Yesterday, on October 26th, 2018, the American Jewish community experienced what I am calling an American Pogrom. Historians and scholars may rightly object to my appropriation of this term, but I’ll make my argument nonetheless. As most of us know, the site of the pogrom was the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
For those that aren’t familiar with the concept of a pogrom, a pogrom is the organized and intentional intimidation and/or massacre of a particular ethnic group, typically Jews. Throughout Jewish history, and especially in the 16th-19th centuries, the pogrom was a consistent feature of Jewish life in Eastern Europe where Jews generally lived in Jewish neighborhoods and towns, called shtetls. Typically carried out by uneducated, poor, anti-semitic neighbors or local townsfolk and largely condoned by local authorities, pogroms ranged from destruction of Jewish property to physical assault and murder. The message of a pogrom is quite simple and clear– you aren’t welcome here and you aren’t safe here; you are powerless, we are powerful.
When an anti-semitic, hate-filled gunman, walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on a Shabbat morning and began to open fire on those Jews who had gathered for Shabbat worship, I couldn’t help but think about this horrific act of violence in terms of the pogrom. While a dear and much respected friend has pointed out that what took place in Pittsburgh is not a pogrom akin to what took place in previous centuries and even today in other countries, it evokes for me, a taste of what Jews in these other settings might have felt. These resonances, along with the fact that the murder was carried out with an automatic weapon, like so many recent tragedies, is what leads me to call it an American pogrom. Gun violence is, undeniably, an American issue and one that needs immediate and enduring resolution.
An American pogrom. Like many Jews, people of faith, Americans, and people of conscience, I wanted to believe that pogroms were a thing of the past. But like anti-semitism, and racism/bigotry/hate more generally, it seems that the pogrom has a certain staying power. A stain on humanity, we haven’t yet figured out how to wash these and other forms of hatred and violence away. But we will.
An American pogrom requires an American response. An American response to this cowardly and pathetic assertion of White Supremacy will have to be multifaceted. Here are a few of the key components, as I understand them.
- Interfaith solidarity and action. Americans of all faiths and no faith must come together to denounce this act as well as the culture and ethos from which it was born and which it exemplifies. Every synagogue, church, mosque, mandir, and meditation center must understand that while this act specifically targeted Jews, it is an affront to all Americans, to all people of faith, and to virtually every core American ideal that’s worth fighting for. We need more interfaith dialogue, more interfaith civic action, more interfaith voices teaching our political leaders how to exercise moral and spiritual leadership. Initial indications from here in Atlanta and from colleagues across the country is that this is already underway and will only grow stronger.
- Jewish solidarity and action. Alongside a more general mobilization of good people, Jews need to express solidarity with one another and take action as well. We need to grieve and heal. We need to express our outrage, fear, and anguish. And quickly, we need to reassure our children that they are safe in our synagogues, schools, and Jewish Community Centers. While redoubling our efforts to secure our communities is necessary, it isn’t sufficient. We need to convey to our children, and to one another, the unique value of Jewish teaching and tradition. We need to demonstrate the vibrancy of Jewish life and Jewish practice. We need to elevate that which is vital in Judaism. Dare I say it, we need to lift up that within Judaism that might actually be worth dying for. This is the only way that we can even incrementally redeem our innocent dead.
- The Jewish Voice in American Life. We need more and louder Jewish voices in American civic conversations today. That’s because Judaism is a tradition founded upon a belief in human dignity. That’s because Judaism is a tradition that is relentless in its commitment to the pursuit of peace and justice. That’s because Judaism is a tradition that simultaneously holds a grand vision for the redemption of all humankind alongside a vision of how people should go about their daily lives in a way that emphasizes kindness, compassion, and love. The prophetic voice is alive and well within Judaism, but sometimes it prefers to speak in a whisper. It’s time, to use the prophet Isaiah’s words, to “raise our voices like a shofar.”
- To Our Children. When our children learn about a tragedy many process the news by asking what they can do. For now, the message is quite simple– they can live their lives in a way that recaptures and emphasizes that which seems to be banished from the world in moments like these. They can be kind to one another. They can nourish their own hearts and minds with good ideas. They can make an effort to get to know people who are different from them. They can express gratitude to the helpers and heroes in their lives. By emphasizing these things, we will eventually be able to help them see how these basic decencies, once (and hopefully still) emblematic of America, are in fact much more than simple interpersonal gestures. By accustoming our children to kindness, thoughtfulness, curiosity, and respect for dignity and difference, we will be setting them up for a better life and a better world and reclaiming our rightful role as the true heirs and guardians of what it means to be an American.