Rabbi Danny Schiff is foundation scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Eighty years ago, on Nov. 9, 1938, the Nazis set fire to the synagogues of Germany. Hundreds of synagogues were destroyed, countless Torah scrolls were desecrated, and dozens of Jews were slain. That dark terror became known as Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” for the shattered windows of synagogues and Jewish homes and businesses strewn on German streets. It foreshadowed a descent into the worst evil imaginable.
How did the neighbors react as the sanctuaries of Judaism went up in flames? Mostly, they did nothing. Even firefighters stood by as the synagogues burned, intervening only when they were needed to save nearby buildings.
It was hardly the first time in Jewish history.
In 38 A.D., synagogues in Alexandria, Egypt, were destroyed. The citizenry joined in with gusto. Jews were attacked by mobs who maimed their victims or burned them to death. More than a thousand years later, Jews were still being attacked — in Munich in 1285, 180 Jews were burned to death in their synagogue following a blood libel. In every century, the gruesome history of Jew hatred has repeated itself through horrendous violence.
This singular sequence of suffering leads to an understandable temptation to place the Pittsburgh synagogue slaughter on Oct. 27 in an unbroken line of anti-Jewish evil.
And, in one sense, that is precisely where it belongs. The Pittsburgh murders constitute a distinctly Jewish event, with a lengthy Jewish pedigree.
Seen this way, the current impulse to fit all “hate” into one neat basket is too simplistic. It is comforting to think that all hate is alike because it yields a ready solution: Just combat expressions of hate, and the terrible problems caused by hate will be solved.
But what if all hate is not the same? What if anti-Semitism is distinctive because in no place and at no time has it ever been at zero? What if anti-Semitism, unlike most hatreds, is perpetually reinvigorated by an ever-morphing narrative — the Jews killed Jesus, the Jews dominate the monetary system, the Jews are communists, the Jews are vermin, the Jews control the world, the Jews are colonialists and racists and uniquely brutal oppressors? And what if anti-Semitism is in a special category because it is usually genocidal in nature? It was not by accident, after all, that, according to police, the perpetrator in Pittsburgh yelled that “all Jews must die”; the goal of Jew hatred is rarely satisfied by ostracization, demonization or a brief killing spree. Elimination of every Jew is the preferred objective.
Let’s stipulate: In comparison with any other moment in Jewish history, anti-Semitism is at a low ebb in the contemporary United States. But anxiety over an anti-Semitic resurgence is never far from the surface, and the inexorable drumbeat of anti-Semitism can hardly be said to have been silenced.
When billionaires such as George Soros and other Jewish figures are vilified as “globalists” who do not have the best interests of the United States at heart, Jews recognize that drumbeat. When Israel is singled out for engaging in Nazi-like behavior, Jews hear its echoes.
As a result, for Jews, the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre is not just another American firearm atrocity, not just a generic act of hate. It belongs in a realm with considerably more disturbing overtones.
And yet, while Pittsburgh represents a continuation of the same thread that stretches from Alexandria to Kristallnacht, it is also different. Profoundly different.
Why? Because of the neighbors. Since the Pittsburgh attack, loving individuals of every background have embraced Jews tightly in multiple overwhelming ways. Government leaders, prominent religious figures, corporations, sports teams and an unprecedented myriad of fellow citizens have declared loudly and emphatically that they will stand by Jews.
This breathtaking and profoundly moving reality is virtually unparalleled in the Jewish experience.
It demands a reappraisal of the classic anti-Semitism narrative. Once, in the not so distant past, Jews faced evil essentially alone; now, whatever evil Jews face in the United States is vastly overmatched by a sea of goodness.
Two contradictory trends are at work: Alongside rising levels of anti-Semitism there exists a dramatic burgeoning of caring for Jews. The pivotal question, in the long run, is: Which trend will prevail?
The United States could turn in the direction of Europe, where many Jews feel fearful and threatened. Or the United States could aspire to become a nation where anti-Semitism in speech and deed is universally despised, building upon post-attack Pittsburgh as its model. Taking the latter path would seem essential to the success of the American experiment.