In coming out forcefully at a rally against the kind of anti-Semitism that appears to have motivated last Saturday’s deadly attack at Chabad of Poway outside San Diego, President Donald Trump did the right thing. And the president further demonstrated sensitivity in the aftermath by speaking to Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, the Jewish center’s rabbi who lost a finger when he encountered the gunman and his bullets. Goldstein, it bears repeating, characterized Trump’s phone call as a warm and comforting exchange with the nation’s chief executive.
In the moments after this latest attack on Jews in the United States, coming six months after the murder of 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue building in Pittsburgh, Trump, in fact, seems to have done all the right things.
That this is news – that this bears noting at all – is a tragedy, especially considering that for far too long, hatred against Jews and the Jewish community has been allowed to fester amidst a toxic stew of American white supremacy and xenophobia. And the president bears a good portion of the blame.
Investigators in California uncovered a manifesto by the suspected Poway gunman posted to 8chan, the same social media outlet where the alleged Pittsburgh shooter posted his screed accusing Jews of compromising the well-being of this country by supporting immigration. The Poway shooter declared common cause with the Pittsburgh gunman, and praised the attacks just last month on the New Zealand mosques to boot. (Authorities say he also claimed responsibility for the torching of a San Diego mosque.)
The rhetoric that was a staple of Trump’s messaging as a candidate for president, and which marked his first two years in office, is a big part of the problem. The sad truth is that you don’t need to be hater of Jews – and I’ve long argued that the president does not hate us, no more than he would hate his Jewish daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren – to enable anti-Semitism. The even sadder truth is that you don’t even need to be a Republican to turn a blind eye to this most pernicious of assaults on the preeminent American value of religious liberty.
Many Democrats, who in choosing to ignore or, in some cases, outright endorse the ever-strengthening blood libel against Israel known as the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, are to blame as well. But so, too, for that matter, are Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many of his supporters, people for whom railing against George Soros as evil incarnate – and spreading the vicious lie that the Holocaust survivor was a Nazi collaborator – comes as naturally as standing at attention for “Hatikva.”
The fact is, there is enough evidence on either side of the political divide to enable those on the other side to place blame for anti-Semitism on those in opposition. And I know that there are plenty among us – who we can assume all, to a one, abhor anti-Semitism and wish its eradication from the earth – who will say that anti-Semitism is primarily a leftwing problem or a rightwing problem. Anyone who is doing that – who has done that – is part of the problem as well.
Lest you chalk this up to the ravings of a left-wing former journalist, I happen to have been at one point in my twisting professional life a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary. I even know the rabbi in Poway. But more to the point, I’ve witnessed as an adult – nay, lived it – the explosion of new-millennium anti-Semitism, first of the international variety and then of the homegrown scourge that it’s become. In 2008, when Pakistani terrorists murdered the occupants of the Chabad House in Mumbai, I was among the group of Chabad personnel to speak with the terrorists in the ultimately fruitless attempt to negotiate. Last year, I dispatched reporters to cover the worst anti-Semitic attack in the modern history of the United States.
I’ve witnessed the spread of this hatred. And I’ve listened to countless friends from both sides of the aisle excuse it as the other guy’s problem.
And I’ve had enough.
Just last week, celebrants at Passover Seders the world over recited the story of the Haggadah, reliving its message that in each and every generation, there have been those who have risen up to destroy us. But it’s easy to forget in the midst of the celebration and the four cups of wine that the responsibility to deliver us from bondage belongs not only to the Almighty. It is up to us to prepare the world for the ultimate redemption.
I’m sorry to say that we’re never going to get there if we keep battling each other in the debate of which side is more to blame for creating an environment in which hate against Jews can flourish. To the extent that we’re having these conversations, that we’re thinking these thoughts, the responsibility rests on us to answer unbridled hatred with unbridled love. I’m not talking about the kind that we show to the stranger in our midst; I’m talking about the kind that we should be showing to each other.
In the early 20th century, Chasidic leaders came under actual physical attack from Jewish communists as well as Zionists. Now is the time to answer the darkness of the world, a darkness that the unthinking portions of ourselves unintentionally promote, with light. So, this Friday night, light Shabbos candles. Go to synagogue. But even more important, embrace another Jew, especially one whom you’ve subconsciously labeled as the other.
This is more important than what takes place in November next year. Presidents come and go, but right now, nothing less than our very lives is at stake.
Joshua Runyan is the former senior editorial director of Mid-Atlantic Media, publisher of the Baltimore Jewish Times and the Washington Jewish Week.