Katy Burns: Anti-Semitism goes on forever

Monitor columnist
Published: 11/4/2018 12:25:08 AM

In August 1790, after George Washington’s first visit to Rhode Island as the new nation’s first president, he wrote several letters to groups there expressing his deep appreciation for the warm welcome he’d been given by the people.

The first letter has become known as Washington’s “Letter to the Jews of Newport.” Among other things, he wrote:

“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants – while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

It was an era when official state religions were the norm, and the Bill of Rights – the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution – had not yet been ratified by the individual states and was still being debated. That included the all-important First Amendment, with its guarantee of freedom of religion and religious worship for all people, so Washington’s letter was particularly notable in its assurances that Jews were as welcome in these young United States as all other citizens.

Washington’s words – almost biblical in tone – have been repeatedly evoked since the brutal slaughter in Pittsburgh a week ago of 11 worshippers and the wounding of six others in an invasion of the Tree of Life Synagogue by a man wielding several guns and shouting to all in earshot, “All Jews must die!” and “I want to kill Jews!”

They were sentiments he repeatedly expressed to officers after his arrest.

The synagogue shooting was one of the increasingly frequent episodes where disturbed domestic terrorists turn on their fellow citizens to vent their hatreds, most recently in the previous week when a well-armed white man, unable to get into a locked black church in Louisville, Ky., went to a nearby grocery store where he murdered two black customers before he was apprehended by the police.

But the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre was the only one clearly targeting a defenseless Jewish community and thus became part of the sorry history of violent anti-Semitism that seems destined to plague the human race until the end of time.

Like (I would hope) most Americans, I do not understand anti-Semitism. The fact that it has been entrenched in our society for many centuries frightens me. Its implacable hatred and apparent vigor even after the horrors of Europe in the 20th century terrify me.

While neither my husband nor I are Jewish, we’ve had Jewish co-workers and friends all our adult lives. They’re people we’ve respected, liked, even loved – people of intelligence, wit, wisdom, compassion and warmth who make the world around them just a little bit better by their presence.

We are fearful for them.

And this is personal for us. We have two young nieces – talented and educated, eager to give back to the world that nurtured them as they blossomed into adulthood – who are Jewish and attend services. Their mother, my sister, isn’t Jewish but spends time with friends at the Jewish community center in their city.

Anti-Semitism makes them all targets when things like this happen. We want to wrap them all up and keep them safely away from the bigotry and malevolence of the haters, the raging violence of the killers.

But – much as we might like to – we can’t.

Nor could armed guards – President Trump’s preferred solution – have helped, despite the president’s flat assertion immediately after the shooting. “If there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him,” he told reporters with great assurance before boarding Air Force One to attend a raucous rally with his fans.

Does he not understand that there are synagogues and Jewish community centers in cities across the country, many offering people – children and adults – everything from services and religious instruction to recreational facilities with art, cultural and fitness programs, all of which give a determined assassin a wealth of possible targets?

There aren’t – and never will be – enough armed guards in the country to deter truly determined homicidal anti-Semites. Not 24 hours a day, not seven days a week.

And the Tree of Life Synagogue – such a wonderful name, such a heinous event – does have armed protection present on high holy days when the synagogue is filled to overflowing. But not at a quiet service when only the most faithful worshippers are present – people like the 97-year-old woman who for decades had made the synagogue the core of her life before she was gunned down. Or the youngest two victims – as in most religions today, many of the most faithful congregants are aging – who were brothers in their 50s, intellectually challenged and devout, who delighted in greeting other worshippers who in turn treasured them.

Interestingly the synagogue’s rabbi, Jeffrey Meyers, three months earlier had condemned in what someone called “sharp tones” the failure of lawmakers to address gun violence, although “I feel that the status quo will remain unchanged,” he wrote.

The rising tide of violence had helped a friend persuade him to bring his phone to services – formerly he’d not carried it on the Sabbath – and he was able to call for help immediately, but it still wasn’t quick enough to prevent the carnage.

And Trump’s preferred solution to so many of these shooter tragedies – citizens arming themselves – would be worse than armed guards. Can you imagine a room filled with septuagenarians, octogenarians and nonagenarians, all whipping out their weapons and aiming at . . . well, anyone? Anything?

There are no ready solutions to the scourge of anti-Semitism. But whenever we tolerate it – in a tasteless joke or an anti-Semitic insult or an ignorant generalization that stereotypes and dehumanizes the Jewish people – without speaking out, we keep the monster alive.

It is a monster, and it kills.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

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