This blog is hard to write.
I sit writing in America, a place I haven’t visited in 1.5 years since I made aliyah and became an Israeli citizen.
This trip, hard-earned, is something I’ve waited for for a long time. A chance to reconnect to my American-ness, to eat delicious affordable Asian food, to see signs in English, to feel at home. Israel is my home, and America, even if I’m not here most of the year, is also my home. And it always will be in some sense. It is a part of who I am no matter where I go.
So it was to my great shock that just a few days after landing, I heard about the anti-Semitic terrorist attack in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh is not any city for me- it’s where half of my family is from. It’s a place I’ve visited since I was a little kid. One that is distinctly a part of my life experience. My cover photo is a picture of my grandfather’s grave in Adath Jeshurun Cemetery, right outside Pittsburgh.
Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where the attack took place, is a place I’ve visited and heard about many times. A place I’ve eaten good Jewish deli food. A place where I still know people. One friend I spoke to stayed locked in her home for the day with her kids, afraid to go outside. And in all likelihood, some of the terror victims are probably related to me in this tight-knit community. A community shattered by a never-ending hatred increasingly rearing its head in the Land of the Free.
This is America in 2018.
When my family, on both sides, came to America, it was to escape persecution. Anti-Semitism is not new- and to the chagrin of some folks turning this into a political spectacle- it is not something miraculously awakened by Donald Trump. I do think Trump and his most extreme supporters have made things worse by normalizing bombastic, hateful speech. With little care for the consequences. Words matter- and can inspire crazed people to harm others. But I think we must be careful to remember this tragedy is first and foremost about Jews. Indeed, the psychotic animal who killed 12 people this Shabbat actually hated Trump for being “controlled” by Jews. Anti-Semitic attacks by both neo-Nazis and Islamic extremists have been happening all across Europe and indeed America. For generation after generation.
The mainstream media rarely covers these stories. Or gives them the attention they deserve. Just this past year, an elderly Holocaust survivor was murdered in her Paris apartment for being a Jew. The Belgian Jewish Museum was attacked by Islamic terrorists just a couple years ago, killing several people. And, perhaps to your surprise, Jews are the single largest target for hate crimes in the United States. And in the United Kingdom. And not just the past two years. For what it’s worth, two UK politicians have blamed Israel for the attack in Pittsburgh. As they stand on the precipice of electing the most anti-Semitic leader in the Western World- Jeremy Corbyn.
Of course, the debate right after the attack turned to gun control, to Trump, to elections, to the never-ending arguments plaguing this country that I so love. For what it’s worth, I support gun control and think it’s patently absurd how easy it is to get guns in this country. It is immoral, it is dangerous, it is stupid. I don’t care if you want to go hunt a deer- do whatever you want. But you don’t need 20 semi-automatic weapons without a background check. America- grow up. This isn’t the 1700s and you don’t need a militia- your government has nuclear weapons. If things get so bad, your rifle won’t really help. I’m frankly more scared of you.
But I think it’s worth pointing out that gun control is only one piece of the picture. And frankly, I think starting the debate about this terror attack in this fashion is demeaning. This attack is about one thing and one thing only: Jews being killed for being Jewish. This isn’t a school shooting- it’s a synagogue. Both are heart-wrenching, but this was done with a different intent. It targeted Jews for being Jews, purposefully. And even if we have (necessary) gun control, it won’t stop anti-Semitic terror. Just ask European Jews who have to have armed guards and soldiers protect their synagogues. When I visited synagogues across the continent, I often had to provide my passport info a week in advance, provide Jewish references, and be screened for entry.
It’s a reality Jewish institutions across Europe have sadly become accustomed to as they try to preserve life on the continent my family called home for 2,000 years. With the highest levels of anti-Semitism since the Holocaust. What a short memory this continent has.
It’s a reality that American Jews are about to face themselves. They- we- are already facing it.
My synagogue growing up had huge boulders outside the sanctuary to prevent Islamic terrorists from driving car bombs into our prayers. But you could always come visit for services without background checks- just as open as any church around the corner.
