The Tree of Life and the Roots of Violence
By Brandon Heiblum
There is particular salience in the thought of dying during prayer. Jewish prayer relies heavily on themes of peace and protection and serves for many as a conduit for safety and security. To interrupt these meditations with bloodshed- on the sabbath, and during a bris no less - is in one way the ultimate irony and in another the ultimate attack. The synagogue is for Jews perhaps the most tangible symbol we have for community, and the community is perhaps the most tangible symbol we have for Judaism. On the morning of October 27th, our symbols and our safety were gruesomely assaulted in the deadliest massacre against Jews in American history.
One prominent aspiration of anti-Semitic violence is the dehumanization of its victims and their community at large. In Squirrel Hill, the shooting could not have had a more opposite effect. The stories of the dead are filled with life and their memories are now ingrained in the fabric of the entire American Jewry. Rose Mallinger was 97 and attending services with her daughter Andrea, who watched helplessly as her mother bled to death. Richard Gottfried was “everyone’s dentist,” and worked with interfaith couples to ease their transitions into marriage. Melvin Wax was 87 and would constantly say that the greatest joy in his life was his grandson. Irving Younger, a former little league coach, always insisted on helping congregates find their seats and their prayer books, despite them being in the same place every time. Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, was a pillar in the local medical community, and is remembered for pioneering HIV/AIDS treatment at a time when empathy for patients was regrettably scarce. Daniel Stein, 71, attended synagogue every single week without fail. Joyce Fienberg, 75, was a research specialist at the University of Pittsburgh, where for 30 years she cultivated close student relationships. Cecil and David Rosenthal were two brothers who were said to be inseparable, in life and in death. Bernice and Sylvan Simon, who died in the same room in which they wed more than 60 years ago, shared the last moments of their long life together while berated by gunfire, screams, and blood.
Yet this is not nothing new. There exists ample archaeological and anthropological evidence of ancient discrimination, from the anti-Jewish edicts promulgated by Antiochus Epiphanes around 170 BCE (which sparked the Judean Maccabee revolt) to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In the middle ages, Jews were subject to mass atrocities during the Crusades, expelled from England and France, and accused of the “Blood Libel,” or the charge that Jews would kidnap Christian children and drink their blood during ceremonies. Blame was also placed on Jews for the spreading the Black Plague, and in the 15th century, the Inquisition expelled, tortured, and killed Spanish and Portuguese Jewish victims. Later, the 19th century saw massive Pogroms and domestic violence target Jewish communities across Central and Eastern Europe, and the 1930’s and 40’s saw the largest organized genocide in human history take the lives of over 6 million Jews. These examples, albeit incomplete, sufficiently convey that violence against Jews is not novel to the 21st century. They also show, however, the staggering importance of confronting the anti-Semitic rhetoric that fuels this violence in an unflinching and uncompromising way- as well as acknowledging that such rhetoric has gained currency in the American political discourse.
Almost singularly at fault for this descent is the insidious American right-wing, of which Donald Trump is ultimately a symptom and not a cause. Still, as its natural heir, increased scrutiny is owed to Donald Trump’s rhetorical effect on the domestic political climate. One could point to evidence of Donald Trump’s personal anti-Semitism, like his 1991 quote that “The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day,” or his inexplicable insistence on calling satirist Jon Stewart by his birth name Jonathan Leibowitz over twitter. Coming inelegantly to his own defense in February of 2015, he said that “one of his favorite daughters is Jewish!” None of this is to mention that Trump’s modern political prominence is owed to his “Birther” campaign, which is predicated on the notion that America’s first black president is foreign born, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
More worrisome, however, is his bigoted rhetoric while in pursuit of or while holding the highest office in the land. Trump began his campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists and drug dealers.” In March of 2016, Trump released a statement calling for a "total and complete" block on Muslims entering the United States. Months later, Trump tweeted an image of a Hillary Clinton behind a Jewish star and a pile of money, a common anti-Semitic trope, before it was quickly deleted. He once suggested that “the 2nd amendment people” could “do something” about Clinton, which was criticized by democrats as an implicit call for violence and by Speaker Paul Ryan as “a joke gone wrong.” He further accused Clinton of meeting “in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich global financial powers,” which comes close to plagiarizing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion word-for-word. He incessantly floats conspiracies about Jewish billionaire George Soros and has a penchant for the term globalist, which is considered a dog-whistle for white nationalists. Following the death of Heather Heyer at the hands of white supremacists in Charlottesville last August, he claimed there to be “fine people on both sides” and delayed two full days before disavowing the support of KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. During a cabinet meeting in early January, Trump asked “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” and on June 19th accused democrats of wanting to “infest the country with illegal immigrants.”
In their aggregate, these instances- and countless others- amount to what can only be described as a concerted effort to dehumanize, demonize and marginalize the other. Such is not an atypical pattern of behavior for aspiring demagogues. A prominent theme among Nazi propogandists was the labeling of non-Aryans as Untermenschen—subhuman, and more specifically as insect or rodent-like. After all, is extermination not the logical consequence of infestation?
Had this been the invective of a controversial reality TV star, they would merely be drops in the vast pool of American bigotry. From the President of the United States however, they amount to implicit institutional support for and a formal endorsement of, in no uncertain terms, the creation of a society predicated on the marginalization of minority groups as a means of crafting a white ethno-state. Trump exploits America’s ugliest fears and anxieties for political gain, lies with impunity, and relies on division as if it were his lifeblood. He has characterized the media as “The enemy of the people,” and his frequent use of the term “Fake News’ is nothing short of a dystopian assault on the idea of truth itself. So long as Donald Trump and his acrimonious posse of sycophant enablers are normalized by the mainstream, such rhetoric will maintain its currency in the political discourse. The result of this has historically been violence, and as Jews are more than aware of, history tends to repeat itself.
*The Bris is a Jewish religious male circumcision ceremony performed by a mohel on the eighth day of the infant's life- analogous to a baby naming
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