The mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27 was the deadliest attack on Jewish Americans in history. We must be clearheaded about the nature of this attack. This was not only a shooting. This was not only an act of hate. This was not only an act of violence. This was a direct attack on the entire Jewish community, designed to make us cower in fear and abandon our places of worship. This was the culmination (for now) of years of rising threats to our community. It is the deadliest attack on a Jewish community in American history.
Hate crimes must be written about in a way that honors the communities that have been attacked. This particular crime was an incredibly violent, deadly act of anti-Semitism—an ancient, violent, systemic hatred that must be named, studied, understood, and ferociously fought. Anti-Semitism must be named. And Jews must not be erased from the specific form of hatred that is targeting us and killing us.
Yet what is so astounding, and depressing, in this moment of our communal pain, is how many of our fellow Americans, including many on the progressive left, seem uncomfortable with the particularly Jewish nature of the attack. Instead, they prefer to couch it in more gauzy and inclusive terms, terms which efface and erase us, while promoting causes and victim groups that they feel more comfortable with.
Jews were murdered. They were murdered for being Jews. The shooter said “Kill All Jews.” He was an anti-Semite, and you must name him—with no hesitation.
When bigotry rears its ugly head, platitudes about love and togetherness are not enough. We must name specific oppressions and put attacks in a historical context that names the killers and the oppressors, together with their targets. It is not enough to merely denounce white supremacy. If you do not fight anti-Semitism by name, then you are an enabler of white supremacists and anti-Semites, who are often, though not always, the same people.
To erase Jews, and to erase the ideology of anti-Semitism, from a crime committed against Jews by an avowed anti-Semite, is to rob us of our identity and our history at the very moment we are being victimized. You won’t understand anything that way.
Anti-Semitism has reared its head in remarkably similar ways throughout history, and these patterns are emerging here in America, as they have before in American history. Those who have made the mistake of writing about the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue without mentioning Jews and anti-Semitism should apologize to the victims and to the community that they have erased. They should devote some time and space on their platforms to educating themselves and their followers on the history of anti-Semitism.
As I think on the #PittsburghShooting and the #KrogerShooting, I reflect on why so many people of color get upset at journalism that treat white supremacists, racists and Neo-nazis as silly little curiosities.
Death and terrorism has always been a part of U.S. white supremacy.
— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) October 28, 2018
We condemn the violent acts of terrorism and hate this week. Though it can be hard to stay the course, we must and we will. We will never stop fighting to end white supremacy forever. #TreeofLife #Pittsburghshooting #BlackLivesMatter
— Black Lives Matter (@Blklivesmatter) October 27, 2018
I know people mean well when they say there are no words for a tragedy like Pittsburgh, but there *are* words, and the words are that civilians should not be able to buy assault rifles.
— Michael Tomasky (@mtomasky) October 28, 2018
Unsurprisingly, members of the Trump administration also sought to turn away from the hard truths of anti-Semitism by defending religiosity in general, invoking the war on Christmas, school prayer, and other bread-and-butter Republican Christian talking points. It is an inaccurate and inappropriate analysis. This was not an attack on religion. This was not an attack on God. This was an attack on Jews.
Kellyanne Conway thinks it’s about all religion.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions thinks it’s “an attack on all people of faith.”
Anti-Semitism is not simply another everyday form of “hateful rhetoric,” especially this week. It also has nothing in particular to do with gun control, however desirable gun-control policies might be. It is a theory of power, whose end goal is the genocidal killing of Jews.
Attempts to deflect from America’s anti-Semitism problem, and growing global attacks on Jews on both the left and the right suggests a discomfort with naming the victims, and naming the people who want them dead. It suggests, intentionally or not, that the millennia of historical oppression that the Jewish people has experienced, which culminated in living memory in the Holocaust, are somehow not as real or as lethal as other forms of historical oppression. When the Holocaust isn’t proof that the dangers confronting your community are real, or that anti-Semitism is an ideology with real-world consequences, then there is no form of proof that will suffice. Why is that?
We don’t, and we can’t, talk about Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and simply say that hatred is bad. We need to talk about the historic role of the black church in civil rights and the history of violence against black churches. We need to talk about the deep history of racist violence in America and the history of abolitionist and civil rights work within Mother Emanuel’s over-200-year-old history. We need to talk about all of it to understand it and in understanding it we can fight it.
Access to guns is a life-or-death issue in America—particularly for American children. That said, we cannot allow ourselves to gloss over the hatred and specific violence of hate crimes for more comfortable, universalist talking points. We must put hate crimes in their proper context and center on the communities most affected. We must understand that the threats to LGBTQ Americans, Muslim Americans, African Americans, immigrant Americans, Americans with disabilities, and Native Americans, while interconnected, are not the same. Each is deserving of deeper understanding in order to stem the tide of hatred and oppression that affects members of communities who are at risk.
We cannot fight hatred if we do not understand it. We cannot center on those who are the most vulnerable, such as Jews of color, LGBT Jews, black immigrants, and others if we do not understand how specific oppressions manifest and interconnect. Solidarity is wonderful—but a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. It is a form of erasure. Fixing our gun laws will not stop the rise of anti-Semitism. While I will vote blue and encourage all Americans to do so, that too will not stop anti-Semitism—or other hatred—either. We must go deeper. As Jewish writer Hannah Moskowitz put it: Any words about Pittsburgh should include the words “anti-Semitism” and “Jewish.”
Our country is in crisis. We are deeply divided, brimming with animosity and hatred, and we have widespread access to military-grade weapons. In order to begin to heal, or at least lower the threat level to Americans who are vulnerable to hate, we need to understand the specific threats and hatreds. We need to learn about white supremacy. We need to understand anti-Semitism, and the role that it plays in white supremacy. We need to slow down and remember what this was: An attack on a synagogue. An attack on Jews while they prayed. An act of anti-Semitic violence against a community that refuses to be silenced.
For more Tablet coverage of the Pittsburgh shooting, click here.