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Stronger than hate?

The Pittsburgh tragedy defined 2018 and tested the Jewish community (and the country) as perhaps never before

The year in hate: Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, site of the shooting rampage in October that left 11 dead. Getty Images
The year in hate: Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, site of the shooting rampage in October that left 11 dead. Getty Images

It was a year draped in black.

The American-Jewish community was staggered — brought to its knees, really — by the punch that was the bloodbath in Squirrel Hill. The Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, during which 11 Jewish souls were murdered while worshipping on Sabbath morning, Oct. 27, was the deadliest attack against Jews in the country’s history, the Anti-Defamation League told us. For those old enough to remember back to 1972, the number 11 carries a haunting baggage: 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the Summer Games.

But this wasn’t Munich, and the elderly worshippers in the pews at Tree of Life weren’t Israelis and the perpetrator wasn’t a Palestinian. In the wake of the attack, a 63-year-old man writing a letter to the editor to this newspaper said he’d lived in New York all his life and never once — until now — felt afraid to be Jewish.

2018 was the year when Jews in America began looking over their shoulders. Just two weeks before the Pittsburgh shooting, a vandal or vandals drew a swastika and wrote Kike (though the word was misspelled the Nazi symbol was also drawn incorrectly), “N***ers suck,” a pentagram, “666,” and a picture of male genitalia next to the words “F*** Hillary” across the outside of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School building. Like the rampage in Pittsburgh, the graffiti was discovered on Shabbat morning, a desecration of the holy day.

It was a year draped in black and smeared in red.

Of course, there were other big stories that altered the Jewish community in 2018.…

Embassy Move

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and presidential adviser Ivanka Trump at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem in May. Getty ImageSIn May, President Donald Trump made good on a campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, an action promised by other presidents but one that had gone unfulfilled for years. Most of the Jewish community rejoiced, while some liberals, though hailing the move, cautioned that it wasn’t well thought out and should have come with some nod to the Palestinians. While stone-throwing Palestinian demonstrations took place in Gaza and on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and some Moroccans shouted “Death to Israel” in a protest rally in Casablanca, the predicted anti-U.S. violence throughout the Arab world did not materialize.

For his part, Trump, in typical transactional mode, suggested that Israelis would pay a political cost in future peace negotiations. “You know what, in the negotiation, Israel will have to pay a higher price,” he said, “because they won a very big thing.” The administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan has yet to be unveiled, so Israel and the American-Jewish community await whatever stick is in store after the carrot of the embassy move.

Corruption Probe, Again

Benjamin Netanyahu: Popular despite legal, political woes. Getty ImageS

The political woes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued, with police this month recommending — for the third time this year — indictments for Bibi (and in this latest case for his wife Sara) on allegations of taking bribes. The latest probe, nicknamed “Case 4000,” involved a police claim that Netanyahu had ensured that regulatory policy would favor Bezeq, the country’s telephone monopoly, affecting business activities amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars; in return, Netanyahu and his wife could influence coverage on a news website owned by Bezeq’s major stakeholder.

If the prime minister is indicted, a constitutional crisis could ensue, yet most observers believe he would not step down and that he is likely to emerge unscathed. His likely re-election is a measure less of his personal popularity than his reputation for ensuring Israel’s security and the weak bench of Israeli politicians capable of waging a serious challenge against him.

#UsToo Reckoning

The year gone by led to a #UsToo reckoning for American Jewry. While the issue of unwanted sexual advances and demands by powerful men remained a prominent topic in wider society, it assumed a position of particular notoriety in the Jewish community. This newspaper played a role in reporting in detail about allegations lodged against leading sociologist Steven M. Cohen, mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, and former NJY Camps director Len Robinson. In the wake of our July story, Cohen stepped down from his position as head of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford University and he resigned from his post at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. (His downfall also touched off a debate about whether his demographic findings were influenced by what critics labeled as his sexism.) Robinson resigned as well, and last week an internal report obtained by NJJN suggested that his inappropriate behavior with young women was far more widespread than first thought. 

Steven M. Cohen

In response to these and other allegations, the Jewish community is beginning to address the problem, albeit in fits and starts: Sacred Spaces, a nonprofit organization launched by Shira M. Berkovits to help Jewish organizations develop protocols to prevent abuse, has been working at full capacity with synagogues, camps, and national institutions; the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York and the Good People Fund launched the B’kavod initiative, designed to merge “Jewish values with Jewish organizational behavior”; the Reform movement launched a task force on women in the rabbinate to proactively examine the experience of female clergy and congregants alike; and the Conservative movement created a confidential in-house hotline and dedicated an email address to handle complaints of a sexual nature related to its youth arm.

