President Trump’s official response to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting Saturday observed more than the usual rhetoric of unity. But one statement about the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill stood out: “If they had protection inside,” he told reporters, “the results would have been far better.” Trump’s call for synagogues to hire armed guards was worse than a lapse in empathy. It also seemed to be the latest example of a fantastical, repugnant modern view of Jews as responsible, somehow, for the violence committed against them.
Blaming Jewish communities for failing to defend themselves has a sordid history. Tragically, some of the first commentators to hold Jews culpable for high death tolls in anti-Semitic attacks were fellow Jews. After one pogrom at the turn of the 20th century in a Russian village where 49 Jews perished, the poet Haim Nahman Bialik wrote that his people had “fled like mice, hid like bugs and died like dogs over there, wherever they were found.” In the years just after the Holocaust, in the 1940s and 1950s, many Zionist Jews in Israel and the Palestinian region disparaged their brothers and sisters who had stayed in Europe and died — going, in the words of another Zionist poet, “like lambs to the slaughter.”
In the United States, however, the linkage of Jewish tragedy with alleged nonresistance has been the cynical handiwork of the pro-gun lobby for the past 50 years. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), a fervent gun advocate, was perhaps the first to inject such a discourse into national debate when he compared the Gun Control Act of 1968 to the situation in Nazi Germany. A little over a decade later, in 1981, just after the full scope of the Jewish tragedy in World War II entered Americans' consciousness with the NBC miniseries “Holocaust,” the National Rifle Association released one of its first major propaganda messages, a half-hour made-for-TV documentary that depicted the U.S. agency responsible for gun control as a prelude to fascist tyranny.
The idea that more arms and more security would have saved Jewish lives in the past — and would surely save them in the future — has become a central argument in the rhetorical arsenal of the NRA, the most powerful anti-gun-control lobby group in the country. Its favored lawyer, Stephen Halbrook, a legal scholar of the Second Amendment who has successfully represented firearm advocates in front of the Supreme Court, has also tried hard to build a historical case that the well-intentioned mandatory gun registration laws of Germany’s liberal Weimar Republic paved the way toward rendering Jews defenseless in the Holocaust. He argued in one article that the Nazi government, once it was able to identify Jewish gun owners and (illegally) confiscate their weapons, could then “proceed to expropriate their property, deprive them of all rights, and eventually to subject them to genocide.”
The most sophisticated American anti-gun-control activists, such as Halbrook, do not claim that armed Jewish communities could have entirely prevented mass violence. But they do claim, to use Trump’s most recent words, that “the results would have been far better.”
Trump’s own views on gun control and anti-Semitism, like many of his basic platforms, have remained remarkably consistent since he entered the political fray. Although some have noted his early support of the federal assault weapons ban of 1994, he wrote in his 2000 book “The America We Deserve” — in the immediate wake of the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center shooting — that he generally opposed gun control and that the main solution to mass violence was stricter law enforcement and more capital punishment.
The belief that Jews must arm their communities in the face of anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred probably holds intuitive appeal for Mr. Trump, who describes the world as a site of inevitable violence and anarchy, where the safest play is always strength. But it also puts Jewish leaders — as well as leaders of all other vulnerable groups that the Trump administration hopes will self-arm, including school administrators — in the unconscionable position of accountability for their own losses when anti-Semitic violence strikes, as it did in Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Therein, perhaps, lies the real reason that this type of thinking about Jewish self-defense persists: In transferring responsibility to the affected group, government officials and taxpayers alike can deflect some of the guilt they feel for having helped create the fearful environment in which such acts occur, without having to foot the bill for preventing them in the future.