Pittsburgh did not Happen in a Vacuum

Jeremy Ben-Ami Image
Jeremy Ben-Ami
on October 29, 2018

No words can fully express the shock, sadness and horror we feel at the events that took place in Pittsburgh on Saturday morning.

The murder of 11 Jewish people, as they prayed in synagogue on Shabbat, was an attack not just on the worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue, but on the entire Jewish community in this country and around the world.

In the wake of this horror, our first duty is to come together in support of the victims, their loved ones, the congregation and the entire city of Pittsburgh. It is to grieve and to comfort one another, standing together in solidarity. Click here to find vigils and memorials that you can attend in your area.

As that work continues, we must also do all that we can to challenge the nightmarish proliferation of hatred, white nationalism and anti-Semitic tropes that helped create the context for this attack.

This hate crime did not take place in a vacuum. It’s clear that the murderer was motivated in part by a belief that liberal American Jews, including groups like the refugee aid organization HIAS, were working to help immigrants and people of color subvert “the white race” in this country.

And it’s clear that this kind of anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic thought has been spread not only by far-right groups, but by President Trump and some of his allies in the Republican party. In the lead up to next week’s pivotal midterm elections, we have seen a transparent effort by Trump and some Republican candidates to turn bigotry and fear into a political weapon.

In rallies and political ads and social media posts, they have dehumanized immigrants and refugees seeking a better life in this country. They have claimed that Democrats and “globalists” — a common alt-right code word for Jews — seek to promote immigration and violence in order to endanger and undermine average Americans.

In particular, the president and GOP leaders have spread vicious conspiracy theories about the prominent Jewish philanthropist George Soros. Relying on a classic anti-Semitic trope, official campaign ads funded by the National Republican Campaign Committee have portrayed Soros as an evil, all-powerful puppet master controlling Democratic candidates, refugees and protesters.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) tweeted that Soros may be paying the “caravan” of asylum-seekers to “storm the US border.” Rep. Steve King (R-IA) traveled to Austria to tell a far-right website that Soros may be funding the “Great Replacement” of the white race — a major neo-Nazi conspiracy theory. Even after a bomb was sent in the mail to Soros’ home, House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) posted — and later deleted — a tweet charging that Soros and two other billionaires of Jewish descent were seeking to “buy” the election.

These toxic conspiracy theories and dog whistles are being used to mobilize voters. But they’re also sowing hatred against journalists, immigrants, Latinos, Muslims and Jews — hatred that can and has led to violence.

The best and most important way to respond to this nightmare is to do everything we can to defeat these fear-mongers at the polls. By supporting candidates who share our values in competitive races across the country, we can vote out the president’s enablers and strike a massive blow against their ideology.

J Street members can use our election portal to find volunteer opportunities. But whether you’re getting involved through us or directly with campaigns, find a way this week to back a candidate who shares your values.

Beyond the polls, we must also do all that we can to condemn those who spread this bigotry — and challenge their enablers.

We cannot allow the president and his defenders to excuse the incitement and violence by blaming it on the media, or on “both sides.” It was appalling to see Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, give a TV interview in which he lauded President Trump’s response to the Pittsburgh attack and, instead of talking about right-wing white supremacism, pivoted to blaming leftist college students for the rise of anti-Semitism.

Yes, there is anti-Semitism on the left, which must be denounced and fought. But the violence in Pittsburgh and the massive threat to our community clearly stems from an empowered, xenophobic far right. For any pundit, Jewish communal leader or Israeli official to pretend otherwise, in order to shield Trump and the Republican Party from taking appropriate responsibility, is dangerous and delusional.

We must speak out about the ways in which the Netanyahu government has frequently given praise and cover to Trump and those who spread the ideology and rhetoric of the far-right — and engaged in similar incitement against refugees, activists and political critics. It was jarring to see Minister for Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett fly into Pittsburgh to support the Jewish community, when Bennett himself has launched racist tirades against Arabs, refugee “infiltrators” and the liberal activists who support them.

Just as Israeli leaders often call on American Jews to listen closely to their concerns, they now should take care to listen closely to our concerns and needs. It was outrageous to see Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi refuse to refer to the Conservative Tree of Life congregation as a synagogue — and profoundly disappointing to see Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay respond to the tragedy by calling on more Jews to immigrate to Israel.

This is a time for grief and for healing — and also for honesty, openness and action. The Tree of Life community was attacked in part because it represents so much of what is good and righteous about our tradition: compassion for others, welcoming the stranger.

Those who despise those principles, who hate and fear all those who are “different,” will always be a danger to the Jewish people — especially when they are emboldened by some of the most powerful people in our country. But the millions of Americans who share our values will stand alongside us, just as we stand alongside them.

Speaking truth to power, working together as a community and with our allies, we can confront and defeat bigotry and violence. We can help create the better future that our people, our country and our world deserve.

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