The past week has been filled with horrible news, of a racist attack in a grocery store in Kentucky and more than a dozen pipe bombs mailed to critics of our president throughout the country. Many people we know are wandering around, dazed, wondering if we are still living in the country known as the United States.
After a year and a half in which civil discourse in this country has gone straight to hell, the gravity of the situation in Pittsburgh feels like a deeper well, an ancient wound, and one that we might have difficulty comprehending if we hadn’t spent some time here, throughout our lives, with people who survived the Holocaust. We are losing people who hold these memories every day, and with them, we are losing the knowledge of the peril we now face.
Anti-Semitism is one of the oldest and most virulent forms of hatred. You might say the beliefs of the anti-Semite are just about the oldest tropes known to the civilized world. We aren’t going to give those tropes the credence of mention here. You have probably heard them, and they are absurd, as many conspiracy theories tend to be.
And they are different from many other forms of hatred, both in their simultaneous religious and racial tones, and in their seeming envy of the success of many Jewish people.
When a society turns on the Jews in its midst, it often does so quickly, like the tide cresting a bulkhead and pouring in on the streets. It seems many of us are harboring secret anti-Semitic thoughts that we don’t express until we are given a cue from society at large that our views are ok.
We’ve heard many East End locals express such views over the years, with righteous certitude and full conviction and little care to whether we personally know what kind of evil can come from this form of prejudice.
The truth is that when a society begins to persecute the Jews in its midst, none of us are safe. Throughout history the Jewish people have proven to be the canary in the coal mine of intolerance. Once the wall is broken that makes anti-Semitism ok, there’s room for plenty more hatred to come through.
Like religious people everywhere, people of the Jewish faith carry with them a mental pledge to do their part to heal the world. In Hebrew, this doctrine is called Tikkun Olam, a pledge to change the world for the better.
Worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill were engaged in just such work on Saturday, Oct. 27, holding a service honoring the work of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a group that has its origins in helping Jewish survivors of anti-Semitism in Russia and Germany, but has since expanded its mission to help immigrants, refugees and strangers from throughout the world.
It was because of this congregation’s support for HIAS that a gunman murdered 11 people, many of whom were old enough to have remembered when the United States served as a beacon for hope at a time when Europe was running mad with anti-Semitism.
This coming Friday, Nov. 9, will be the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the so-called “night of broken glass” in 1938, in which anti-Jewish mobs roamed the streets of Germany, breaking the windows of Jewish-owned businesses and synagogues and setting in motion the Nazi policies that led to the Holocaust.
Few of us left alive here in America have first-hand memories of what happened that night, and the survivors’ pledge to never forget has been treated roughly by the hand of time.
It’s been said that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. This is a very old tune. It does not have to be a song we sing in our young nation. It is up to each and every one of us to heal our world.