The killing of eleven congregants at Tree of Life (L’Simcha) synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Saturday, October 27, 2018, leaves us heartbroken.
This sacred space is the spiritual center of Pittsburgh Judaism and a vital landmark in the history of Jews in America. We should be heartbroken. But we should not be surprised. There is a widespread and historic tendency to minimize the hatred which Jewish people face. If you’re surprised by anti-Semitism, you’re not paying attention writes Olivia Goldhill of Quartz.
We all knew another mass shooting could, and probably would, happen again. This one is different though because it springs from anti-Semitism which has roots that are thousands of years old. Jews have constantly found themselves opposing popular economic or political theories and policies of the times. Anti-Semitism is not a phenomenon of the founding of modern Israel seventy years ago, nor did it begin with persecution in Nazi Germany. Consider the Passover story. Exodus 12 tells us of a people overcoming slavery with instructions to be ready in a heartbeat for the flight from Egypt. They were to prepare matzo, unleavened bread, for their freedom journey because there would be no time for baking. Even today Jewish people are in an ongoing state of preparedness…ready to leave from wherever they live. According to an NPR journalist, this is something that every Jew knows well.
There have always been people who believe that Jewish powerbrokers control the economy of the world. So when things get tough nations will quite often blame and then turn against the Jews. One of my dearest and oldest friends told me a story last year. We have known each other for fifty years. His family took me under wing when we were students at a prep school in Fort Lauderdale. They fed me, had me for overnights, and treated me like one of the family. Little did I know that the parents were vigilant for pervasive anti-Semitism which might expel them from their home. My friend wrote the following story for his children and grandchildren back in 2010. It is about his father and a legacy.
Alvin and The “Gold”
Alvin introduced me to the importance of “GOLD” in 1982. He presented me with a number of gold coins with the following explanation.
Alvin believed that when (not if) the economy of the United States reached a breaking point; the Jews would be blamed for the chaos. He believed that the only safe place for Jews (if there was one) would be Israel. This partially explained why he was an ardent supporter of Israel. He gave a lot of money to the Jewish Federation to back up his commitment to the survival of Israel.
He was certain that the United States currency would be worthless and that we would need gold as a medium of trade…Most importantly, to book passage to Israel.
He had been following the writings of Howard Ruff which were an important part of his regular reading material. To give some historical perspective, Alvin was 62 years old at this point. We were recovering from the horrible inflation and high interest rates that occurred during the Carter presidency. Reagan was taking office. While he was somewhat certain that the collapse would not occur during his lifetime, he was of the belief that it might happen during mine!!! GREAT news…..Nothing like a wake-up call…I was in my early 30’s…I am reasonably certain that this occurred AFTER his heart surgery. He became very anxious to make sure that his legacy was shared.
His regular lectures included lessons on self-sufficiency. He was a strong and passionate believer that we had to be able to take care of ourselves…The government would NOT provide for “people like us.”
Every now and then, I take out the “gold” and look at it…
Yells and Dog Whistles
The Anti Defamation League (ADL), founded in 1913, is rooted in Jewish values and is one of our nation’s foremost civil rights organizations. ADL’s recent Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents indicates that about 80 anti-Semitic incidents happen every month around the country, many of them involving children, teenagers, and young adults. Incidents range from verbal and written taunts promoting anti-Semitic stereotypes to threats of violence and physical assaults. Many incidents go unreported. And more often than not there are the silent “dog whistles” of hatred and prejudice being blown.
On Sunday, October 21, 2018, the Rise Above Movement (RAM) leader Robert Rundo and two others were arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on charges of inciting last years deadly riot in Charlottesville, Virginia. Bail was denied. Rundo and his cronies displayed swastikas on banners and shouted slogans like “blood and soil,” a phrase drawn from Nazi ideology. “This city is run by Jewish communists,” one demonstrator told Vice News reporter Elspeth Reeve during their march. As Jews prayed at Congregation Beth Israel, men dressed in fatigues carrying semi-automatic rifles stood across the street, according to the temple’s president. Neo-Nazi websites posted calls to burn the building. As a precautionary measure, congregants had removed their Torah scrolls and exited through the back of the building. They were met with marchers in the streets screaming; “Jews Will Not Replace Us.” This was designed to depict Jews as foreign intruders who need to be wiped out. The demonstrators wore tee shirts inscribed with quotes from Adolf Hitler. A large banner read, “Jews are Satan’s children.”
The yelling and vitriol of Charlottesville graphically remind us of timeless anti-Semitic hatred and lies. But it is the use of dog-whistles (coded language) by politicians and pundits who message subgroups of solidarity while garnering votes or support and can even urge them to act out against their targets. The messages mean one thing to the general public and something entirely different to the subgroups. The correlation is to a dog whistle, whose ultrasonic sound is heard by dogs but is imperceptible to humans.
Saturday’s attack comes amid a wave of anti-Semitic threats and attacks on social media by the far-right in the run-up to the heated U.S. midterm elections. The Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents also found a “marked rise in the number of online attacks” aimed at the Jewish community ahead of the elections.
They use the typographical tactic, known as echoing, in conjunction with a person’s name, such as “(((Barbra Streisand))),” to indicate that the writer understands this person to be Jewish. This particular dog-whistle often shows up as online, anti-Semitic rhetoric. Another prominent hate-symbol comes in the form of “14/88” or “8814.” Each number in this numeric dog whistle represents two specific facets of the fascist agenda. The number 14 represents their 14-word slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The number 88 is code for “Heil Hitler” since the letter H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. Some white supremacists will even price racist merchandise, such as t-shirts or compact discs, for $14.88.
Despite research that there is a rising tide of tolerance for anti-Semitism; dog-whistle language continues with terms used over and over again such as Globalist, and New York Values with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge to certain supporters in their base. Governmental and political leaders continue to deny that their choice of words or actions ever target Jews. But these verbal forms of abuse are unmistakable. White supremacists and neo-Nazis take heart from their rhetoric. It stands to reason that if you blow a dog-whistle long enough, a dog will probably show up.
Young People are Listening and Reacting
The recent ADL-commissioned focus groups of high school students confirmed that anti-Semitism continues to be a part of the lives of Jewish youth today. Participants report hearing jokes and stereotypical remarks about Jews’ appearance, customs and behaviors, seeing swastikas on school desks, bathroom walls and locker doors, and pennies being thrown at Jewish students. Anti-Semitic cyber-hate also invades the once safe haven of students’ homes.
There are a number of resources available to youth leaders, parents, and teachers online. Among them is “Words to Action” for middle school, high school and college students designed to empower and equip them with constructive and effective responses to combat anti-Semitism. We have an obligation to combat both the yells and dog-whistles that kids are hearing. If not, we are implicitly approving of this alarming trend of hatred.
As Martin Niemöller’s famous poem reminds us, hate toward one group invariably leads to hate toward another:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
The Tree of Life massacre, which was the deadliest attack on Jews in the United States history, was carried out by a single madman. But who of us is blameless or without sin? If we are filled with hatred and carry it with us every day, we are as culpable as the one who pulls the trigger. We cannot live like this and think we won’t be destroyed from the inside. The genocide of The Holocaust was the direct result of decades of resentment and negativity among good people.
Perhaps, with our concerted efforts, a day will come when the Jewish people will no longer have to be vigilant and ready for their next Exodus. We might reflect on the passage from Proverbs that lent its name to Tree of Life, referring to sacred text from the Torah as a tree of life (translated in Hebrew, Etz hayyim):
“It is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it; its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”