This has been a sombre week: November 11th was the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War 1, a solemn reminder of the awesome cost of war. A war that, unfortunately, was not the end of wars.
November 9th marked the night in 1938 when Germans burned 1000 synagogues, plundered homes and businesses, rounded up 30,000 Jewish men and sent them to concentration camps – the night known in history as Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass. Eighty years later, on October 27 – just two Sabbath ago – eleven Jews were killed while they were worshipping at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Clearly, in the intervening years, anti-Semitism did not go away. Nor was it confined to Germany. In the thirties, while Nazis were terrorizing Jews in Germany, elsewhere Jews faced quotas at universities, understood that certain clubs and buildings would not accept them, met signs that said NO DOGS and NO JEWS outside hotels. As Hitler’s armies advanced across country after country, the news of the persecution of Jews became more widely reported, only to be discounted or ignored. Some influential Americans formed the America First movement, using its stance against the USA entering the war as a platform to demonize Jewish influence. At the same time, the Canadian- born Father Coughlin attracted hundreds of thousands of listeners to his American radio broadcasts in which he embraced Hitler and Mussolini and denounced Jewish interests. And, in Washington and Ottawa, diplomats proudly wore the title “Arabist” and greeted the plight of Jews trying to escape Hitler with indifference.
With the end of World War two the world was forced to acknowledge the consequences. Newsreels portraying the awful truth of the concentration camps, the pictures of Jews being rounded up, marched into gas chambers, the testimony of survivors and the Nuremberg trials made it impossible to ignore the cost of that indifference. The horror of the holocaust silenced anti-Semitism. Temporarily. For a while, the conscience of the world was awoken and it was socially unacceptable to express antisemitic views.
But then came the holocaust deniers, and the birth of Israel. Israel provided the anti-semites with cover. It was not that they were against the Jews: it was Israel that they were against. It is a tragic irony that the country born from horror of the holocaust would become accused of fascism and apartheid, would be the butt of United Nations condemnation. When it turned out that the Israel, like other governments, was not perfect, that its leaders made political and public relations blunders, instituted policies that were debatable, those things counted more in world’s opinion than Israel’s giving up the Sinai to make peace with Egypt, its offering viable ways to create a two state solution, the very creation of a democratic vibrant state, its contributions to the world in medicine, technology, science . The Palestinians became the cause celebre, while terrorists stalked the streets of Israel, a coalition of Arab armies led by Egypt and Syria invaded on Yom Kippur, and Israelis, to this day, with rockets raining down continually, have never known a moment of true peace.
In this century, antisemitism comes from both the far right and the far left. and has been openly and sometimes violently expressed in France and Germany. Here, in North America, there has been an onslaught of desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, news items often buried on the back page, if reported at all. On campuses all across the United States and Canada, the BDS movement — Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel – is camouflage for persecution of Jewish students and increasingly angry displays of antisemitism.
At the same time, President Trump has whipped up a nationalism that exploits the many anti-groups – anti-black, anti-gay, anti-women, anti- Muslim, anti-elites, all the groups looking for scapegoats for their grievances – they have all found an echo of their discontent in his rhetoric. He did not create the hate that dominates the news today and that led to the Pittsburgh murders – but he gave that hate a home. He has made hate acceptable.
So, yes, what happened in Pittsburgh was a shocking event. But we should not have been shocked “that it happened here”. And when politicians try to reassure us by telling us that this is not what America is, well, perhaps not. But there is a grave danger that this is what America is becoming.