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Why Jews take a national tragedy so personally
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Why Jews take a national tragedy so personally

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Why, in the wake of a national tragedy, do many Jews immediately begin to wonder what it means for the Yiddin?

The weekend’s horrific shooting in Tucson, in which six died and U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was among the many wounded, was senseless. Beyond the human level, it sparked a national debate over gun control, racism, anti-immigrant feeling, political polarization, extremism — at both ends of the political spectrum — economic dislocation, and the usual array of psychological afflictions.

Jews join in these debates, of course, but for many there is an added, historic perspective — and anxiety.

Jewish history is replete with incidents in which Jews worried about being made scapegoats, from the Know-Nothing Movement in 19th-century America, to General Grant’s issuance of General Order No.11 banning Jews from all military zones, to the anti-Semitic isolationism of Henry Ford, Father Charles Coughlin, and Charles Lindbergh in the 1930s.

During the height of the Civil Rights movement, in which Jews played an extremely active role, radical black leaders often painted their economic and social oppressors as Jews. During the most dramatic days of the anti-Vietnam War movement, the “hardhats” and their followers frequently sought to identify the student leadership of the protest movement as Marxist-Leninist Jews.

And sure enough, the fact of Giffords’ Jewishness puts the “Jewish question” in the middle of a larger national drama. Alleged gunman Jared Loughner reportedly posted Hitler’s Mein Kampf as a “favorite book” on a social media site. A U.S. Department of Homeland Security memorandum cites Loughner’s interest in a white supremacist group called American Renaissance, which is both anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.

Was Loughner attracted to Hitler as a nationalist hero or as an anti-Semitic icon? Did he care that Giffords was Jewish, or that one of those killed, Giffords staffer Gabe Zimmerman, was Jewish?

Jews worry when times are hard and the government is under attack. In addition, when jobs are scarce and the public is scared, many people seek something — or someone — to blame. Arizona was particularly hard hit by the real estate meltdown, and its anti-immigrant hostility is perhaps the highest in the nation. It would surprise no one if, at least on the fringes, the old canard were to emerge: “blame the Jews.”

But it is not just the Jews who are wary amidst this furious political climate. Attacks on blacks, Hispanics, and gays have become part of the lexicon used by extremists. This inflammatory language has expanded dramatically and undoubtedly contributed to a society which is losing its ability to properly communicate.

The 24/7 news cycle, the instantaneous bloggers, the mouthpieces, the talking heads, the talk radio “analysts,” and even clergy ratchet up the volume, feeding the extremes with grotesque, inadequate knowledge of the facts. The flames of violence are undoubtedly fanned by the incendiary language.

Violence unsettles us all. The Unabomber, the Columbine High School tragedy, Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing — all are national tragedies. Jews, who were so often the victims of populist rage and unhinged rhetoric, can be forgiven if they find themselves waiting for the other shoe to drop.

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