Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting

Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting & the Rhetoric of Intolerance

There are no words sufficient to describe the sense of shock, bewilderment and sorrow that is being felt by Jews throughout the world in the wake of the horrifying mass murder at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. That it took place at all is tragic in and of itself. For this to have occurred on the Sabbath, a day most notably associated with peace, is beyond ironic.

Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting
SWAT police officers respond after a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 27, 2018. Reuters photo

Wherever Jews assemble for prayer on Saturdays, we all wish one another “Shabbat Shalom,” “A Sabbath of Peace.” But as the prophet Amos lamented almost 3000 years ago, “Peace, peace, they say, but there is no peace.”

We are living in perilous times. The rhetoric of intolerance continues to rise in intensity. Angry words with actions to match, that not long ago were considered beneath contempt, now are being voiced unashamedly, as our nation witnessed in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Various public officials bemoan that this does not represent America. I hope not, but my gut tells me otherwise. There have been far too many shootings and precious little action.

Are we really to believe that if teachers were armed, if synagogues were protected by armed guards, that the epidemic would end? What about other houses of worship and assembly? Must every church, mosque, shrine require guards as well? Meaningful gun control seems to be a lost cause. Still, this tragic state of affairs runs far deeper than the proliferation of guns. Even with stricter gun laws, this ongoing dangerous situation is not about to subside.

There is truth to the cliché: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” The horrible question we must face is why there have been so many tragic shootings in America? For quite some time there has been an increasing volume of angry, hateful speech, that unfortunately seems to be an accurate reflection of the mood of many in our country.

The airwaves, particularly talk radio, are infected with intolerant speech, invariably aimed at those who are considered “other,” whether they be people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, Muslims or Jews. Of specific alarm was the chant of the mob in Charlottesville: “The Jews will not replace us.”

Is that what all this is about: the fear by the previously white majority being replaced by others (and not just Jews)? I believe this to be accurate. This is why until America comes to terms with its diversity and learns to embrace it rather than to fear it, our country will continue to slip farther into the abyss of hatred. As a Jew, I mourn the deaths of my fellow Jews of the Tree of Life synagogue.

As an American, I greatly fear the decline of civility, of reasonable disagreement without anger. These are horrifying portents for what could lie ahead. America is not immune. To look upon the tragedy in Pittsburgh as just another isolated act of a deranged bigot would be to ignore the much greater looming tragedy, of an America so divided that it may not be healed. God forbid. We need to address directly and urgently the poisoned atmosphere to which the Tree of Life massacre clearly points.