Sunday, October 24, 2021

Op-ed: The Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and the Jewish soul

The killing of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh during a Shabbat, or Sabbath, service recently may have shocked the nation. It did not shock most Jews. Anti-Semitism goes back thousands of years. During the days of the Roman Empire, there were already caustic descriptions of Jews in literature and riots against Jews in cities.

Bias, discrimination and prejudice are nothing new. Jews are obviously not the only targets, nor is anti-Semitic violence more significant than violence against people of color.

We, in America, do not face the systemic discrimination that many communities of color do. When I say that anti-Semitism is a problem, I am not saying it is a more important problem than racism. I am not saying it is a more deadly problem than homophobic violence. I am saying that anti-Semitism is a problem my people have faced for at least 2000 years and that the current sources of anti-Semitic language, rhetoric and violence are also targeting other, more vulnerable communities.

As Jews, we have seen how bad things can get when we start to hear voices in government speaking against us. We think back to pogroms, anti-Jewish riots, in Eastern Europe. These were not organized by governments, but were certainly tolerated and even encouraged by official language and policies.

We think back to Spain in 1492, when all Jews were expelled from a land which had been their home for more than 500 years. And, obviously, we think back to the Holocaust, when six million of us were slaughtered, many others were forced to flee, and the Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe were almost entirely destroyed.

When I reflect on the 11 Jews murdered in Pittsburgh, I wish I did not have such a clear historical framework to fit their deaths into.

I wish this truly was shocking to me. I wish that I did not have religious language to use to refer to their deaths because this was a new event.

But I do. They died “al kiddush HaShem,” for the sanctification of God’s name, our term for those who are martyred for being Jewish. And, on our holiest day of the year, we include a section recalling those who have died as martyrs.

Here’s the thing, though: anti-Semitism has been different at different times. Sometimes, it has been religious in nature with sayings like, “We hate them because they reject the divinity of Jesus.” Sometimes, it has been racial in nature, such as the Nazi’s belief that Jews were an inferior race. Sometimes, it has been economic like the myths of the rich Jews. Sometimes it has been political, as in this case, in which the killer targeted this congregation because of its support for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization that helps resettle refugees.

And there have always been the popular crackpot conspiracy theories, like Jews use the blood of Christian children to make matzoh, or Soros is paying for the caravan, or Jews have secret control over the world government.

Even in the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting, the Jewish community knows we are not the most vulnerable population in this country. But we definitely do know what it means to be vulnerable, and our tradition calls on us to stand with the vulnerable, even in our own vulnerability.

Rabbi David Kominsky serves as spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh and teaches Introduction to Judaism at Plattsburgh State.

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