Choose Life

Under normal circumstances, I would not have heard about it until after sundown, but last Saturday was not a normal day at our house. My daughter’s first “big” birthday party where I invited her school friends was taking place, and I was busy running errands, making treats, and preparing for the big event. We lit candles on Friday night as we always do, but once Saturday morning arrived, I knew that a day of rest was out of the question.

It wasn’t my preference to have a party on Saturday, but Sunday is a tough sell for most people. There are still a fair number of churchgoers in this part of the world, and Sunday still tends to be more of a family day. In other words, it’s not a great day for a birthday party.  

This is important because, as I indicated, I would normally have had my phone turned off. I would not have seen the news until after sundown. As it was, I got on People Magazine online to see what was the same, and I saw that a crazy person had run into a synagogue and started shooting. An unknown number of people had been killed and injured.

 My first reaction, which was strange to me, was that I was not surprised, but I was shocked. By that, I mean that I was shocked by the event itself, but I was unsurprised by the sheer fact of an anti-Semitic attack.

My second thought, hot on the heels of registering shock, was for the people who wouldn’t know until after sundown. I felt an immense sense of guilt then, as though it wasn’t right that I knew. Of course, there was zero chance that I had any friends or family there. Having said that, the Jewish community is relatively small. One needn’t look too far to find someone who knows someone who has a friend or family in Squirrel Hill.

The feeling that I had was similar to the one I think most of us had on 9/11. There was a sense of profound sadness, but also one of unity and concern for the others affected. Mark Twain asked in an essay what the secret of Jewish immortality was, in the sense that the Jewish people have been quietly, diligently working away for millennia in spite of their universal persecution, and they have survived despite frankly incredible odds. Empires have risen and fallen, but the Jewish people remain. The ability of the community to cleave together during times of trial is a critical component to its long-term survival. 

Of course, I am still not Jewish, but I like to at least think of myself as a friend, if not yet a fellow sojourner. It was surprising to me nevertheless that I was more concerned about others’ feeling and experience of the situation than anything else. This isn’t to say that the entire ordeal didn’t hit me between the eyes. Traditionally, when you want to convert, the rabbis are supposed to turn you away three times. “Are you not aware that the Jews are much hated and persecuted in these days?” The correct answer to this question is that you are aware and are unworthy to join with them, but nevertheless you will not be dissuaded.

It’s fine to parrot that you are aware and are not afraid, but the reality is that there is something to fear. I have said this to myself. Of course, I knew it. I studied Germanistik for five years in college, and although we learned about lots of subjects, at points it felt like World War II Studies. I know from years of studying the Holocaust that it was not some joke or some far-removed thing that could never happen anywhere else. Still, it’s one thing to know it, and it’s another thing to “know” it.

In German, there are two separate words for know, “kennen” and “wissen.” Kennen is typically used in the context of knowing a person, while wissen is reserved for knowledge of facts. In this case, I would say that there is knowledge (Wissen) of anti-Semitism, and then there is personal knowledge (Kenntnis) of it. The two are not the same thing.

Of course, the question crossed my mind, “How can you possibly think any part of this conversion thing is a good idea? It is demonstrably a bad idea.” But my mind immediately responded that there was absolutely no way that I could turn away. If anything, it motivated me more to “go home.” I frankly have zero idea what I have to offer to Judaism and the Jewish community, if anything, but I feel like it necessary now that I try.  

Much has been made over the last week about what caused this terrible event. The brief sense of unity quickly gave way to political divisions, and some of the hot takes on offer are pretty depressing.

I have seen a more than a few people blaming Trump and Republicans. To directly blame either the man or the group is foolish. Frankly, I can’t think of a more pro-Jewish, pro-Israel president in history. Trump’s daughter is a convert herself, and his grandchildren are being raised as Jews. Whatever else people say about Trump, it is evident based on his actions that he cares deeply about his children. To say that Trump is an anti-Semite rings completely false to me.

I can’t say what is in the hearts of Republicans because what is in someone’s heart is an intensely personal question, but I don’t think that most people these days are active anti-Semites. The average American has zero interest in excluding Jews from anything. Everyone I know personally, and I do mean everyone, finds the idea abhorrent, whether they are liberal or conservative.

This isn’t to say that anti-Semites aren’t out there among Republicans. There are anti-Semites present among all groups. My point in saying this is that I don’t think that it’s fair to blame an entire group for the actions of one crazy man who admittedly hated Trump because he likes Jews too much. 

The question of whether or not Trump’s rhetoric has increased anti-Semitism is entirely separate from his personal feelings about Jewish people. I don’t know if I’m prepared to agree with the idea. Most of my friends are left-leaning, and several of them claim that they have seen Internet examples of bigoted opinions out there more than before. Because I tend not to hang around in the comment sections of liberal publications, I am going to assume that they are telling me the truth.  

