Pittsburgh

Marking Yom HaShoah in 2019

This is the text of the letter I sent out to the Babson College community today,
on the eve of Yom HaShoah:

Thursday is Yom HaShoah, the annual day in the Jewish calendar that commemorates the annihilation of European Jewry during World War II. Seventy-four years after the liberation of Auschwitz and the defeat of the Nazis, it is a time for sober reflection about what the legacy of the Holocaust means to us who are now three and four generations removed from it.

In truth, all Jews today carry within them the legacy of the SHOAH (the Jewish term for the events called “the Holocaust”), although each carries it in a different way. Many Jews have branches on their family trees that simply break off. Others grew up with memories passed down from grandparents and great-grandparents about survival in the most miraculous, or most horrific, of circumstances. Others simply know the stories, and have a vague sense of responsibility because of the legacy of this painful history. It is part of us, forever.

Yom HaShoah seems especially resonant this year. Surveys of Americans tell us dispiriting news. Two-thirds of millenials (and 41% of all Americans) do not know what Auschwitz was; 22% of them never heard of the Holocaust (or aren’t sure if they have). The remaining survivors of the death camps are elderly today; in a few years, there will be no living eyewitnesses to the crimes of the Nazis and their enablers.

And the emerging trends of hate, violence, and white supremacy are on our minds this year. The murderous attack at the Chabad synagogue of Poway, California last week - six months after the massacre of Jews on a Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh - in the name of white nationalism conjures up great horror among us on this Yom HaShoah.

This week, the ADL released its annual study of antisemitism in America. In 2018, it recorded 1,879 antisemitic incidents in the United States, including the bloodiest in American history (the assault in Pittsburgh). This number is the third-highest annual number that the ADL has ever recorded. This is why many Jews, young and old, are asking questions we've never asked in our lifetimes:  How safe are we here, really? 

What is there to say or do? I think the answer from Jewish tradition is twofold. There is a famous saying by the great sage Hillel from over 2,000 years ago (it would be a cliché if it weren’t so perfectly accurate):  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

If I am not for myself”— this is why Jews take the legacy of the Shoah so personally. Jewish survival, and its transmission to the next generation, is an absolute obligation for us; the Shoah makes that message only more profound. This is part of what the State of Israel means to us: There is a refuge; a safe place (recalling that the whole world, including America, turned its backs on many victims of the Nazis); and, not insignificantly, a Jewish army to defend itself. The Shoah isn’t the reason Israel exists (its roots extend far earlier than the War), but it does explain the passion with which its supporters will defend it.

In other words, this response to the Shoah is: AM YISRAEL CHAIThe Jewish People lives. And every Jew has a responsibility to make it so. 

But if I am only for myself”— That “but” is crucial. The Shoah didn’t start with death camps; it began with the increasing dehumanization of Jews, and propaganda that gradually eroded rights and liberties to the point where we were turned into something less-than-fully-human. Denial of rights leads to oppression. And that leads to neighbors abandoning and attacking neighbors; which led to genocide. It was systematic, it was thoughtfully planned, and it was almost successful.

This idea, too, seems particularly profound in 2019. The massacres of Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand remain a fresh wound. As does the assault on Christians in Sri Lanka. And the burning of three black churches in Louisiana last month. Just to cite the three most notorious, and most recent, examples of the current rise of hateful violence. 

In other words, the other commanding voice of the Shoah is to stand up against the dehumanization of anyone, anywhere. To say to every tyrant: “Not on our watch.” To know and understand our neighbors - and to defend and protect them.

That is what is at stake in the memory of the Shoah. That is what we mean when we say “Never Again.”

Look, It's about White Supremacy

No, the terrorist attack in Pittsburgh is not “incomprehensible.”

I write from the suburbs of Chicago, where I’m visiting for the weekend – not far from Skokie where, forty years ago, a band of Illinois Nazis sought to march in full regalia. Why Skokie? Because in the 1970s it was not only densely Jewish, but also because it had the highest concentration of Holocaust survivors of any other municipality in America. Sticking their hate in the faces of Shoah victims was a tactic for noxious, evil people to most provocatively display their message—one that keeps surfacing since the 2016 political campaign, and Charlottesville, and now Pittsburgh: “You (Jew) will not replace us.”

The massacre of Jews at prayer at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Shabbat morning was first and foremost a crime against Jews: the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history. Victims do not appreciate having crimes against them universalized. This attack was specifically against Jews, in a Jewish place, marking a moment in Jewish time (Shabbat; and the bris celebrating a baby boy’s arrival into the covenant of the Jewish people).

It is crucial to understand that antisemitism is not “generic bigotry.” It is specifically anti-Jewish hatred, incubated throughout the centuries and always ready to take root in the fertile soil of the far left and the far right.

In the taxonomy of hate, antisemitism has specific characteristics. Similarly, Islamophobia has its own unique expressions, and Muslims’ experience of bigotry is uniquely their own. So, too, for anti-black racism. And homophobia. And all the other special hatreds that the human soul has devised for itself.

However, there is a line that connects modern American hate together, and that line is white supremacy, which has plagued this country from its founding to today.

It’s a thread that runs from the days when Americans owned people of a certain color skin. It was enshrined in a Constitution that considered such a man 3/5 of a human being. It is self-evident on the slobbering faces of white celebrants at lynchings.

It was there when an antisemitic mob murdered Leo Frank in 1915. It runs through the internment camps in which Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during World War II. It was on the MS St. Louis which was turned away from Florida’s shores, bringing its doomed passengers back across the Atlantic to the clutches of the Nazis. It lingers in Quran-burnings by hypocritical preachers, and in vandalized mosques.

It was there in Skokie, and in the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Miami. And it’s there in the denigration of refugees as something less-than-human.

The perpetrator of the Tree of Life slaughter made his motivations perfectly clear (no, the crime is not “incomprehensible”). He despised Jews in general, and in particular for their perceived role in protecting refugees from seeking sanctuary in America. He called out HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), and claimed a last straw to save America from invading armies of dark-colored immigrants, as manipulated by sinister Jewish forces.

He told us why. It’s not incomprehensible. Just evil.

White supremacy, white nationalism, whatever you want to call it: it’s the moral rot eating at American democracy since the beginning.

The only peace I can find is that another parallel line likewise runs through the American soul. From the unique experience of a specific group, we can come to partially and incompletely come to understand the suffering (and, I hope, the aspirations and joys) of another group. This is empathy, the greatest of human virtues. Occasionally we confront fellow humans who are completely lacking in this trait. But the gatherings and the vigils of the past few days tell me that it’s possible, at least, that a coalition of decency can arise.

Jonathan Greenblatt said it quite eloquently: You have to have zero tolerance for this.

If your candidate is attacking George Soros or the “globalists,” or a member of Congress from your party is embracing Holocaust deniers, you must stand up and tell them to stop.

If your allies in a range of social justice causes either explain away the anti-Semitism of the Nation of Islam by citing the good work they may do or justify demonizing the Jewish state of Israel and its existence, then they need to know that they can no longer be your ally.

If your favorite social media platform continues to refuse to remove anti-Semitic garbage from its site, then vote with your clicks and deactivate your account.

When we consider this horror in the days and weeks to come, we should keep that in mind. It is about the poisonous sprout of white supremacy – and those who would enable it with their silent nods and coded dog whistles.