30 October 2018

The heartrending news from Pittsburgh

Both as an American of European Jewish ancestry, and as a one-time citizen of Pittsburgh (a city of which I still have done memories and to which I still have profound cultural attachments), I feel compelled to write publicly about the recent mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill. My heart is broken for the eleven Pittsburgh men and women who died, and grieves with their families: my neighbours and my kin by blood. I have been moved to write by grief, yes, but also by outrage. Thankfully, most of the reactions I have seen to this tragedy coming out of Pittsburgh itself have likewise been unconditionally ones of sympathy and compassion, and that is some consolation.

But this was indeed an attack motivated wholly by anti-Semitic bigotry. That requires particular attention. Firstly, this was undisguisedly an attack on American Jews qua Jews. It was not an attack on a political ideology - it was not anti-Zionism. It was not even an attack on a set of religious doctrines and observances, despite the attack happening at a place of worship - it was not anti-Judaïsm. It was an attack on a people (and particularly because neither nationalism nor religion were the targets, I feel I must say my people) both because of our immigrant heritage and because of our real or imagined place in as aliens in American society. That is to say: it was an attack on an American Jewry that exists in the anti-Semitic imagination as a fifth column. We occupy, in this imagination, the rôle of the instigator and the manipulator in the mythical narrative of white genocide. Which is indeed as much as to say that our purported whiteness is negotiable and revocable, particularly if we associate ourselves in sympathy with non-whites.

Just before this atrocity, the shooter made reference to the ‘caravan’ of desperately deprived people coming northward from Honduras, fleeing climate and political conditions there that have made life intolerable, and the ways in which American Jews (specifically, the historically Russian-Jewish Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) were mobilising to help them enter the country. This, to his depraved mind, was proof of our criminal disloyalty and genocidal intentions against whites - both long-standing anti-Semitic canards.

Let us note well: this is the single worst incident of anti-Semitic violence in American history. It was also directed, not at the Zionist lobby (AIPAC or ADL), not at the ultra-Orthodox who are the most visible representatives of the Jewish religion (and who, I note, have a sizeable presence in Squirrel Hill), but at a socially-oriented synagogue whose activity was not Zionist or apologetic, but instead humanitarian. Tikkun olam, the Old Testament mandate to repair the fallen world which is parallel to and sympathetic with Fr Sergei Bulgakov’s participatory sophic ethics, was the specific tendency in American Judaïsm to come under literal fire.

This is noteworthy, because I have seen preëmptive attempts to exculpate the administration by pointing out its Zionist policies (like relocating the American embassy to Jerusalem), or by pointing out the conversions to Judaïsm within the family. In light of the nature of American anti-Semitism and the threats that American Jews now demonstrably face, these kinds of exculpations are not only irrelevant, they are also insulting, patronising, cynical and dangerous.

The kind of political grandstanding so common among Republicans (but not unknown among Democrats) that seeks to curry our favour in such moments as these by ‘standing with Israel’ is particularly egregious in this regard. Pardon the tautology, but you do not comfort the Jews of Squirrel Hill by standing with Israel. You comfort the Jews of Squirrel Hill by comforting the Jews of Squirrel Hill. It is bad enough that these statements are made cynically with an eye to political fundraising. But it is also dangerous because it lends implicit credence to the same canard that motivated the shooter; to wit, that our loyalties are, in fact, dual: that our civic consciences are collectively motivated by a cabalistic ethnic self-interest. (And obviously, to judge by the mission and activities of the Tree of Life Synagogue, this simply is not true.)

Standing with Israel’ is also a cheap way for far-right nativists both here and in Europe to buy themselves some semblance of plausible deniability. Iowa congressman Steve King, to give a recent domestic example: his loud pro-Zionism serves as a useful fig-leaf for a history of supporting white nationalist rhetoric which is now a manifest danger to American Jews. This is common on the American far right: Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon both do the same song-and-dance. Or, in Europe: Mateusz Morawiecki (in Zionist mode and anti-Semitic mode), Orbán Viktor (in Zionist mode and anti-Semitic mode) and Petro Poroshenko (in Zionist mode and anti-Semitic mode). This kind of obscene charade needs to be axed.

And that isn’t even because most American Jews, particularly us younger folks, have a declining attachment to Zionism. This is because our security, indeed our lives, are at stake. We are under attack here; the response, therefore, must also be here; and we must bear in mind that we are not the only ones under attack. This localism and this neighbourly fellow-suffering is the only way our corner of the fallen world might indeed be healed.

My prayers and deepest condolences are with the souls and with the families of Rose Malinger, Melvin Wax, Sylvan and Bernice Simon, Joyce Feinberg, Daniel Stein, Irving Younger, Rich Gottfried, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal and David Rosenthal. May the God who knows all things and cares for all things grant them eternal rest and keep them in His remembrance.

No comments:

Post a Comment