October 30, 2018
The piece appeared in The New York Jewish Week.
We knew anti-Semitism was out there. We knew it was growing. More and more people felt uninhibited in expressing their hatred and bigotry.
Deadly attacks against Jewish targets had already occurred in other countries, from Belgium to Bulgaria, Argentina to Panama, Turkey to Tunisia, and France to Denmark — not to mention Israel. Yet American Jews nonetheless lived with a kind of innocence: surely nothing on the scale of Pittsburgh was conceivable here.
That innocence has been shattered, of course. It has happened, and 11 Jews, pillars of the proud Pittsburgh community, were murdered in a house of worship by a killer intent on destroying Jewish lives.
Many are understandably dazed, depressed and disoriented. If it could unfold in Pittsburgh, it could take place anywhere. The 11 are us, and we are they. Whether we knew them or not, they were probably not more than two degrees of separation from us, and to look at their photos was to see pictures of our own family, our friends, our neighbors and, yes, ourselves.
The immediate response has been heartwarming. Solidarity events and memorial services are being held across the country. In one remarkable example, a countywide gathering was announced in White Plains on Sunday at noon. Four hours later, the synagogue was overflowing, with as many as 1,500 people crammed into a space that could barely hold 1,000. And among them were dozens of elected officials and interfaith partners.
And many world leaders have expressed their solidarity, support and grief. We have heard from officials in Austria, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, the European Union, France, Germany, Singapore, Sweden and the UN, among others, who say they stand with the Jewish community. As one wrote: “Anti-Semitism is our worst existential enemy, and we must fight it with every conceivable means.”
But therein lies the looming question. Once the gatherings are behind us, the tweets become a fading memory, and the “thoughts and prayers” are filed, what’s left? Are we back to business as usual? How do we fight this age-old pathology “with every conceivable means?”
Needless to say, it would be gratifying to know that the likes of a Jonas Salk were working on a vaccine against this dreaded social disease. Well, many of us have been trying to do just that, but haven’t yet come up with the magic formula, as Pittsburgh painfully illustrates.
But there are still things that can be done.
First, the threat of anti-Semitism has to be acknowledged. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But I could write a book on the last 18 years, as we met with one world leader after another trying to convince them of the growing magnitude of the problem. While some listened, too many others didn’t, suggesting we were exaggerating the danger or misunderstanding its nature.
Second, combating anti-Semitism requires recognizing the main sources of the menace, and they are three: the far right, the far left and jihadists. Some, for a variety of political reasons, would rather downplay one or more of these wellsprings, but all pose a grave danger — and all need to be confronted head-on.
Third, political rhetoric has consequences. When elected officials resort to incendiary language, or turn to coded words and wink-and-nod gestures, the effects can be profound. Public discourse in the United States today, in the realm of politics and beyond, continues to head to the gutter. Opponents become enemies, conspiracy theories abound and social media becomes the great enabler. If leaders don’t act responsibly and bring us back from the brink, we will all pay a heavy price.
Fourth, this is the time for a coalition of conscience to emerge — to stand up proudly and loudly for the values of decency, civility, mutual respect, bipartisanship and unity. If nature abhors a vacuum, so does democracy. If that coalition doesn’t stand up and stay the course, then, as we’ve seen, others, with very different agendas, will fill the space.
Fifth, for all the blessings of America, and they are practically infinite, violence has become too much part and parcel of our landscape. It takes many forms — from the language of incitement and confrontation to the number of lethal weapons in the wrong hands; from those who get a rise from in-your-face encounters imbued with physical danger, to those who fall through the cracks of the systems designed to identify social malcontents; and, of course, to those, of different motivations, who unleashed Charleston, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook and Fort Hood.
And sixth, most immediately, as many people as possible — Jews and non-Jews alike — should consider attending synagogue services this weekend. We’re calling it #ShowUpForShabbat. It’s a way of demonstrating unity and shared destiny, of saying “no fear.”
It’s a message to the haters that their America is not ours. Our America champions democracy and pluralism. It celebrates, not bemoans, our diversity. And it mourns, not exalts, what happened in Pittsburgh last Shabbat morning.
David Harris is the CEO of American Jewish Committee (AJC). Follow him on Twitter @DavidHarrisAJC.