The Blue Wave

The blue wave that netted the Democrats 40 seats in the House (they lost two seats in the Senate) in the midterm elections also led to a popular vote margin for Democrats (57-50 million) that far exceeded Hillary Clinton’s three-million-vote margin in 2016. (Nearly 8 in 10 Jews voted Democratic in the midterms.) When Democrats take over the House in January, Jewish legislators and strong supporters of Israel move into powerful positions and Adam Schiff, who represents parts of Los Angeles and who has emerged as a leading Democratic voice on foreign policy and national security, will take over the House Intelligence Committee. Among the other Jewish candidates who won their races in November were Jacky Rosen (Senate, Nevada), Max Rose (House, Staten Island), and Elaine Luria (House, Virginia). Jared Polis was elected governor of Colorado, becoming the first openly gay governor in the country.

Despite capturing the House, Democrats face a perilous path in trying to unite the party’s progressive and moderate wings. Israel may be in the crosshairs as several newly elected House members have voiced harsh criticism of the Jewish state, a fact that weighs heavy on centrist, pro-Israel Democrats.

Mourning A Literary Giant

Philip Roth

With Philip Roth’s death in May, at age 85, the city of Newark lost its favorite son and the Jewish community lost a towering literary giant, the last of the three great novelists (Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud being the others) who chronicled the post-World War II Jewish experience. Like Yoknapatawpha County for William Faulkner, Weequahic, the Jewish section of Newark where Roth was raised, became a central character in his fiction, and his moral North Star. He wrote penetratingly about the rewards and the risks of assimilation. But his descriptions of Jews, especially those in what he thought were materialistic, vapid suburbs, did not always cast them in a favorable light; for this, he was roundly denounced at a Yeshiva University panel in 1962, and after the publication of “Goodbye, Columbus,” he vowed never to write about Jews again. “He quickly changed his mind,” according to the Times. 

Roth’s late-in-life trilogy — “American Pastoral,” “I Married a Communist,” and “The Human Stain” — amounts to perhaps the greatest second act of any American novelist. He always chafed against being labeled a “Jewish writer.” He said, “The epithet American-Jewish writer has no meaning for me. If I’m not an American, I’m nothing.” Roth left instructions that no Jewish ritual be performed at his funeral. Those in attendance reported that, in a nod to Jewish custom, rocks were placed atop his grave.

Following Hate, Amazing Grace

Those five stories were big ones, indeed. But the attack in Pittsburgh came to define 2018. Many observers believed it was not a lightning strike out of a cloudless sky; there was a context. Robert Bowers, the suspect in the killings, posted online about being motivated by the work of the Jewish refugee resettlement group HIAS, which has been helping asylum seekers at the southern border. So the attack in Pittsburgh was not simply against Jews, but against the Jewish values enshrined in HIAS’ mission and the Torah — to help the stranger because we too were once strangers. The context of the killings, some observers said, could be traced back to Charlottesville and neo-Nazis marching in the streets there with tiki torches, chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” The ADL has suggested that Trump’s rhetoric on issues of race and nationalism have, at least in part, helped lead to a surge in anti-Semitic activity in the country; the president, they say, has fostered an atmosphere where anti-Semites feel emboldened to act. (It’s a view vigorously contested by those on the Jewish right, who argue that anti-Semitism is a virus that never goes away.)

Scene of a massacre: Tree of Life synagogue. Getty images

And yet there was a saving grace — an amazing grace, really — after Pittsburgh, in the way the country responded. Muslims in Pittsburgh raised more than $100,000 to pay for the funeral expenses of the Tree of Life victims; non-Jews in several cities formed protective “rings of peace” around local synagogues; and on a drizzly Monday, the first work day after the attack in Squirrel Hill, a Pittsburgh police officer, standing guard over a makeshift memorial at Tree of Life, bent down to keep a cluster of candles from going out. “I’ve been trying to keep them lit,” he told an NJJN reporter. It was one of thousands of tender mercies extended to the Jewish community.

And if there was a bit of a salve in 2018 it came, improbably, from Broadway. “The Band’s Visit,” about an Egyptian police orchestra stranded in an isolated Israeli town, won 10 of the 11 Tony Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Musical. Based on an Israeli film of the same name, it takes a political subject — the Israeli-Arab conflict — and casts it in a bracingly personal, human context, of Israelis reaching out to and embracing Egyptians. Friendships bloom. Stereotypes shatter.

And in their dusty desert town in the south of Israel, a little girl and her mother tune in to Egyptian television and radio on Friday nights and Sunday mornings … “Umm Kulthum and Omar Sharif / Came floating on the jasmine wind,” the sultry Katrina Lenk, the little girl now grown up and running a small café, wistfully sings to the Egyptian bandleader. And the distance between Alexandria and the fictional Beit Hatikvah disappears, modern politics and ancient hatred no match for the power of romance and melody.

Come spring, here’s to a jasmine wind blowing through Charlottesville and Scotch Plains and Highland Park and, of course, through Squirrel Hill — a jasmine wind soft and sweet, and one that’s stronger than hate.

Robert Goldblum is the managing editor of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. Jewish Week staff writers Steve Lipman and Hannah Dreyfus contributed to this report.

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