The murders in the Pittsburgh synagogue, the loss of 11 lives and the injuries to others, and the heartbreaking disruption of hundreds of families and their community of worship are devastating, but they are only part of the story. We need to understand what motivated the attack, what particular significance it has for the Jewish community, and how we can best move forward from here.
This shooting is the deadliest attack on Jews in US history, and is part of a huge explosion of reported anti-Semitic events—a 57 percent increase in one year. It follows on the terror in Charlottesville, where Nazis marched in the streets yelling racist slogans, and the president of the United States said there were “fine people” on both sides.
We can be devastated by the synagogue attack, but we cannot really be surprised. After all, we are living in a country whose leader seeks to impose a Muslim travel ban; cruelly separates children from their parents at our borders; aims to deny all protections to transgender people; perpetuates insidious racism; accuses a prominent Jew, George Soros, of funding the migrants approaching our border; and is now promoting the end of birthright citizenship.
The Pittsburgh rabbi said it clearly: “It starts with speech.” We know from history the power of hate-filled messages to turn people against each other. We saw it in Nazi Germany, and we saw it is Rwanda. We see it now in the social-media messages that are fueling hate crimes in Myanmar.
A president who spreads a message that hate thrives here, that this is a country primarily for cisgendered white Christian nationalists, that people who are different are dangerous and need to be kept out or deported, bears responsibility for the explosion in hate crimes. Naturally, some of the people who receive that message choose to act on it: to make and mail bombs, to riot in the streets, to seize weapons that are much too available and shoot up rallies, restaurants, and places of worship.
This terrorist shooter was clear: He hated Jews and he hated the Jewish commitment to care for and protect refugees. He murdered Jews precisely because they believe in care not only for themselves but for the other.
This Jewish commitment has its roots in scripture and in history. The most repeated Torah commandment is for Jews to remember their own oppression and to care for and love the other and the stranger because they know what it means to be that other, to be ostracized, victimized and slaughtered because of who they are. This value is beautifully and movingly illustrated by Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, the Jewish on-duty doctor who stepped forward to treat the Pittsburgh shooter, even as he continued his anti-Semitic rant.
The history of Jews in America reflects this fierce commitment to those in need of help. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was founded in the late 19th century, and has helped to resettle more than 4.5 million people, most of them Jews, fleeing the Holocaust or the Soviet Union. HIAS provided support to refugees who sought the safety, greater tolerance, religious freedom, and democracy that America offered. Many of the Jews who are thriving in America today owe their relative safety and success to the hand that HIAS extended to their ancestors.
And then, in this century, HIAS has turned its attention to the millions of other people in the world, not Jewish, whose lives are in danger. Vietnamese, Darfuri, and others fleeing oppression, violence, and threats of annihilation are being helped by HIAS to build new lives. The organization stood against the Muslim ban, and opposes the efforts to seal our borders.
HIAS’s vision speaks to core Jewish values and to the values Americans have cherished and tried to live up to since our founding. HIAS recognizes the importance of building structures that will protect each and all of us, that will be there for any group singled out for attack. Their brilliant current slogan says it all: “We saved people because they were Jews. Now we save people because we are Jews.”
Our responsibility is clear. We need to mourn with and for the Pittsburgh community—and we need to do much more. We cannot back down. We need to make it clear that this president and his supports bear responsibility for the explosion of hate and violence. We need to be part of organizing efforts against gun violence, for voting rights, and for immigrant rights. We need to recognize the importance of standing together across lines of difference, to understand that an attack on any group is an attack on every group, to say that hate has no home here, that it will take all of us to heal this fractured world.