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Standing Tall

The tragic Gabrielle Giffords shooting only underscores the need for Jewish public officials to confront anti-Semitism, argues a former White House official

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Gabrielle Giffords speaking supporters in Tucson, Arizona, on election night 2010. (Tom Willett/Getty Images)
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The gunman arrested in connection with the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the deaths of at least five others was clearly delusional, but was he influenced by the toxic rhetoric coursing through the country today?

While it is inappropriate to try to blame mainstream political movements for the tragic shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, there is at least some suggestion that one decidedly non-mainstream and troubling phenomenon—anti-Semitism—was a factor in the attack on Arizona’s first Jewish congresswoman. The deranged alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, was apparently a fan of Mein Kampf and belonged to an anti-Semitic group, which may have helped inspire his deadly rampage. For Jewish officials in public life, the shooting raises the important question of how and whether to acknowledge one’s religion in a world where many people, for a variety of personal and political reasons, want to do Jews harm.

I recently wrote an essay for Mishpacha magazine in which I talked about my own experiences as a Jewish senior official in the Bush Administration. I also discussed the prevalence of Jewish elected officials in the U.S. Congress, including the new House majority leader, Eric Cantor. In response, one reader offered a cautionary letter in which he warned against getting excited over having Jewish officials prominently featured in public life. The correspondent cited the Meshech Chochma, written by Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, Latvia, who wrote in the early 20th century that Jews should be wary of getting too comfortable in a country, lest the native population be reminded of the Jewish people’s otherness and expel them, or worse.

Simcha’s words are even more haunting in light of Jewish history. In his lifetime, Germany, not the United States, was seen as the safest place for Jews to live. Germany was a cultured and advanced society in which Jews had existed, mostly peacefully, for a thousand years. During his lifetime, few would have believed Germany would be the driving force behind an atrocity like the Holocaust. Thus, one cannot blithely dismiss Simcha’s views as the equivalent of the mousy sentiment, “shah shtil fur de goyim”—don’t make a fuss about your Judaism in front of the non-Jewish population.

Even today, in a welcoming nation such as the United States, this fearful attitude often governs Jewish attitudes toward public life and public service. The notion is that latent anti-Semitism is only a surface scratch away and that Jews should keep their heads down and make as little noise as possible so as not to attract negative attention from non-Jewish fellow citizens. This attitude is often seen with respect to embarrassing behavior by Jews—the Bernie Madoff scandal is a prime example of such negative behavior. But the principle goes beyond scandal and applies to any publicly noticeable activity, even positive actions, such as the public service in which Giffords was engaged.

The adherence to a “shah shtil” approach is somewhat understandable not only in the shadow of the Giffords affair but also when one considers the prevalence of anti-Semitism both in the United States and around the world. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s 2009 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, there were “1,211 incidents of vandalism, harassment, and physical assaults against Jewish individuals, property, and community institutions across the U.S.” Outside the United States, the problem is even worse, as similar studies have found more than 1,700 anti-Semitic incidents in 2009 in England and France alone, two countries that publicly condemn anti-Semitism and have large and relatively comfortable Jewish communities. While 2010 figures are not yet available, the ADL’s website details 75 different anti-Semitic incidents in more than two dozen countries around the world in 2010.

Beyond all of these statistics are real stories of people traumatized by direct contact with anti-Semitism. In my own time in public life, I was never directly confronted with anti-Semitism in a physical sense, but I was certainly aware it was out there. When I worked as policy director for Sen. John Ashcroft in the 1990s, the senator’s chief of staff received a letter from an anti-Semitic group questioning my fitness for the job. The reason? I had publicly—and jokingly—hoped that a highly anticipated, high-end kosher restaurant in Washington—long since closed, alas—would be “good enough for the goyim,” that is, of sufficiently high quality that one would not be embarrassed to invite non-Jewish colleagues to eat there as well. The complainant felt that I had used a slur to refer to gentiles, whom he described, somewhat oddly, as my “opponents.” I explained the nonsensical nature of the complaint, and the chief of staff dismissed it, but I didn’t forget the incident.

