Some were there to celebrate a brit milah — to welcome a new baby boy into the community. Perhaps some of them went primarily to be with friends, or to pour out their hearts in prayer. Maybe some were there for a combination of reasons. But they were all together in a sacred space, in holy time, when a gunman opened fire.
President Trump referred to the killing of those 11 people as “evil,” and he is correct. But it is not an evil devoid of context. We cannot understand this massacre when we try to treat it as an isolated incident. Like most tragedies, it has a lot of contexts.
This slaughter lives in the context of more than a thousand years of scapegoating Jews for the stresses and trials of society. The trope of the powerful Jew (which itself was born out of Christian oppression) has been deployed time and time again throughout history. It continues up to and through Trump’s ongoing attacks on George Soros and frequent use of the word “globalist,” — a well-known anti-Semitic dog-whistle — even Saturday, just after the slaughter at Tree of Life synagogue.
As educator April Rosenblum once noted, anti-Semitism is effective — and often invisible — because “it allows Jews success … because the point of anti-Jewish oppression is to keep a Jewish face in front, so that Jews, instead of ruling classes, become the target for peoples’ rage, it works even more smoothly when Jews are allowed some success, and can be perceived as the ones ‘in charge’ by other oppressed groups.” Anti-Semitism, in this way, functions differently from other forms of oppression. Although through most of history, Jews have had neither power or privilege in the societies in which they lived; the times and places when we have had success have served as both cause for hatred and proof, to the anti-Semitic mind, that the conspiracy theories are correct.
Indeed, suspect Robert D. Bowers, who reportedly shouted “All Jews must die!” as he allegedly opened fire in the synagogue, appears to have singled out HIAS, an important refugee resettlement and advocacy group, for bringing in “hostile invaders,” as though Jews have some sort of power over the patterns of migration that bring asylum seekers to America’s southern border. There, he was echoing the idea circulating fairly openly among right-wing media that Soros or some other nefarious hidden power is funding the caravan of asylum seekers walking its way through Mexico to the U.S. border. Bowers, reportedly, believes that Jewish influence is keeping Trump’s administration from going far enough in pursuit of draconian immigration policies.
As it happens, the Torah portion read on Saturday morning, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, included the story of Sodom being destroyed. It was destroyed, the rabbis of the Talmud tell us, because of a lack of hospitality. The same portion shows Abraham welcoming strangers to his tent, serving as the model of hospitality. We care for strangers, the Torah tells us. We are implored to look after the immigrant, the refugee. It is our sacred obligation to work to protect the vulnerable — as HIAS indeed does.
But this atrocity is not only situated in a Jewish context. Tree of Life is now forever linked to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, all the way back to and beyond to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. — all attacks on houses of worship. Hate crimes in this country are not new. But they are on the rise: One recent study found that “hate crime totals for the 10 largest cities rose for four straight years to the highest level in a decade,” and another noted that online hate and harassment have amplified as well.
This attack is also situated in the context of mass shootings in America, linking Tree of Life to Pulse nightclub, to Las Vegas, to Parkland, to Sutherland Springs, to Sandy Hook, to every last one of recent mass shootings in the United States. It lives in the context of Congress’s refusal to pass comprehensive gun control — which could and should include rigorous background checks, an assault weapons ban, waiting periods, training and licensure, public health funding, and research. (Trump, of course, said Saturday that the real problem was that there weren’t enough guns in the synagogue.) The Jews gunned down in the midst of the Shabbat liturgy and Torah reading already had plenty of their own thoughts and prayers. What they actually needed was legislative action, and the political will to prioritize their lives and safety over the interests of the National Rifle Association.
Four times a year, Jews recite a memorial service that includes a prayer to remember all those who were “killed, exterminated, slaughtered, burned, drowned and asphyxiated for the sanctification of God’s name” — those who died as martyrs in the Crusades, in the Inquisition, in pogroms, in so many other slaughters over the centuries. Those who were butchered this Shabbat, too, sanctified God’s name. They chose to come to a Jewish space in a time of increasing anti-Jewish hatred, to mark Shabbat as a holy time when they could have made other choices. They are martyrs no less.
In Judaism, when someone dies, we often say, “May their memory be for a blessing.” This time, it is all of our obligation to make it so. We must mourn and lament and grieve for the lives stolen from the world. We must rage at the baseless hatred and reckless lack of protections that made these senseless killings possible in the first place. And we must honor the memories of those who were murdered by fighting for a world that values every life — refugee and citizen, of every race and religion — and that creates cultures and policies that reflect those values.