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Welcome the stranger. Defend democracy. And defend ourselves.

Some perhaps surprising initial thoughts about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

First things first.

The shootings are despicable and outrageous, and they are both awful in themselves and a symptom of a much deeper and more extensive poison that is being spread throughout the country by Donald Trump and by every politician, whether Republican or Democrat, who in any way draws from his neo-fascist rhetorical arsenal. Trump is not himself a neo-Nazi, and the most recent fanatic indeed appears to hate Trump for being insufficiently racist. But Trump has been soft on neo-Nazis, his administration has drawn close to white supremacist groups and ideologues, and he is spreading a poisonous rhetoric of resentment and fear and hatred that is taking on a life of its own—and he keeps spreading it, being the idiot-narcissist that he is, and thinking only of his own very narrow political/adulatory agenda.

The rhetoric is extremely dangerous, and it is inciting, and giving aid and comfort, to very extremist, and extremely violent and dangerous, forces.

I condemn it, as a human being, as an American citizen, and as a Jewish person who is a Jewish-American.

I also condemn Trump’s words in the wake of this horrific attack, for they are insincere and disingenuous and they continue to stoke hatred.

And because I am a staunch opponent of Trumpism, including Trump’s awful approach to immigration and to border politics, I am happy to join together with so many other friends to celebrate, support, and donate to HIAS, a terrific organization whose motto is “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee.” A truly wonderful motto.

The acronym HIAS stands for Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, something that it is not immediately apparent on its website. The organization has its origins in the turn of the 20th century efforts of Jewish immigrants in New York City to provide support and mutual aid to fellow Jews, often family members, fleeing oppression. Hospitality toward strangers is a core liberal Jewish value with clear roots in the Torah, and so this mission from its very origins had a universalist dimension. At the same time, it was, and in some sense remains, a “Jewish” organization or at least an organization grounded in a progressive, humanistic understanding of the spiritual and ethical meaning of Judaism.

HIAS does great work in many parts of the world. And it is reviled by neo-Nazis because of this work and also because of its Jewish identity.

I enthusiastically support HIAS because of its work and because of its Jewish identity.

At the same time, as I have watched a certain kind of liberal response to the synagogue shootings unfold, I feel the need to make two points that will perhaps ruffle the feathers of some of my personal and political friends. Both relate the simple fact that the Pittsburgh shooting was an anti-Semitic act that targeted Jews.

First point: while I have enthusiastically donated to HIAS, I also just donated in the same amount to the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL too is a Jewish organization that has pursued a broader and more universalistic mission of opposition to bigotry. It is also an emphatically Jewish organization that visibly announces that it fights anti-Semitism, and whose motto is “We protect the Jewish people and secure justice and fair treatment to all.”

It is wonderful that so many liberals, and especially so many Jewish liberals, have reacted to the synagogue attack by rushing to support HIAS, a refugee support group whose identity is now ecumenical. It is also fairly predictable that many liberal Jews would respond to an attack on Jews by declaring, in effect, “we support universalist values and welcome strangers and defend the rights of the Latinx and Muslim victims of oppression who demand our solidarity and not a closed door or a wall.”

I join them. At the same time, anti-Semitism is very real, and its victims tend not to be Honduran or Syrian refugees, but Jews, few of whom are refugees. Jews in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles and New York and St. Louis and Paris and Budapest and, yes, in Jerusalem. I am not making a point here about Zionism, though it is impossible to seriously consider the issue of anti-Semitism in the contemporary world without understanding the origins of Zionism, and of Israel, in one branch of the struggle of Jews against anti-Semitism. But while I am not making a point about Zionism, I am making a point about the need to engage anti-Semitism for what it is, which is a distinctive form of hatred of Jews. I do not believe that the current forms of anti-Semitism in the U.S. rise to the level of the forms of American racism that justify a movement like Black Lives Matter. But we liberals have no trouble understanding how and why exemplary Black fellow citizens would form a movement with this identity, and have no trouble supporting it. Indeed, whenever anyone says “why not all lives matter?” we immediately reply “because the brutality and prison industrial complex that is being protested mainly hurts Blacks, and Blacks are raising this issue, and we are in solidarity with them.” This solidarity requires taking their history and their identity seriously.

The same should be true for Jews who are attacked for being Jews.

It would thus be wonderful if every justifiably outraged liberal who has rushed to donate to HIAS also rushed to donate to some Jewish organization that is dedicated to a progressive opposition to anti-Semitism. And it would be especially fine if Jewish liberals and leftists did this. Because Jewish liberals and leftists confront a unique set of challenges in the world, and these challenges surely ought to be as important to us as all of the other important challenges we address. Of course, this is only a suggestion. I am an opponent of all forms of ethnic essentialism. Every Jewish person and indeed every person should decide for themselves what matters. But it is interesting that the reflexive response of many to the anti-Semitic murders is to not talk about anti-Semitism but to talk about refugees. (By the way, one exception to this is the Reverend Al Sharpton, who has made a point of talking about Abraham Joshua Heschel and of underscoring distinctive features of the Black-Jewish alliance and the need for solidarity now with Jewish victims of anti-Semitism).