Later, when I served in the White House, I was what the Jewish journalist Ron Kampeas called “one of the highly identified Jews” in the administration. As such, I was regularly listed on anti-Semitic sites—along with many of my Jewish colleagues—as one of the administration’s Jews, punctuated by questions such as: “Ask yourself: Is their first loyalty to America or Israel?” Later, when nominated as deputy secretary of Health and Human Services, I was the subject of a longer write-up on an anti-Semitic site, which breathlessly reported that my last name Troy had been shortened from “Troyansky.”

In recounting these experiences, I do not intend to portray myself as a victim of anti-Semitism. To the contrary. I believe that it is a credit to the United States that I saw so little evidence of anti-Semitism that only aggressive Googling would uncover it. I also recognize that the White House bubble provides some lever of protection for senior officials—not only is the whole campus closely guarded, but direct phone numbers were unpublished, and discerning the email addresses of White House staffers is not intuitive. At the same time, I was also aware that anti-Semitic ugliness was a reality.

It is this reality that gives Jewish officials cause to be concerned and thoughtful about their public profiles, whether in the United States or elsewhere in the world. Yet while Jews should remain cognizant of the dangers of anti-Semitism, the proper response to the Giffords incident should not be a turn inward. In contrast, it is only by resolving to become active citizens and compassionate neighbors that we can identify and confront what is hateful before it gains political force.

Rather than being discouraged by the tragedy, aspiring Jewish officials should be encouraged by the embrace of Giffords as a national hero. They should also recognize that Jews serving in public life may disturb some, but that their service presents opportunities to show devotion to this country, which is a powerful tool against anti-Semitism. In addition, having more Jews in public life gives Jews a platform for fulfilling their historic role of a “light unto the nations.” The best way to fight against the darkness of all forms of bigotry is with the light of Judaism’s key message, as distilled by the great Rabbi Hillel when asked to summarize the whole Torah while standing on one leg: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others.”

Giffords was willing to take the risk of serving in Congress while living quite publicly as a Jew. Today all Americans, Jew and non-Jew alike, are united in praying for her full and speedy recovery. But the attack on her reminds us that those willing to take a public stand against bigotry are heroes who deserve the accolades and admiration of our citizens. At a time such as this, Giffords’ example shows the Jewish people that we must eschew the “shah shtil” principle of cowering in the background. We cannot afford to be silent in the face of anti-Semitism or any other ideology of hate.

Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, was a deputy secretary of Health and Human Services and senior White House aide in the George W. Bush Administration.

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Please. That “anti-Semitic” group (named American Renaissance) that you mentioned, was brought into this with no evidence whatsoever. Anti-Semitism was not a factor in the shooting. Stop saying it. Jared Loughner had Mein Kampf but also had the Communist Manifesto as a favourite book. He had no coherent political ideology because he was a schizophrenic.

When the second holocaust happens (it will happen, by the way,) it will not be committed by Whites, but by Muslims. Maybe if mainstream Jews stopped their nonsense support for the immigration of people who hate them it can be avoided.

I acknowledge that American Renaissance has had anti-Semitic idiots (like David Duke one time) speaking at its conferences but it has also had Jewish speakers (astrophysicist Michael Hart for instance). Its first conference had a Rabbi, and served kosher food.

No offense to Mr. Trevi, but what people and country is he talking about? Jewish-Americans afraid of antisemitism? Antisemitism doesn’t make us afraid, it pisses us off. The problem with the Jewish-American community is that it doesn’t know who their real friends and enemies happen to be. Failing to stand up to those that want to delegitimize Israel and cause another holocaust, that has nothing to do with a fear of antisemitism but an adherence to an extreme liberal philosophy and political correctness. But hiding because of a fear of antisemitism, I don’t think that is going to be a problem.

This was a timely and well-argued essay.
While we’d all like to think, and certainly to pray that “it can’t happen here,” we need always to be alert to bigotry and antisemitism, and to combat it when necessary, in the hope that indeed it won’t happen here. At least not beyond isolated incidents.

Nzinga says:

@ Sam: Anyone associating with American Renaissance is an idiot. Frankly, whether they’re the David Dukes of the world or a racist Rabbi makes no difference. Contributing to a message of hatred is repugnant, and fraternizing with known anti-Semites in order to do so is disgusting, not to mention risky (and shortsighted) business.