On the opposite side of the coin, based on what conservatives have told me, I know for certain that angry leftist rhetoric has incensed the right. My personal view is that the left has probably done more to radicalize elements of the right than Trump could ever do. My experience tells me that many of the people who are angry are angry at being falsely accused of racism, bigotry, and not caring about poor people.

Having said that, I also realize that among those people, there are also those who actually are guilty of what the left says they are. I have seen that firsthand, too. I used to hang out in some libertarian forums, and I definitely saw my share of anti-Semitic commentary, among other things. To claim that the so-called pipeline between the true Alt-Right and libertarianism doesn’t exist rings false to me. Actually, I would say that it’s a bit naïve, given that I have read personal admissions from people saying that they were once Rothbardian Ancaps who became nationalists because they think that nationalism is the only way to achieve the society that they want.

Sam Harris had an interesting guest on a while back, a guy by the name of Christian Picciolini, a former white supremacist turned peacemaker. He said that dating back to the 1980s, the white supremacy movement had come up with a plan to infiltrate the military, police, political movements, and other groups. They would signal to each other using a code language, which I can only assume is where the left has picked up on this dog-whistle idea. It was an interesting podcast, and it gave me some things to mull over.

The left isn’t getting off scot-free in this, though. Anti-Semitism exists on their side, too. The Women’s March is universally popular among my liberal friends, but few people have given much mind to its founders and what their beliefs are. Most famous among them is arguably Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist who has advocated for Sharia law in this country and who is friends with Louis “Jews are termites” Farrakhan. She has covered up sexual harassment in her own group, and based on what I have seen of her, she seems like a bitter, angry person who displays animosity for Western ideals, Jews, and anyone who will expose the actual horrors that Islam has inflicted on women.

I understand that the problem many lefties have right now is with the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians, which is pretty bad, to be frank about it. The issue I have is that the left has this problem of soft racism, where they assume that anyone with brown skin is automatically a victim, and they seem more than willing to turn a blind eye to the crimes of the underdog. That the current leader of the PLO is considered the lesser of two evils (between himself and Arafat) and he has openly called for the extermination of all Jews is pretty telling.

Third wave feminists have made a strange, unholy alliance with this wing of Islamic activists, many of whom are open anti-Semites, support Sharia, and who most certainly do not wish to maintain the freedoms women and gays, among others, currently enjoy. It seems to me that there is an oppression scale, and Islam seems to have managed to win the race to the bottom with the help of lefty feminists. I have the strong feeling that the Jewish community is not exercising the proper degree of skepticism about the anti-Jewish rhetoric coming from that side, based on observation. 

The point I am attempting to make here is that anti-Semitism is coming from both sides. There are crazy people on both sides, it’s just that the right happens to be far, far better armed, and I don’t look for that to change. This is reality. And no, we’re not going to talk about the Second Amendment today. At the end of the day though, I really don’t want to make this into something political because anti-Semitism is ultimately apolitical. Anti-Semitism is the oldest prejudice there is. It was around long before Republicans, Democrats, or libertarians, and it will likely outlive all of them.

What I am heartened by, despite people sniping at one another about the political side of things, is the depth of feeling and the ability of the Jewish community to come together and the rest of the country to rally to them. The Pittsburgh paper this morning ran a quote in Hebrew from the Mourner’s Kaddish, which is the Jewish funerary prayer. An Iranian-American man began a fundraiser for Tree of Life on GoFundMe that has raised over one million dollars for the synagogue and victims’ families.

 Perhaps the most interesting and oddly wonderful story I heard was about the doctor who operated on the killer. (I take the Ben Shapiro stance on mass gunmen in that I refuse to reprint their names because infamy is part of what they seek, and the deserve to die the third death while they are yet alive.) The doctor who saved the wounded gunman’s life was Jewish. The gunman hurled vicious slurs at the doctor while he worked to save his life, a mission that he accomplished. When someone asked the doctor later how he felt about that, he replied that he was happy that he saved a human life. That, to me, is the very essence of what it means to be Jewish. You choose life because life and living it as best you can, as meaningfully as you can, and making the world a better place for others to pursue that same end, is the highest ideal and noblest goal of man.

Choose life.

My end-of-post PSA is that if you are reading this and are a writer yourself to please consider adopting the practice of omitting the names of mass shooters in your writing. There is a lot of evidence that supports the theory that they behave the way they do because they desire fame and notoriety. We don’t know for certain if that was a motivating factor in this particular case, but I personally apply the same rule to any mass shooting case so that it doesn’t embolden other actors who would behave similarly.

It is far, far better to remember and repeat the names of the victims. We should think of them and their families and friends. Let the name of this sick person be forgotten as swiftly as possible, and let the names and memories of the dead live on forever.

Joyce Fienberg
Bernice & Sylvan Simon
Richard Gottfried
Daniel Stein
Melvin Wax
Rose Malinger (Holocaust survivor)
Cecil & David Rosenthal
Irving Younger
Jerry Rabinowitz