Thoughts From Russia on the Meaning of Pittsburgh
A few weeks ago, I submitted the text of remarks I am giving this week at the Russian Jewish Congress anti-Semitism conference. In the speech I wrote, “the United States Jewish community is the most secure Jewish community in the history of the diaspora.” In the midst of so much mourning, grief and disbelief those words seem particularly inappropriate.
It’s all a bit surreal. Eleven Jews are murdered on Shabbat in a synagogue in Pittsburgh and I am sitting here in Moscow. Rather than focusing on the plight of European Jewry as planned, we are talking about what will happen in the United States.
Is this a harbinger of the end of the golden age of American Jewry? Are we now no safer from violence than our brothers and sisters in Western Europe?
According to our tradition, prophecy died over two millennia ago. However, I think it’s still reasonable to make a few cautious observations. In terms of security this is a watershed moment. For the foreseeable future, for the rest of my lifetime, our synagogues, our day schools and our community centers will be less accessible, less open to world than in the past.
Yet I still believe what I wrote to be true. Maybe everything is too raw, but sometime soon we must make an honest assessment of what we face. Levels of attitudinal anti-Semitism in the United States remain low—both from a historical perspective and compared to the levels other diaspora communities face. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, Judaism along with Catholicism are the religions Americans admire most. Jewish communal organizations remain strong and Jewish participation in, and influence on, the American political process remains significant. Civil society in the United States is robust and still capable of countering hate by ostracizing the haters.
There were also warning signs before Pittsburgh. We all see that the polarization of American politics is undermining democratic norms. There has been an increase in anti-Semitic incidents over the last few years. There is some evidence that there has been a deterioration in the taboos against openly expressing hate.
Ultimately, what protects religious/ethnic minorities, what protects us all, are our democratic institutions and the healthy civil society that supports them. This is where our efforts must be focused.
And finally, in our fight against anti-Semitism we must, at all costs, avoid partisanship. The threat comes from both extremes of the political spectrum. Anyone who tells you it is simply a problem of the far right or simply a problem of radical Islam or simply a problem of the left is either ignorant of the problem or selling us a lie.