Progress, not perfection, in fight against anti-Semitism

By Robert Gerchen

In the aftermath of the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, debate arose within the Jewish community. Was the non-Jewish response to this attack on a synagogue appropriate? Sufficient?  Too little, too late? Was it just an apologists’ do-over for sitting silent for so long?

To fully assess the response to this atrocity, let’s look at it through the lens of American history, both recent and not-so-recent.

In 1939, the nation stood silent as the SS St. Louis, loaded with 900 Jewish refugees, was refused dockage in Cuba, then the United States, then Canada. The refugees were forced to return to their countries of origin, where many of them perished in camps.

In 2018, hockey’s Washington Capitals open the season at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins and commit half of its 50/50 raffle proceeds to Tree of Life synagogue. The fan who wins the raffle donates his half as well.

Throughout the 20th century, the Jewish and Catholic communities endured a tortured relationship as debate swirled over Catholic silence and/or complicity in the events leading up to the Holocaust.

In 2018, in response to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Pittsburgh Catholic Bishop David Zubik decries “anti-Jewish bigotry” as a “terrible sin” and exhorts, “Never again.”

Here in St. Louis in 1977, after sniper Joseph Paul Franklin kills one attendee at a bar mitzvah at Brith Shalom Kneseth Israel and wounds another, the family of the bar mitzvah boy is harassed and tormented. Anti-Semitic slurs are spray-painted on the family’s home, and they leave the neighborhood where they had been living in for years.

In 2018, in response to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, non-Jews in St. Louis and throughout the nation attend “Solidarity Shabbats” and sit shoulder-to-shoulder in packed sanctuaries with their Jewish brethren, showing their support for a community that had come under attack.

And in 2018, in response to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, the Muslim community at large raises more than a quarter of a million dollars for the synagogue and for Jewish charities.

Perhaps we wish that more is said and done by the non-Jewish community in response to insidious, “dog-whistle,” anti-Semitic rhetoric long before it devolves into violence. Perhaps we wish that a more appropriate and sympathetic response would come from the highest halls of the federal government.  

Was the response perfect? By no means. But by being willing to  accept only the perfect, we look past the exceptional. 

Is anti-Semitism still alive and well? Certainly. And fringe loonies like the Pittsburgh shooter will continue to pose a physical threat to Jews, even in our most sacred of spaces.  Vigilance remains the order of the day.

But when thousands and thousands of people across the country who have never set foot in a synagogue come to learn, to pray, to show support and to reach across a divide, bridges are built.  And upon those bridges, we stand more secure and safe in this, the only nation in history in which we as a people have resided without the threat of expulsion. Then we are not the only ones assuming the responsibility of vigilance going forward. 

No, it’s not perfect. But the depth and breadth of support and sympathy across the nation in this instance was, indeed, exceptional.

Bob Gerchen is a Richmond Heights-based trial consultant with a national practice. He is a past president of Central Reform Congregation. Bob and his Irish-Catholic wife, Robin, have four children between them; two are at Clayton High School.  Gerchen can be found on Twitter:  @BGerchen and at [email protected].