We got the news of the massacre in Etz Chaim, the “Tree of Life” synagogue in Pittsburgh, while sharing an early dinner at home with friends. We were nine, and — as it happens — all Jewish: German, American, and with Israeli origins. The contradictory initial reports shattered the evening for the five adults. We agreed that this, unfortunately, is an important inflection point for Jewish life in the United States, and for what it represents to Jews outside the U.S. We sensed, however, that was an attack not only against Jews for being Jewish, but specifically against Jews who are active supporters of social justice, and who had acted in solidarity with asylum seekers and refugees. We looked at our news feeds — from the United States, Germany, and Israel — and observed the complicated reality of the response. On one hand, we observed shock at what is believed to be the largest mass killing of Jews in U.S. history. At the same time, we saw how the murderer’s intent wove together a hatred of the Jews for being Jewish with a hatred for Jews as the advocates for (or, in the conspiracy theory version, the evil puppeteers manipulating) asylum seekers from Latin America and elsewhere.
Americans alive during the original civil rights movement will recognize here the double-helix shape of American antisemitism. At that time, Jews who supported civil rights were simultaneously characterized as both “race traitors” and as “internationalists” plotting the demise of white America through the incitement of black activism. This rhetoric is echoed today in the language of the U.S. President and his supporters, who have said that the Central American caravan moving from Honduras to the U.S. border “could well be” harboring dangerous “Middle Easterners.” This, we know, triggered Robert D. Bowers’ decision to “go in” and kill Jews — as he put it in his infamous post, and as he shouted upon entering Etz Chaim synagogue. This is the nature of antisemitism in both the United States and Germany today: centrally connected to migration, to religious and ethnic diversity, and to the stresses on the political system.
While the German press has noted that this antisemitism comes principally from the alt-right in the U.S. and from the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party in Germany, the German press is also responsible for the representation of Jews as “other,” such as in its frequent depiction of Jews as men wearing yarmulkes, in photographs taken from behind. As in France and other European capitals, German synagogues are heavily guarded. Universities and schools are not. Meanwhile, Sergey Lagodinsky of the German Green Party has said that the U.S. is no longer the safe-haven that European Jews think it is. His remarks reminded Irit of the metaphor of the night shelter that Zionists sought in the Uganda solution in 1904, and finally rejected — there could not be an agreement on Zionism without Zion. The metaphor of a shelter or stronghold for when things “get dark” applies to how European Jews see Israel. This is also the framing preferred by the right wing government and its supporters in Israel — such an attack on Jews in the U.S. is more proof of why it is important to support a “strong Israel.”
The name of the synagogue, Etz Chaim, resonates deeply Michael, as a Jewish American brought up within the so-called Conservative (Masorti) tradition. The phrase immediately calls to mind the opening stanza of a traditional song, sung when handling the Torah scrolls during a Torah service. Growing up practicing Judaism in an American synagogue of this strain, Michael understands the name to express the human yearning for spiritual height, as symbolized by the tree of life that stood in Paradise, bearing fruit that granted eternal life. Instead, Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge, and were granted the ability to distinguish between good and evil. Given the synagogue’s very name, insult was added to injury when Rabbi Israel David Lau, the head of the State-Recognized Rabbinate in Israel, refused to refer to Etz Chaim as a synagogue when he commented on the attack — the implication being that only Orthodox Jews are real Jews, and only Orthodox Judaism truly adheres to the Torah — that is, to the Tree of Life.
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded on Twitter, remarking, “Jews were murdered in a synagogue; they were murdered for being Jewish, we should never forget that,” Lau’s attitude towards Etz Chaim was echoed in the coverage provided by the Israeli press. Sadly, this stance only reinforces the growing cultural and political divide between Jewish Americans and the State of Israel. Israeli politicians, who broadly support Trump and his administration, responded to the massacre at Etz Chaim Synagogue by intimating antisemitism “on both sides” (most notably Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister, who very consciously and directly mimicked President Trump’s remarks following the white nationalist attack in Charlottesville last year). In response to this rather extraordinary lack of awareness or truthfulness, Ishay Rosen-Zvi, professor of Jewish philosophy at Tel Aviv University, pointed out in Haaretz that Bennett, who traveled to Pittsburgh to offer the Israeli government’s condolences, is closer in his political outlook to that of the radical right than he is to that of the Jews who were killed. Trump, meanwhile, suggested the death penalty for the perpetrator, while also insisting that if Etz Chaim had employed armed guards, the massacre might have been prevented.
Two points seem worth further discussion: the rise of right wing nationalism in the U.S. — as well as in many other democracies, including Israel and Germany –, and alongside it, the hope of a rise in alliances between advocates for minority rights and recognition, such as the acts of solidarity by the Muslim American community on behalf of “our Jewish neighbors,” and joint efforts of black and Jewish activists and advocates. We ourselves have been moved to learn more about the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a non-profit organization dedicated to refugee resettlement and public advocacy on behalf of “the most vulnerable migrants.”
Still, it would be wrong for the lesson we draw from this horrific and senseless slaughter to simply be one of hope for new commitments to solidarity between groups targeted by white supremacists, in the face of escalating violence. As Noah Kulwin wrote in Jewish Currents, “The resurgence of public antisemitism over the past few years has now finally matured into that distinct, horrifying American tradition: the mass shooting.” This, Kulwin rightly notes, is not some spontaneous irruption in the wake of Trumpism, but rather “the latest chapter in the ongoing story of American white supremacist violence.”
Irit has been studying antisemitism and philosemitism in Germany. In Germany today, loving the Jews is a social impetus that reflects a sense of protecting democracy. And it is a multifaceted love — full of awe, fear, attraction, and rejection. The Trump administration, meanwhile, is openly antisemitic, anti-immigration, nativist, and racist. The Jewish community in Pittsburgh recognized this, protesting Trump’s presence and politics as unwelcome, and communicating that unless the president addresses the politics of hate behind the worst antisemitic attack in the history of the U.S., the condolences he and his Jewish entourage have offered are void.
These events reminded us of an article published earlier this year in Public Seminar, in which Adam Michnik remarked that when the Polish state resorted to antisemitism 1968, it was time to move from “improving Communism” to “protecting ourselves.” But this administration doesn’t need Communism or Nazism to wield power: hatred and hate speech spread and fester in social media, as the New York Times observed. While we don’t want to make a false equivalence between the “effectiveness” of spreading hate through governmental acts (as we see in the U.S., Hungary, and Israel today) and inciting to violence on social media, we are struck by the connection between the current climate of hate and fear, and the fear-mongering policies and everyday actions pursued by government leaders and other state actors. It is there, in the language and action of this mediated public sphere, that we should look and act for change, in solidarity with our sisters and brothers who have been marginalized and excluded before us.