Now, that is over. American Jewish innocence is gone. Whereas we were once the envy of European Jews under siege by far-left anti-Semites calling for the destruction of Israel and far-right neo-Nazis smashing Kosher restaurants to bits. Today, we are no different. Today, we remembered that in the end, we’re Jews. Sometimes the world forces this identity on us. We might wish to be accepted, to be welcomed, to be tolerated. And sometimes and by some people, we truly are. But in the end, we are at the mercy of the majority. And while a majority of Americans might not hate us, they also don’t care enough to protect us.
That’s blunt talk for you. And I’ll explain what I mean.
I don’t think most Americans are anti-Semites. I grew up with anti-Semitism- yes even in liberal suburban Maryland- but it was mild compared to what we saw in Pittsburgh and certainly compared to the violent attacks plaguing Europe. I think America, perhaps due to our founding principles and our large Jewish community, is still a better place to be a Jew than Europe. Something I’m thankful for. I’m glad my great-grandparents didn’t stay in Romania to become nothing but dust in desecrated cemeteries. It is thanks to their bravery I am alive and American and now living in our homeland.
But I do want to know where are the Americans today? At a time when you see thousands upon thousands of Americans- rightly in my opinion- rallying for immigrants, for refugees, for Muslims, for women. Where are the massive protests for Jews? Not a couple thousand people. Masses. Not framed as gun control, or mental healthcare, or election rallies. But for Jews as Jews. And fellow Americans.
I don’t want vigils. I want protests. I want action. I want justice. And your sympathy doesn’t interest me. I want to know what you’re going to do to help us. Because we’re 2% of the population and we can’t protect ourselves without your support. Republican and Democratic, liberal and conservative, Christian and Muslim, everyone.
Jews put our lives on the line to defend others. I, along with many Jews, are active in supportive refugees’ rights. HIAS, the Jewish refugee rights group attacked in the shooters’ social media posts, is a group I’ve been involved with for years. When I lived in Washington, I used to tutor Latino immigrants for their citizenship exams. With HIAS and other young Jewish professionals. Dedicating our time and energy to help people who remind us of our great-grandparents who made this country our home. Who HIAS brought here, to safety.
The question is- where are these communities when we need support? Some of them are rallying, and I appreciate it. Muslims have raised tens of thousands of dollars for Tree of Life synagogue. No doubt, Latinos, African-Americans, White Americans, and others have spoken out for our rights.
But I do not see the kind of mass movement necessary to stop this phenomenon. That puts Jews at the center of this conversation as opposed to a convenient political tool to smash your ideological opponents in either direction.
So I want to hear more. I want to see more refugees demonstrating as refugees thanking us for our support. Support that cost us lives to save theirs. Something I still believe in.
I want to see mosques raising Israeli flags in solidarity. Money is great- but I also want to see that you understand why we have Israel now. That when we face these kinds of attacks on a massive scale, Israel is the refuge we can go to. Which is why there are 4,000 Jews left in Morocco and 300,000 Moroccan Jews in Israel. Who lost everything they own to a corrupt and anti-Semitic regime, no less brutal than the shooter in Pittsburgh.
I want to see more non-Jews studying Judaism. Not just the Holocaust, but 2,000 years of persecution. And not only that, but our civilization, our culture, our life. To understand us. Jews know so much more about our Christian neighbors than most of them bother to learn about us. We are not just a Bible verse- we are your neighbors. Your countrymen. And you owe it to us to take some time out of your today to learn something about us beyond what a Menorah looks like. Our history is valuable, our culture meaningful, and you could stand to learn something from our persistence and our worldview. We are not just to be tolerated- we have something to teach you.
The people who gather to rally against Israeli “apartheid”, who decry Jewish “privilege”- where are you now? Where are your protests? Where is your anger? I don’t want your sadness, I want your passion. I want you to care as much about us as you do about people you’ve never met in a news story from halfway around the world.
If I’m honest with you, I sometimes think about moving back to America. I’m enjoying visiting now and although I’m not in Pittsburgh, I feel the aches and pains of this country no matter where I am. Even sitting on the shores of the Mediterranean. Because I care about the place where I spent 30 years of my life living. Where my ancestors found refuge. Where we built the greatest Jewish civilization since 1500s Spain. One that, much like the latter, is showing signs of fragility in a way that scares me.
