There are some hate criminals whose motives are well-disguised behind reams of obscure or contradictory web ramblings. Robert Bowers, the 46-year-old suspect in Saturday’s Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, would not fit in that category. Before allegedly killing 11 people in and around the Tree of Life, he declared online that “Jews are the children of Satan.” He also claimed the Holocaust was a lie, and that “it’s the filthy EVIL Jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!” Like James Alex Fields Jr., the alleged Charlottesville car-attack killer, and Cesar Sayoc, the hate-addled bodybuilder and status hound who’s been charged with mailing pipe bombs to Democrats this month, Bowers was a confused, pathetic failure looking to blame his problems on others.
But in the age of Trump, it’s hard not to suspect that a seemingly deranged hate criminal is actually channeling something more universal than his own inner demons. In a plaintive Washington Post column entitled What Is Happening To Our Country?, Max Boot argues that while “extremism has been present in America for a long time…Trump is applying a match to the kindling.”
“When Trump talks about ‘globalists,’ the far right hears ‘Jews,’” Boot argues. “There is so much anti-Semitic filth online now. I see it every day on Twitter and in my email inbox. Normally I tune it out. Just background noise. But others are listening.”
That is no doubt true—even if it is difficult to disentangle the strands of viciousness and agitation that lead any one hate criminal to act. But I also would urge that this laudable American tendency toward political introspection not give way to fear. Despite sporadic episodes of horrific anti-Semitic hatred such as this, the modern West remains, by historical standards, a safe environment for Jews—something worth acknowledging, even as we join Tree Of Life in a collective act of mourning.
In the shadow of a tragedy such as the Pittsburgh massacre, I realize, it’s hard to take comfort from broad historical trends. In part, this is because the issue of anti-Semitism has been strongly politicized on both poles. Since 9/11, conservatives often have pointed to the (very real) anti-Semitic strains within militant Islam—and sometimes have overreached by conflating generalized criticism of Israel with Jew hatred. Since Trump was elected, likewise, Antifa and other radical leftist voices often have attempted to tar broad swathes of conservatives as heirs to Nazi ideology. But a single murderer shouldn’t have the power to terrorize a whole community. And the history of Pittsburgh itself helps show that the United States is not an anti-Semitic country.
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Although the Jewish population of Pittsburgh always has been relatively small, the city has an outsized role in the history of North American Jewry thanks to the “Pittsburgh Platform” of 1885, a landmark in the emergence of Reform Judaism and the broader pattern of Jewish assimilation. Drafted at the city’s Concordia Club (which now serves as a student center for the University of Pittsburgh), the document urged that Jews renounce national aspirations and promote inter-religious bridge-building. While the document has lapsed into obscurity, its signatories’ vision of modern, liberal, assimilated Judaism was prescient:
We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state. We recognize in Judaism a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason. We are convinced of the utmost necessity of preserving the historical identity with our great past. Christianity and Islam, being daughter religions of Judaism, we appreciate their providential mission, to aid in the spreading of monotheistic and moral truth. We acknowledge that the spirit of broad humanity of our age is our ally in the fulfillment of our mission, and therefore we extend the hand of fellowship to all who cooperate with us in the establishment of the reign of truth and righteousness among men.
The timing of the Pittsburgh Platform came at a terrible time in Jewish history. The assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 had set off waves of pogroms against Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine. Tens of thousands were slaughtered, and millions of Jewish survivors fled west, swelling Jewish communities across North America and beyond. Between 1880 and 1900, the Jewish population of the United States jumped by a factor of six, from 250,000 to 1.5-million.
Most of the Jews who came to the West didn’t want a new Pale of Settlement, and instead created a new, free kind of Jewish life within majority Christian countries. The vision of co-existence embedded within the Pittsburgh Platform has come to pass—notwithstanding horrific but isolated acts of violence from the likes of Robert Bowers.
The sight of armed state agents swarming a synagogue is hardly a novelty within Jewish history. The difference in Pittsburgh—the aspect of this week’s tragedy that would have shocked many of the 19th century Jews who fled the Cossacks—is that these police officers came to protect besieged Jews, not attack them. There will always be outbreaks of criminal anti-Semitism. The question is what happens when the men in uniform show up.
Eleven Jews were murdered at the Tree of Life. But the casualties also included four wounded (but as yet unnamed) police officers who put their life on the line to defend a Jewish house of worship. That fact is no comfort to the dead and grieving, and the officers themselves no doubt would say they were only doing their jobs. But it’s the one aspect of this whole sad story that, I believe, my own Jewish ancestors would have found uplifting.
When taking the measure of a society’s values, there is an understandably strong focus on the words of its leaders. Max Boot is correct that Trump often says foolish and hateful things. But the murderous Jew hatred that flourished in Europe for centuries and reached its horrifying crescendo with the Holocaust was a mass cultural phenomenon, deeply rooted in anti-Semitic folklore and the darkest forms of Christian mythology. Some shadow of this was exported to North America, and has survived in Europe. But this Jew hatred no longer exists as a mainstream grass-roots phenomenon. Trump or no Trump, it speaks its name proudly only among isolated cabals of fringe haters and attention-seekers—who are regularly, and properly, treated with contempt and ostracism by mainstream politicians and media.
And while improved reporting methods would suggest that antisemitism in American society has increased in recent years, my own anecdotal experience as a Jewish journalist doesn’t support this. Antisemitism is more visible yes, because we can all go see it spill out on forums such as Reddit and Gab. But when neo-Nazis are called on to materialize in real life, their rallies usually are (thankfully) pathetically small.
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Acting on what the Pittsburgh Declaration authors called “the spirit of broad humanity,” the officers of that city put their lives on the line to protect human life on Saturday. This was the true face of America before Trump took power. It remained the true face of America after Trump took power. And it will continue to be the true face of America once this president is removed from the office he has stained with his troubling rhetoric.
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