The biggest danger to world Judaism are Jews who support the enemies of Israel like J street the late Tony Judt and those who think they know better than the Israelis while not having to bear the consequences of their misjudgments like Tom Friedman.

Mr. Troy:
Having an uninformed, jump-to-conclusions amateur like you as a ‘senior aide in the Bush administration’, makes me wonder if anyone there, was thinking what I am thinking. Namely, ‘..and I thought Jews are naturally smart’.
If you have nothing intelligent to add, other than to mix Jews into the fray, just cool it.
#1 Jews did not live in harmony in Germany for a thousand years. For pete’s sake, read just a drop of history.
#2 He read communist sources as well as Nazi sources. What does that prove?
#3 You don’t like American Renaissance? Neither do I. But their platform is no more anti-Semitic than many leftist organizations.
#4 The last name name of the Rabbi you quote, which was Cohen, not Simcha, wrote very deep and esoteric tomes. I for one, do not for a minute believe that you read any of them or subscribe to their teachings.
#5 I voted for Bush twice. I would do so again. That didn’t stop him from retaining Jews who don’t how to sha shtill when they have nothing to say.

We all agree that Jewish leaders in America need to publically
protest aganist national/world wide incitments of Anti-Semitism.
However, the horrific turn of events in Arizona was far removed from
the rantings of an Anti-Semite in the deranged mind of Loughner.
Granted he read Mein Kumph,but also read Karl Marx’s political
rantings of class struggle. Based on what the news media revealed
about the mental state of Jared Loughner,as seen revealed in his
own videos and internet postings, this chap was not motivated by anti-
semitism,politcal conservatism, or any other ideology, just simply
a twisted mental break down which lead up to his horrible violent
actions.

barbara says:

I am appalled that Tevi Troy did not perform due diligence before writing this piece. He sounds like Sheriff Dupnik who who assailed political vitriol as a cause of the horrific attack before knowing anything about what happened!

Gifford’s assailant is most probably a paranoid schizophrenic who was angered by her answer to him at a public forum 3 years before. His attack had nothing to do with religion.

Or did he then attack Judge Roll and the nine year old girl because they were Roman Catholics? And what about the others he shot — did he direct his fire at them because some were Presbyterian, others Methodist, others agnostics or atheists? No! He has a long history of drug and alcohol abuse which certainly fed his obsessions

While I, too, worry about another SHOAH, I don’t look for bogeymen under the bed.

“Granted he read Mein Kumph,but also read Karl Marx’s political rantings of class struggle”

I’ve read numerous such comments, as if the mind of an extremist cannot draw from both sources. For those of you unfamiliar with the works of Karl Marx, while he was a very influential theorist of political economy,whose ideological heirs were opposed to fascism, he was also an anti-Semite. For an unambiguous example of Marx’ antisemitism, read his 1843 essay “On The Jewish Question.”

While this does not prove that Loughner was motivated by antisemitism, it certainly does not make it easy to dismiss the hypothesis based on what is currently known.

The biggest Jew-haters are Jews themselves: Karl Marx, Norman Finkelstein, Naomi Klein, Richard Goldstone… David Duke, James Baker the Third, Louis Farrakhan… – they all are obvious anti-semites; we know who they are and we can deal with them. But what about Jewish disciples of Joseph Goebbels, those vicious fighters for the human rights of terrorists and murderers? They hate Jewish state for its Jewish character (and want to replace it with the “democratic” state of “Palestinian brothers”). They fit exactly the definition of the anti-Semite, since anti-Semite is somebody who hates anything Jewish because it is Jewish. Why the article did not say one word about them?

I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a small but dedicated squad of ultra-right idealogues pa-troll-ing (pun intended) Tablet ready to smother any opinions they don’t like with their one-size-fits-all accusations of Jewish self-hatred, their fear-mongering and toxic xenophobia.

I’ve said that least 4602384 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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Standing Tall

The tragic Gabrielle Giffords shooting only underscores the need for Jewish public officials to confront anti-Semitism, argues a former White House official

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