In the evening after the slaughter in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, I received an email from a friend who had escaped with his family from Hamburg during the Second World War. He remembered how the German police had stood by laughing while mobs burned down the town’s beautiful synagogue. Today, he wrote, two German police cars with armed guards stand outside the rebuilt synagogue to protect its worshipers. The common thread, of course, is anti-Semitism, supposedly crushed after the Holocaust, yet still very much alive, in Europe and the United States. Another friend, a refugee from Breslau, said, “I feel, as if I am living in the 1930s again.”
Ironically, this month the Jewish community has been commemorating the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht when, on Nov. 9-10, Nazis burned synagogues and murdered Jews throughout Germany and Austria. It is hard not to hear the echoes of that horrific night in the shootings in Pittsburgh, hard to keep our minds from slipping back to the 1930s when we are told that most hate crimes in America are aimed at Jews, as we learn from the Anti-Defamation League that anti-Semitic acts here increased by 57 percent between 2016 and 2017.
The most violent attacks have come from the right. Just before Pittsburgh there was Cesar Sayoc Jr., who mailed pipe bombs to prominent Democrats, including such well-known Jews as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who had chaired the Democratic National Committee, and George Soros, the billionaire financier. Indeed, Soros is a constant target, accused of everything from financing the migrant caravan to paying liberal protesters. He has become, in our generation, what the wealthy 19th-century Rothschild family was in its era— the Jewish whipping post for society’s ills. And last year we witnessed the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., with its chants of “Jews will not replace us.” At first I didn’t understand that chant. Replace these people how? I soon recognized its existential threat. To these extremists, Jews are outsiders, others, of a different breed, much as Hitler viewed Jews as inferior to “Aryans.” Like Hitler, these groups want the Jews out of the way, however that might happen.
To be sure, the left has contributed its share of anti-Semitism, although rarely with physical violence. Anti-Israel demonstrations and verbal assaults on college campuses, in particular, are often cover-ups for profound anti-Jewish vitriol that pains and confuses Jewish students, many of whom are not equipped to handle such emotional abuse.
“Is all this ‘The Plot Against America’ come true?” my brother wrote me. That novel, by Philip Roth, imagines that Charles Lindbergh, a die-hard isolationist and Hitler admirer, defeats Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and becomes the U.S. president. Within a short time, anti-Semitism engulfs the nation, leaving the Jews in utter fear. Is that where we are headed? I do not believe so. I cannot believe so. This country has been the most welcoming and blessed of any land for Jews. The violent anti-Semitic acts we have seen have been the work of far-right fringe groups or of mentally impaired, isolated, and angry individuals. They are not government sponsored and do not reflect events in Roth’s novel.
And yet, here is another irony, a disturbing coincidence: On Nov. 4, 1995, just this time of year, a right-wing extremist assassinated Yitzchak Rabin, then Israel’s prime minister, as he was leaving a peace rally supporting the Oslo Accords. Yigal Amir, the murderer, was a fanatic with images of himself as a hero who could stop the peace process from going forward. At the time, observers pointed to the atmosphere of hatred that had been whipped up by Rabin’s right-wing political rivals, who strongly opposed the Oslo process. Those adversaries certainly did not sponsor Rabin’s assassination, but their inflamed rhetoric might have contributed to it.
Donald Trump and his government cannot be blamed for the Pittsburgh murders by a disturbed Jew-hating extremist. But, as many commentators have noted, his raucous rallies that encourage violence, his assignment of moral equivalency between Charlottesville’s extremist white supremacists and their counter-protesters (“very fine people on both sides”), and his unrelenting attacks against the news media have created a poisonous mood in this country that might easily incite society’s fringe elements.
We have reached the end of the Hebrew month of Mar Cheshvan. The word “mar” in Hebrew means “bitter,” and the month has sometimes been labeled bitter because it contains no Jewish holidays. But it has become truly bitter for the tragic remembrances it holds: Kristallnacht, Rabin’s assassination, and now the Pittsburgh massacre. We have come together as a community to mourn that tragedy. Let us hope that in the new month of Kislev, the month of Chanukah miracles, we remain united as a people and strong enough to stand up to any dark forces that assail us.
Francine Klagsbrun’s biography, “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel,” was named the 2017 Book of the Year by the National Jewish Book Awards.