A former Little League coach. A physician dedicated to the dignity of people with HIV. A doting grandfather. A career research specialist whose home was a haven for students. A sharp-witted bubbe. A man who used his experience in an interfaith marriage to help guide others. A couple in their 80s who had married in the synagogue more than six decades earlier.
These are just some of the souls who were gunned down in Saturday’s mass murder at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. They are members of a broader Jewish community who know perseverance because they have so often been forced to persevere. Their deaths are tragic, but they were also preventable – and if we finally take seriously the lessons of centuries of anti-Semitism, they don’t have to be in vain.
One man who narrowly escaped death – who was only outside the synagogue because he was running a few minutes late that morning – was a Holocaust survivor who spent 10 months in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. “It never ends,” he told USA Today. “That was my thought.”
Another man, Barry Weber, was born to parents who came to America fleeing the Nazis. He hid in the synagogue’s storeroom as members of his congregation were gunned down on the same soil that once gave his parents safe haven. Those shots were fired by a man who allegedly shouted, “all Jews must die,” and who was apparently incensed by the refugee resettlement organization HIAS. HIAS was founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in 1881; its mission was to help Jews fleeing European pogroms. Later, the organization expanded to helping refugees more broadly, and continues that work today.
The shooter hated both Jews and immigrants, and saw organizations like HIAS as examples of crafty Jews undermining “real” America by opening the doors to foreigners. The breathless coverage of the migrant caravan, still more than 1,000 miles from the US border, seemed to only further inflame the shooter’s hate.
It’s impossible to separate out this horrific event from the forever history of anti-Semitic terror. Mistrust, bigotry, a series of hateful stereotypes – that Jewish people are greedy and dishonest, that a global Jewish cabal is secretly in control of the banks and the media and seeks to infiltrate national governments, that Jews are not legitimate and faithful citizens of the countries in which they reside – have stalked Jewish people across continents and over centuries.
These conspiracies and allegations of fundamental, unalterable difference from the majority population animated pre-Holocaust Europe and fueled right-wing political parties. Those searching for an enemy to blame for economic insecurity in Germany had an easy scapegoat: greedy Jews.
It’s important to draw these parallels, not because we are headed for another Holocaust – I don’t think we are – but because the narratives that have driven hate movements, of which the Holocaust was perhaps the apex but far from the only example, tend to repeat themselves. Stereotypes may evolve and bigotries may take different forms, but they rarely wholly reinvent themselves.
Donald Trump’s rhetoric offers up clear examples: His tarring of George Soros as a shady billionaire pulling invisible strings to undermine America draws on old anti-Semitic tropes; in what is now a long-forgotten moment during his campaign, he tweeted an image of Hillary Clinton with a six-pointed star next to her face, the words “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” written inside. Many observers saw a Star of David, and the obvious suggestion that her alleged corruption was related to Jewish influence. Trump’s team claimed, improbably, that it was a sheriff’s badge.
When our President scapegoats migrants and deploys anti-Semitic tropes behind a thin veneer of deniability, and when our own right-wing political party gets on board for political gain, danger is on the horizon.
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That danger came to the Tree of Life synagogue this weekend. Every person who perished there was part of a community that knows all too well how fragile security and citizenship truly are – that these are concepts only as good as the country you live in, and the people who run it and those who keep them in office.
Memorials to the Holocaust implore us to “never forget.” But when anti-Semitism has never been a thing of the past, memory is insufficient. We have to learn the lesson.