Heeding Pittsburgh’s Ripples

Terry H. Schwadron

Oct. 30, 2018

The reverberations of the shootings in a Pittsburgh synagogue have kept vibrating as Jews, Americans and cable commentators all seek to find meaning for elections, civility and the Trump era in the deaths of 11 in Pittsburgh and, to a less-publicized degree, the shootings of two random black shoppers in Kentucky.

Fortunately, we are finding it more difficult than usual just to move on. But as with every other issue in our society these days, many of the continuing reactions followed the general outlines of the deep fissures in our society.

President Trump, Republican leaders, lots of social media and even Vice President Mike Pence sought to distance the obvious record of this president’s ignoble public statements, his inciting rally cries and his inability to denounce white supremacists from the actions of a few crazy people, including the shooter in Pittsburgh and the Florida suspect in the mailings of pipe bombs to Democratic leaders and political foes of the president. Simply put, in my humble opinion, that is not helping.

More traditional political centrists, Democrats, progressive Jews and the rabbi at the Pittsburgh synagogue were drawing a relatively straight line from Trump to insane over-reaction from a few.

At the same time, everyone in the public conversation was recognizing that anti-Semitism, and more broadly anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-black actions, is arising from a very deep American well.

Among my own Jewish family and friends, there was upset and concern, a grimness about our failures in this country to have learned from the past. As the son of a Holocaust survivor, I found the news of this shooting viscerally troubling and angering. I want my American government to do a lot more than read a standardized consolation message.

We are reminded that the American assimilation experience has limits, and that, eventually, we all will face some crazed gunman or pipe bomber or neo-Nazi or rude bozo on social media who doesn’t ask about our religious choices or our family background story, but merely lashes out exactly because we are Jews. It is a familiar story over generations over lots of locations. Somehow, America was supposed to be different. But let’s get over that, too.

My mother was locked up for being a Jew. My dad and my father-in-law faced limitations in where they could work, where they could play golf or stay in a hotel. In my own life, there have been lots of brushes with more personal expression of anti-Semitism. The hope is that our children and grandchildren will not have to deal with those particular obstacles.

In all of the continuing re-hash, there seemed general recognition that our political discussions are too far gone into coarseness and division to remain civil, and there were dark suggestions that the trend towards violence is worsening, and quickly. Well, that’s not terribly helpful either.

Part of the issue are messaging problems. It is clear that Trump is totally focused on Election Day, a week away, and trying hard to keep the pedal to the floor on blame for anyone who is not with him personally. Rather than offer more healing messages, the president again attacked “the media” for fake news that contributes to a divided nation.

Trump’s tweet: “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame. . . of Anger and Outrage and we will then be able to bring all sides together in Peace and Harmony. Fake News Must End!”

What that has to do with an angry Pittsburgh man taking a handful of guns into Shabbat services and firing away at a mostly elderly crowd is anyone’s guess. But, for sure, it is not a message that aims to calm and heal.

In recent days, President Trump has made clear, for example, that he sees himself as a “nationalist,” as if it is a neutral, pro-America cheerleader line without other layers of meaning. Trump indicates that were he Swedish, he would be pro-Sweden. But others hear nationalist as opening the door to legitimacy for what had been a relatively dormant white supremacist movement, lying in wait, looking for an excuse to endorse and pursue, by whatever means, a virulent white, Christian, nativist country.

To an international community, America First is a clear disinvitation to be able to cooperate with the United States on any terms other than those dictated by Trump. To the domestic audience, the phrase means that Trump is governing only as the president of Trump supporters, not of the country. It is an exclusive motto, one in which nonwhites, non-citizens, non-Christians need not participate.

Perhaps the most telling reaction has been in Pittsburgh itself, where a group of progressive Jews told the president not to bother to come for a consoling visit unless he speaks out against white nationalism.

Still, that hateful rhetoric that is associated with the president is what got Trump elected; it is the red meat that drives the wild responses at his campaign rallies. It is frankly successful to sell Hate — and fear.

We have reached Step One, a recognition that there is a problem. What we now choose to do about this strikes me as enormously important.





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