Editor’s Note: Rebecca A. Kobrin is the Russell and Bettina Knapp Associate Professor of American Jewish history at Columbia University. The views expressed here are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As the grieving Pittsburgh Jewish community buries its friends and family, Jewish organizations have launched the #ShowUpForShabbat campaign, an appeal to all Americans aimed at filling synagogues across the United States this weekend. As the head of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, proclaimed, “We’re not going to be cowed into silence (or) stay home. … We’re going to show up.” Thousands of non-Jews are expected to show up in synagogues to see what a gunman felt so threatened by that he had to try to destroy it.
But those who come to synagogue will not see the primary Jewish ritual to deal with the aftermath of death, shiva, a traditional week of mourning and reflection in which community members offer condolences and families reflect on lives lost. The joy of Sabbath pauses shiva for 24 hours, but it would be useful for the nation to “show up” to a week of shiva as well.
Shiva serves many purposes, but its most important one is that it allows mourners to contemplate the past as a way to move forward. It is essential the nation use this time to think about what led us to this moment, the largest loss of life in an anti-Semitic incident in US history.
One thing that brought us to this point is America’s long history of linking nativism, anti-Semitism and immigration. The Pittsburgh shooting suspect claims he was driven to kill people on Saturday in order to save his country. By his own words, he believed Jews were destroying American society through their embrace of refugees and so-called immigrant invaders.
Not long before the synagogue rampage, Robert Bowers posted to social media, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.” This demonization of the threat posed by immigrants and Jews exploded inside the Tree of Life not by accident but by design. We must think about how to change the design to move the nation forward.
Seeing immigration as killing the nation, the suspect singled out HIAS, an organization founded in 1892 to deal with the specific issues facing Jewish migrants stranded on Ellis Island – stemming from the need for kosher food to their requirements for a proper Jewish burial. “HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people,” Bowers claimed.
Indeed, Bowers represents nothing new in American history. He tapped into not just a hatred of Jews, which has taken many forms over the last two centuries in the Americas, but he also – by connecting anti-Semitism to deep fear of immigrants as a national threat – embodies a long-standing approach to immigration.
This is what the nation must reflect upon in the days beyond #ShowUpForShabbat. In my work as a scholar of Jewish immigration, I examine with my students the ways in which the very architecture of our entire immigration quota system was built on the linking of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism to nativist beliefs about the threat posed by “new” immigrants, namely individuals from Southern and Eastern Europe, to the moral fiber of the nation.
A century ago, men such as University of Wisconsin sociologist Edward Ross penned influential works on “new” immigrants that claimed certain groups would not be able to assimilate into American society. He, along with other scholars and politicians of his day, openly embraced eugenics when discussing the nation’s immigration problem and claimed Jews were trying to control US immigration policy. Ross also singled out in this work “the endeavor of the Jews to control the immigration policy of the United States.”
This bogus anti-Semitic lie was based on the fact that Jewish American lawyers, some linked to HIAS, believed that to be American hinged on a belief in certain ideals, not in one’s race or place of birth. HIAS and many other organizations see immigrants as central to America’s identity as they speak to what they see as this nation’s core values, and immigrants, with the help of groups such as HIAS, have been shown by economists to expand the economy.
At a time when the world was grappling with one of the largest refugee crises in a century, HIAS made a point that refugees and migrants were not a threat to the nation. But many did not agree and saw a world in which immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were a threat. As Ross argued, “The literature that proves the blessings of immigration to all classes in America emanates from subtle Hebrew brains.”
The truth is that Jews were not architects of US immigration policy in the early 20th century, just as George Soros is not funding immigrants’ journeys today. But the linking of anti-Semitic tropes to heated discussions concerning who should be allowed to enter our borders is a conversation we’re still stuck in. What happened Saturday was partially the tragic result of a contemporary vision of immigrants and refugees.
Indeed, in the week since the loss of the Pittsburgh 11, President Donald Trump has only escalated his war on immigrants, promising an end to birthright citizenship and sending masses of troops to the border to protect it (even to the death) from those he preposterously calls “invaders.” As such, the nation should use its time in synagogue this weekend and afterward to remember that migrant caravans are not filled with “some very bad people”; immigrant families at our borders seeking asylum do not represent “an invasion of our country!” Rather they are exercising internationally recognized human rights.
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To be sure, there is much debate on the role America should play in addressing these issues. To honor the memory of the fallen, we should think about the long legacies of racism and anti-Semitism that have shaped our immigration policies since the beginning of the 20th century.