Second point: while I abhor every single word that comes out of Trump’s mouth, and while I think that his comments about “security” in the Pittsburgh synagogue were inappropriate, foolish, and reflect an awful NRA-inspired approach to the world, I must say that I have found the outrage that many friends have expressed to the very idea of “security” to be incredibly foolish.

I do not support arming everybody. I do not believe that talk of placing armed guards in schools or churches or synagogues represents a responsible public policy discussion. The solution to mass shootings is not more guns.

At the same time, as a Jew whose children attended Hebrew school for years, I do not think it is crazy or barbaric or counter-productive or wrong for Jewish synagogues and community centers to take security measures.

An autobiographical interlude: At the turn of the millennium (2000) there was a wave of anti-Semitic acts in the U.S. I was then a very active member of my local congregation. I took the lead in urging my congregation to take security measures. A security camera and a buzzer system were installed. Good communication with the local police department was maintained, and during High Holy Days off-duty police officers were hired to stand guard—just like such officers are hired every Sunday to direct traffic outside megachurches in places like Bloomington. Most importantly, me and two other congregants organized ourselves as an informal, volunteer security team. For around four years I stood outside the synagogue every Wednesday afternoon and every Sunday morning while Hebrew school was in session. Rain or shine. One of my companions was a retired Connecticut State Trooper. One of my companions had a licensed firearm and was well-trained to use it. He never showed it. I do not know whether he actually carried it. But I hope he did.

During that time, we mainly served as very friendly “greeters” to all who entered the building. On a few occasions someone unfamiliar approached, and we made a special effort to engage them. On two occasions someone very “off”—unfamiliar, disheveled, seemingly slightly agitated– approached the building during an “off” time. One time I talked the person away from coming in. A second time I entered with the person and stayed right next to them the entire time they were in the building. They clearly had no hostile intent, and eventually just left. I do not wish to think hard about what might have happened if an armed assailant approached or entered. I know that the main purpose of our “security work” was simply to look like security guards to strangers (I often would stand outside with my very large Shepherd/Husky dog, wearing a black leather jacket and dark sunglasses, as is my wont), and thus to deter anyone with bad motives from even approaching the building. Having one or two people with eyes on the building is not a bad thing. While we were not “armed security guards,” we could have been, and had an assailant sought entry to the building, we would have been either his deterrent or his first targets—in which case others would have been warned.

A great way to spend a Sunday morning? No. But when my kids were in that building, there was nothing else short of an armed security guard that would have been acceptable to me during those years.

That was then and this is now. I don’t know what is now happening at the congregation. I am no longer a member. The fearful atmosphere of the millennium surely faded. But a worse fearfulness has now returned. If I were a member of that congregation, right now, I would be urging some security measures, and the hiring of a part-time security guard might well be included. I am not saying this is necessarily a good idea or that every congregation ought to embrace it. I am simply saying that those people who say things like “Oh God, guns!” are fools. Yes, guns. They are everywhere. And many of the most vicious racists are well armed. And synagogues, unlike public schools or Christian churches, are places that are marked as places where Jews are. Security measures are appropriate for such places, as they are for mosques that might feel similarly endangered, or as they would be for Black churches in places where there has been an upsurge of racism or KKK activity.

This is not a public policy.

It is a form of responsible self-defense.

Many synagogues in Europe employ such measures. Because they are deemed to be necessary.

Such measures are no substitute for gun control, or for public policies to address racism or sexism or gender discrimination or injustice. They are no substitute for healthy relationships between communities everywhere and professional law enforcement officers. They are surely no substitute for organizing politically to defeat Trumpism. But they make perfect sense as forms of self-defense. Contra “Antifa,” they are not a politics. They are civil society initiatives (and I regard actual communities taking security measures to defend themselves as something very different from “black bloc” militants organizing on their own and seeking directly to engage and perhaps provoke racists; but this is another question, and a conversation well worth having too). And in a violent world, they are unfortunately all too often necessary.

I join with my friends in welcoming strangers; opposing all forms of xenophobia, racism and discrimination; and defending democracy.

I also join with fellow Jews, and with all who are in solidarity with us, in standing against anti-Semitism.

It’s possible to do all of these things. And hopefully it is possible for all of these things to be recognized as sensible, legitimate and worthy of support.

 

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Jeffrey C. Isaac

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