and The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @thatpeterfox.