This year, Passover was met with two terrible reminders that the dangers posed by anti-Semitism continue to haunt us.
First, a white supremacist in Kansas went on a shooting rampage at a Jewish community center and an assisted living facility, killing three people. Then, worshippers leaving synagogue services in Donetsk, Ukraine, were accosted by masked men who handed out pamphlets ordering all Jews to report to a state registry or prepare to be denationalized.
These two shocking outbreaks put a pale over the celebration of Passover. It was reminiscent of Passovers of old, when the Jews would fear Easter-time anti-Jewish violence. And yet there are differences, new aspects to these current events that mark our times as distinct and more blessed than those that came before.
The violence in Kansas was recognized by everyone, from the president of the United States down to the local authorities, as no “mere” triple murder. The seriousness of the hate crime charges that the alleged shooter will face are a symbol of the zero tolerance that our society has for anti-Semitic violence. I know this on a smaller scale. As the local rabbi, I have been called from time to time by local authorities regarding an anti-Semitic incident. Usually graffiti, usually teenage perpetrators acting out their own complex issues of identity. What has connected each unrelated incident was not only the “traditions” of anti-Semitism but also the priority with which the crime was handled by the authority of that jurisdiction. Responsible government and society no longer tolerate what all too often was accepted in the past.
Something more marks the recent tragedy in Kansas. All three victims were Christian. No doubt the perpetrator intended to kill Jews. That his three victims were Christians speaks to the successful integration of the Jewish community in America. It means that Jewish communal institutions are no longer enclave institutions, but integral components of the wider community. That someone could drive into the parking lot of a Jewish community center and hit a Christian physician and his grandson marks the change of times. Today, Jews can have non-Jewish doctors and volunteers from the wider community can serve the Jewish community, which finally has become a true subgroup of the people.
While the United States has become alarmingly more prone to gun violence, it is an ecumenical violence. This shooting apparently was motivated by a hatred of Jews, but a hatred of Jews amidst a psychology of hatred of many “others” and among other shooting crimes that were driven by other factors. Even as the anti-Semitism of this attack has reminded us of the continued “otherness” of the Jew, at the same time it marks a normalization unknown in older times.
Similarly, the incident in eastern Ukraine marks a transition from anti-Semitic incidents of the past even as it stirs up the worst of memories. An order for Jews to register with the authorities, as though being a Jew is a mark of Cain, is reminiscent not only of the Nazi period but also of the abuse of Jews and Judaism in the Soviet Union. Ukraine suffered under both of those regimes, and saw enough anti-Semitic violence and complicity to rival anywhere else. This is a story I know personally, as my wife and her family emigrated from Ukraine years ago to escape the indignity of being Jewish in the USSR. And so the re-emergence of anti-Semitism there, in Ukraine of all places, is particularly disturbing.
And yet the differences between what happened now and the past are striking. Not only were the pamphlets with the “order” to register not official, and not only were they immediately condemned from around the word and denounced by Secretary Kerry as “grotesque,” but they also were disavowed by both sides of the conflict in Ukraine. While purportedly representing the pro-Russian party, the local pro-Russian leadership explicitly denied authorship and accused Ukrainian loyalists of manufacturing it to discredit the Russians. In various media, the Russians have accused the Ukrainian leadership of anti-Semitism, a charge that the Jewish community in Ukraine has denied. Anti-Semitism is being volleyed around between the two competing factions, but rather than being made a part of the arsenal, each one accused the other of it, in what almost seems to be a competition to see who is the more philo-Semitic.
No one should misunderstand me in thinking that we need not be vigilant in watching and guarding against anti-Semitism. If anything, these recent incidents make clear how important our vigilance is. My point is that our attention to anti-Semitism is successfully effective today. In our world, a world filled with criticism of Israel and resentment of any who succeed in society, we should recognize the miracle that such obvious cases of anti-Semitism are so roundly condemned, for it was not always like that.
Although the Kansas incident raised the level of alert at Jewish institutions across the nation, we should not allow these events to support the continuing of the siege mentality that has marked the Jewish community for so long. Perhaps one explanation of the attrition of the American Jewish community reported in the recent Pew study is that we are losing the successfully educated and integrated younger generation because they do not buy the siege mentality. They are completely comfortable in America. It is possible that one day they will encounter anti-Semitism, which will renew their interest in their Jewish roots. But in the meantime, the only chance we have of reaching them now is to move beyond the siege mentality to a community consciousness that is comfortable where it is.
The more integrated we become, the stronger the wider community’s condemnation of real anti-Semitism.
As we move beyond Passover 5774, let the message we remember from the Haggadah be not only the promise that in every generation there will arise those who seek to destroy us, but the faith that we will be redeemed and that their plots will be spoiled.