This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.
A good friend of mine insists on drawing a straight line between Robert Bowers, the alleged killer of eleven Jews at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, and President Donald Trump’s “hateful” rhetoric on the campaign trail.
My friend didn’t buy my argument that Barack Obama was president when Adam Lanza shot up an elementary school in 2012, and it wouldn’t be quite fair to link the former president’s stand on gun control — or anything else — with Lanza’s actions. Frankly, you could more easily point an accusing finger at the Web, particularly gab.com, which makes a cozy home for every lunatic fringe wannabe with a smart phone and a wifi connection.
Whatever “caused” Bowers to become a violent antisemite is a fit subject for criminologists, sociologists, psychologists and journalists. Chances are they will still be pondering what makes somebody like Bowers tick by the time the next antisemite or racist crawls out of obscurity with a backpack full of handguns and AR-15-style assault rifles.
What is clear in the aftermath of Bowers’ rampage is the goodness of Pittsburgh’s American institutions.
Media reports cite the rapid response of Pittsburgh police, the U.S. attorney, the FBI special agent in charge of the Pittsburgh office, SWAT members, the mayor and the governor — none of whom appear to be Jewish. Compare Jews in Pittsburgh to the Jews in the Russian Pale of Settlement — a vast ghetto created by Catherine II in 1772 and enforced by successive czars until 1917. European Jews could rarely rely on any gentile institution for protection or justice. And it risks understatement to say that Jews across Hitler’s Nazi empire fared even worse. The lone pissants who suit themselves up to shoot 97-year-old women, or unarmed Sikhs, African-Americans and Texas Baptists who gather in their houses of worship to praise or wonder or question, cannot tempt the masses of Americans to join them in their hate crusade.
While it’s true that our president uses events such as the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting to attack the media, Democrats and gun control for his own aggrandizement, he in no way has inspired a militia of antisemites to keep us “others” in our place — or worse. Sadly, and mortifyingly, many cultural forces over time, including Russian forgers (“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”); American industrialists (Henry Ford, Thomas J. Watson and James D. Mooney); policymakers (Allen and John Foster Dulles), and my own beloved writers (Daniel Defoe, Knut Hamsun, P.G. Wodehouse, Roald Dahl, Dostoyevsky, Voltaire, Shakespeare, etc.) have fomented more hateful, and more lasting, anti-Jewish stereotypes throughout modern history.
President Trump has been controversial about immigration, trade, national security and sexual harassment, but, by all appearances, he is not an antisemite. If anything, he sides with much of the Jewish community, as he did by supporting the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. If this is an antisemitic dog whistle, I need to have my hearing checked.
You know how some people blame the Jews for everything that goes wrong? Well, some people blame Trump for everything that goes wrong. It’s kind of nuts.
The bigger truth in this latest horrible news story is that America’s first responders, government officials and everyday citizens are repelled by the Robert Bowerses of the world. To the first and fast responders in Pittsburgh, I want to say: You are the people who make America great again every day. Thank you for making goodness your job description. Your work may be unsung, but most of us — Jews and non-Jews — are in awe.