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Following the murder of 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Executive Director Dr Jonathan Boyd, shares his personal reflections - on the attack, on contemporary antisemitism and on the state of our world.
Reflections on Pittsburgh
The synagogue I attend is in a leafy London suburb. It’s conservative – which, in Jewish denominational language, means it is traditional in terms of liturgy and practice, but modern, open-minded and outward-looking in its view of the world.
It houses three separate ‘minyanim,’ or prayer groups, on a typical Shabbat morning, reflecting its openness to different styles of, and approaches to religious practice. Perhaps because of its positioning on the Jewish denominational spectrum – between Orthodoxy and Reform – it tends to attract quite intellectually and spiritually curious congregants – people searching for a middle way, serious about their Judaism, but equally serious about tackling the issues that face all of us – climate change, populism, mental health, racism. The messages written in Hebrew around the ark in the synagogue – the place where Jewish communities typically place a kind of mission statement to focus the minds of their congregants – speak of three types of love: of God, of your neighbour, and of the stranger. And the synagogue has a large sign on the outside of the building declaring ‘refugees welcome,’ a notice that is activated in numerous ways, most notably through its asylum-seekers drop-in centre, which supports refugees with anything from a hot meal to legal and medical assistance.
The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh is cut from the same cloth. Suburban, conservative, multiple minyanim, open, tolerant, thoughtful. If I lived in Pittsburgh, I’d probably go there. And it’s likely I would have been there when Robert Bowers stormed the building last Shabbat, shouting “all Jews must die’ as he shot eleven worshippers dead and injured several more.
So the attack feels close. Very close. But I’ve felt similarly recently. Like when a teacher and three children were shot dead at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012. Or when four people were killed in the Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014. Or when four Jews were murdered in a kosher supermarket in Paris in 2015. Or when a voluntary security guard – a member of the synagogue in Copenhagen – was murdered outside the synagogue there, also in 2015, whilst trying to prevent exactly the type of massacre we saw in Pittsburgh last weekend.
The British life peer, Baroness Tonge, responded to this latest atrocity by suggesting that this is all Benjamin Netanyahu’s fault. If Israel would only stop killing Palestinians, this would all stop. I don’t buy it. Not for one second.
The murderer in this case, Robert Bowers, a 46 year-old right-wing extremist, appears to have had little interest in anything to do with Israel or the Palestinians. On the contrary, his chief concern seems to have been Jewish community work with refugees. The target of his ire was the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), an organisation established to help Jewish refugees to America at the turn of the twentieth century, that today, having achieved its original mission, focuses heavily on providing similar support to non-Jewish refugees. Bowers killed Jews because of their liberalism, their tolerance for others, their humanity – those are the values that offended him to the point of committing mass murder.
And that’s the thing about antisemitism. Jews seem to get it in the neck whatever they do. Fight for tolerance and equality for all, they attract the ire of the far-right for being too compassionate, too universalist. Fight for justice and fair treatment for themselves, they attract the ire of the far-left for being too ‘tribal,’ too particularist. Sit quietly minding their own business in a synagogue service in suburban Pittsburgh, they get gunned down in cold blood. Thus it has long been. And, of course, all of this is part of the reason why they fought for a return to their ancestral homeland in the first place. But for that too, they are condemned.
This isn’t new. On the contrary, for much of my life, I thought it was essentially old. I thought it was largely consigned to the history of previous generations in Nazi-occupied Europe, or Tsarist Russia, or medieval Christendom. For years I told myself things are different today. And they were – my generation, born in the 1960s, rarely encountered any antisemitism, and if we did, it often felt anachronistic. Perhaps that’s why statistically, our generation is most perturbed by it today: our parents have longer memories; our children are increasingly growing up with it as normal.
My Jewish upbringing focused on other matters, notably trying to create a better, safer and more just world both for Jews and for humanity as a whole. And not just in Britain; in Israel, across Europe, in America, worldwide. My generation was taught about rebuilding, creating anew. On the one hand, after the Holocaust, the words of the ancient Jewish sage, Hillel, who lived in Jerusalem in Roman times, rang true: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” But so did his qualifier: “But if I am only for myself, what am I?” Our task was to balance the polarity between our responsibilities to the Jewish People, and our responsibilities to humanity as a whole. That’s what it meant to be Jewish.
For a long time, managing that polarity has been relatively easy in a country like Britain. Its politics have been moderate, its economy stable. I have rarely encountered anti-Jewish prejudice, so have felt little need to particularly assert, or defend, my Jewish identity, and I have had no problems living openly and comfortably as a Jew. The governments I have known – both Labour and Conservative – have been remarkably supportive of the Jewish community. And supporting the needs of other minorities in their quests for tolerance, acceptance and, in certain instances, justice, has often felt like pushing on an open door – both far-left and far-right views have, throughout my lifetime, been largely condemned across the mainstream political spectrum.
But that is what is beginning to change, not just in Britain, but across Europe, and indeed in the US. The battle lines are becoming ever clearer – between those who feel their identities are threatened by immigration and multiculturalism, and those who feel their values are threatened by nationalism and conservatism. The moderate position, that recognises the need to balance such tensions, that sees tradition and change as a polarity to manage not a problem to solve, that seeks to hold Hillel’s seemingly contradictory positions in equilibrium, appears to be in retreat. Instead of being two sides of the same coin, they are becoming two competing armies.
It’s that dynamic that allowed Pittsburgh to happen. And make no mistake: there will be more Pittsburghs, many many more, directed not just at Jews, but at any and every minority, until we learn how to bring our responsibilities to ourselves and to others back into balance. It’s a simple idea really, and as Hillel’s words demonstrate, we’ve had access to it for at least 2,000 years: it can’t be all about ‘us’, and it can’t be all about ‘them’; it has to be about both. These aren’t opposing forces, destined to fight it out until one vanquishes the other; they are supporting forces that, allowed to constructively dialogue across their differences, can strengthen one another for the sake of all. A politics that fails to understand that will inevitably become a politics of hate. And a politics of hate leads in only one direction: to Pittsburgh.