A dead child is a dead child.
I’m sorry to be so blunt, but sometimes things have to be said straightforwardly.
The nightmare horror of last Friday hangs in the air; no matter what your politics, its stench clogs your nostrils. We all are damaged, stricken, lessened by it.
There is no division between murdered children. They are not Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists. They are just dead children. They lie on the ground, each perforated by many bullets, joined in a putrid swamp of congealed blood.
This is a national disaster for us as Americans and as civilized human beings.
If ever there is a time when it does not matter who is Jewish and who is not, that time would have to be now.
The Forward and JTA – the news service that once called itself the Jewish Telegraphic Agency – felt compelled to tell us that one of the children had been Jewish. Later, we learned that another also may have been. The Forward, Los Angeles Jewish Journal, and others focus on the one as if there were not 19 other little bodies.
Many of us, coming from a range of political and religious positions but Jewish to our cores, looked at those news stories with disgusted disbelief.
Now is not a time to put divisions between us – or at least that particular division. It seems likely that soon we will break into two camps, subdivided into many smaller ones, as we debate gun control. Another debate over how to treat mental illness, how much money to devote to it, where that money should come from, and how to reconcile our desire to provide people with as much freedom as possible with our need to keep ourselves safe from preventable harm inevitably will divide us as well.
Other parts of the Jewish world have recognized this truth, as is clear in the press releases we read. The Orthodox Union sent out a statement expressing its grief for all the victims. The National Council of Young Israel, generally thought of as being to the OU’s right, was even more explicit. “This tragedy transcends religious affiliations,” it read. “The horrific loss affects us all and we shed tears for each and every one of those whose lives were cut short by this nightmare. We feel their families’ pain, share in their sorrow, and join in their grief.”
So why did two Jewish news agencies and several Jewish newspapers feel compelled to tell us that one child was Jewish, as if only he mattered? (And please understand that yes, he mattered. He was a whole world, and his murder shatters the world. It’s just that 20 worlds shattered into smithereens on Friday, and six more beside those.)
Is it because they think we think that we still have to prove that we’re real Americans, living surrounded by other real Americans? We actually don’t think that. We’ve been real Americans for a very long time now.
Is it because they think we care only about other Jews? If they do, they’re wrong. The press releases from the OU and Young Israel, and from across Judaism’s streams, disprove that. A Chabad rabbi at Noah Pozner’s funeral told NPR that all the children were now with God – not just one of them, but all of them.
Is it because on some level we’re still reflexively fearful? That’s probably at least partially true. Probably more than a few of us stared at the murderer’s name and feared that it might have been Jewish. It looked as if it could have been truncated from a longer, possibly eastern European name. I think, though, that we think that because we know that we are prey to the same lunacy and evil as everyone else. We no longer think that Jews are always and only victims.
So did the Jewish media write what they did because they have to write something, because the particular vacuum that nature was abhorring just then was the gaping empty news hole?
The Forward began as a weekly Yiddish-language newspaper. Although it still publishes a Yiddish version, the Forverts, the main publication is in English. Its hardcopy edition still in theory is a weekly, but it is updated online constantly. And JTA sends out stories a few times a day, six days a week, and updates its website frequently as well.
The weekly newspapers that got into the act sent out eblasts (and so did we – but we did not send one that said “Jewish boy shot”).
So was it our insatiable demand for the latest story, for more and more detail, that made these Jewish media outlets divide the dead?
It seems that many of us felt the need to know as much as possible about what happened. We have a huge need to understand; to try to form some plot, some narrative thread, somehow to make sense of the un-understandable. That is a normal distancing mechanism. If we can shape nightmare into a story, then we give ourselves the ability to get outside it to some extent. If we can ascribe motives to killers and attributes to their victims, if we can define their circumstances as specifically and narrowly as possible, then we can assure ourselves that we and the people we love are safe because we don’t fit those criteria. We are outside that particular narrative.
The problem, of course, is that our need to know outstrips reporters’ ability to inform. The technology that can get every rumor out in record time is in place, but our human ability to get real information, check it, place it in context, and convey it to readers in grammatical and properly structured English is no faster than it used to be. That, I think, is why the news services rush to supply us both with faulty information – the murderer’s name was not Ryan, his mother was not a kindergarten teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary, the murdering Adam did not have contact with any teachers on Thursday – and fill space with irrelevant facts masquerading as deep truths.
The deepest truth is that 20 children and six adults were murdered, shot by a cold-blooded killer whose motives are opaque to us but whose evil is clear. That one or possibly two of the children were Jewish is of no relevance. That all of them were innocent and that all 26 dead deserved to live is all that matters.
We are united in our grief and outrage. The world has become a smaller and dingier place.