Here’s why we report on the Jewish victims of general tragedies

Andrew Silow-Carroll

A makeshift memorial erected on Feb. 18, 2018 in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida days after the shooting that left 17 students and teachers dead. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

(JTA) — In the many years between my first job at JTA and returning as its editor in 2016, I would joke about a headline it published in 1999: “Two Turkish Jews killed in quake.” Perhaps you’ll remember that 17,000 people died in the Turkish earthquake that year. That headline seemed to represent all that was strange and wrong about a narrowly ethnic news service. If they hadn’t identified those two Jewish victims, would the Jewish news service have covered the quake at all — unless to report that “Giant quake narrowly misses Israel”?

Of course, now I am in charge, and we do our version of “Two Turkish Jews” all the time. Last week, following the massacre of 17 students and staff at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, our reporters hit the phones, reporting on the victims and survivors who happened to be Jews. We wrote about the two first-year girls who were remembered as sweet and easy-going. The hero teacher, who spent his summers at a Jewish camp, and who died while making sure the last of his students was safe inside a classroom. We wrote about one of those students, a Jewish boy who recalled being the last kid to make it inside before that same teacher was hit and fell bleeding in the doorway.

This practice, of identifying the Jewish victims of a greater disaster, makes a lot of people uncomfortable, including some of my colleagues. They worry it sends a signal that tragedies only matter to the degree in which they involve a Jew. That it erodes empathy in a diverse world by suggesting that the only thing that matters is tribe. That it makes us look small, in more ways than one.

I share those misgivings but also can defend our search for the Jewish angles, to any general story. First of all, it is not only the Jews who look for a sectarian connection to any major news event. Maybe we do this more publicly and consistently than other groups, but I doubt it. (Broadway composer Dave Yazbek has a song that asks, “Is it good for baseball, is it good for the Jews?” —  which neatly sums up the American Jewish experience in 11 words.) Every local newspaper and television station makes news decisions based on their definition of hometown news. If a plane crashes in Indiana, then it’s news in Chicago if a local person is among the dead. When 230,000 people died in the 2004 Asian tsunami, the BBC took note of the 149 Brits among them.

In a sense I view JTA as a hometown news service, and define the residents of that town not by geography but by their connections to and interest in all things Jewish.

Sometimes this localism lapses into chauvinism– like network Olympics coverage that lasers in on American athletes and ignores the compelling stories of all the other competitors. Or reductio ad absurdumism — like the article I found in an old Billboard magazine pondering the impact of the Civil Rights Movement on pinball machine profits.

But if handled sensitively, localism can also tap into basic human instinct in order to foster a wider appreciation for humankind.

That’s the point of perhaps the best-known saying of the 1st century CE sage Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg suggests that Hillel’s first clause — “If am not for myself, who will be for me?” — is one of Judaism’s greatest teachings. “Repair of the whole world starts with my country, my city, my neighborhood first,” writes Greenberg. “Self-interest is legitimate. People work harder and produce more in an economy built on private property. Loved ones or family first is the natural, more human way to operate.”

But Hillel didn’t stop there. Instead he adds, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Greenberg explains that concern for family and heritage “should grow and extend to the rest of the world,” and gives a trenchant political example: “If policy concern stops right at the border, then it becomes the isolationist, regressive ‘America First’ of Charles Lindbergh — a political grouping that turned a blind eye to tyranny and refused to hear the cry of the downtrodden.”

It’s natural to give first thought to those closest to us: family, friends, neighbors, co-religionists. It is also our business model. There are plenty of news outlets that will give a general accounting of any major event. Specialty media like ours supplement these reports by giving a narrow view of the same event with an eye towards the particular interests of particular readers.

But it is dangerous and inhuman if that focus stops there — if we are only for ourselves. I would hope that in identifying Jewish victims we don’t foster parochialism. I hope instead that by bringing a story home, we remind readers not just of the Jewish players but also of the Jewish obligations to a wider world — expanding what the sociologist and Holocaust scholar Helen Fein calls our “universe of obligation.” Maybe you can’t relate at first to those thousands of Turks who died in an earthquake. But you can relate to the Jewish victim, and from there find it easier to expand your universe of obligation to include the non-Jews alongside whom they died or suffered.

“Traditionally, our sense of involvement with the fate of others has been in inverse proportion to the distance separating us and them,” writes Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain.

The goal of much of our reporting is to close that distance.