One thing I’ve learned from this trip, these two months of exploration, is that anti-Semitism will follow you whether you like it or not. When I needed a break from Judaism and Israel, I soon found myself defending my people as I roamed Europe. Relentlessly stereotyped and aggressively attacked by anti-Semites.
It’s not because all Europeans (or Americans) are anti-Semitic. I met wonderful, open-minded people curious about our culture. And I appreciate them more than you can imagine.
It’s just that this ancient hatred is everywhere. And you can’t avoid it. That’s not the time we live in. I’m not sure we have ever been able to avoid it, but the fantasy we lived in is over. The fantasy that America was immune, was different- it’s gone. It may have never been the paradise we dreamed of- anti-Semitism has a not-so-subtle past here too. But if we’re honest, we thought that those times were mostly over. And our country had progressed beyond these wild sentiments to become a place where Jews are leaders in commerce, in law, in politics, in media, in academia- in all the places anti-Semites claim we control. Fueling the world’s conflicts, crashing economies, manipulating and conspiring. Although oddly we can’t manage to prevent people from shooting up our synagogues or blowing up pizzerias in Tel Aviv.
In the end, I’m from Pittsburgh. Three generations of my family have lived there and it is a part of my life. I remember the special smiley cookies I used to get there as a kid, I remember the incline you can take up the cliffs to see the three rivers converge, I remember the white chocolate cheesecake I loved at the train station-turned-restaurant on the waterside. I remember the botanical gardens. I remember the Church Brew Works.
I remember the deli where I ate delicious whitefish salad in Squirrel Hill. A neighborhood now missing a dozen souls. Whose lives were crushed by anti-Semitic hatred, a fiery malevolence we can never truly understand.
I implore my fellow Americans to stand with us- and not silently. To act with the same urgency that you do when a school is shot, when a mosque is defaced, when women are demeaned by our public discourse and our legislation. Rally. March. Speak up.
I don’t want your Facebook posts, I want your heart. And your feet pounding the pavement demanding answers from ideological firebrands attacking us from both extremes.
This shooting was about Jews- first and foremost. Put aside your ballot for just one moment. Mourn with us, march with us. We’ll get to the other issues- I promise. We care about them too.
But today isn’t about you. It’s about us.
I can hardly pretend that seeing a terror attack against Jews in America is surprising as an Israeli (we’re used to anti-Semitic terror- I had an almost eerily calm reaction when I first heard about it). But it did shock me as an American. This is the worst anti-Semitic attack on American soil, in our entire history.
I feel blessed to be heading on an airplane in a few days back home. From home to home. From past to present.
Because while I will continue to advocate for my American Jewish brothers and sisters, for me there is only one place on the planet where I feel empowered to protect myself. Where I don’t have to rely on the good will of the people around me to survive and thrive and be my Jewish self.
It’s a place that’s complicated, that’s difficult to live in, but at the end of the day, when someone points a gun at my Jewish soul, we can point a gun right back.
It’s called Israel. And if you don’t support its existence, you’re no better than the man bludgeoning my people to death for daring to pray in Hebrew in a city my family called home.
America- if you didn’t understand why we need such a state before this massacre, I hope you get it now. But in the end, even if you don’t, that’s why I live there and not here. Because my existence there isn’t dependent on your understanding, however much I still want it.
It’s dependent on us.
May the memories of the dead be for a blessing. And may it inspire the Jewish people everywhere to live, to come together, to grow. And for our non-Jewish neighbors to stand up for us before they find our once-thriving communities turned into the history exhibits that fill the European continent with tourist attractions. Rather than living beings.
10 thoughts on “I’m from Pittsburgh”
It’s not only in Europe where synagogues and other Jewish institutions are like fortresses. It’s the same thing in South and Central America, especially in the wake of the 1994 AMIA attack in Buenos Aires.
Agreed- a sad reality of Jewish life around the world. And now, the U.S.