Reflections on Pittsburgh
THERE’S A LINE FROM a fairly obscure 1979 play called Refugees that has stayed with me all these years. Marilyn Lightstone played the lead. Neither she nor I can remember the name of that character. But I can still conjure an image of her on stage with a suitcase as her prop. In response to a question about where she was from, she yelled, “I come from 1938!”
It feels a lot like 1938 these days – I’ve been saying that to my husband for months. The atmosphere is roiling. Extremist regimes are being voted in all around the world. The internet enables bigots to spew hate and find community. That hate is spilling over into violence more and more often. Nothing made me feel this more keenly than the attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue at the end of October. The gunman burst in during Sabbath services, murdered 11 people and wounded another six before he was captured. Ironically – or not – it happened on the eve of Holocaust Education Week. I am Jewish and the daughter of Holocaust survivors. This makes me more alert, maybe hypersensitive, to signs of danger but also less likely to find them surprising.
“You can’t generalize to a whole community from the acts of one person,” Jim Busis, publisher and CEO of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, told me 48 hours after the tragedy. “There are people who are consumed by hate and conspiracy theories and wacky thoughts. Those people exist everywhere.”
But this has shaken the American Jewish community and, by extension, the one here – the sense of be- ing suddenly shaken from their belief that “It can’t happen here.”
But everyone is vulnerable in new ways. Mass shootings have occurred in schools, concert venues and nightclubs. A few days before the synagogue massacre, a gunman walked into a Louisville, Ky., supermarket and fatally shot two people simply because they were black. Surveillance video showed the shooter trying to force his way into a black church minutes before. Such violence can even happen here in Canada. Last summer, two people were gunned down on the Danforth in Toronto. In the spring, the driver of a van mowed down 10 people on Yonge Street, the victims targeted because they were women.
This was different because it was anti-Semitism, one of the oldest, most pervasive hatreds in history. It was different because the victims were killed in a sanctuary. In 2017, B’nai Brith Canada reported more than 1,700 anti-Semitic incidents across the country – a 37 per cent increase from 2015 and the highest number ever recorded in these statistics. Avi Benlolo, president and CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, cites the difficulty in getting convictions for hate crimes. “Why is the rhetoric against the Jewish people and the Jewish community up, and why are we allowing this to continue?” It’s questionable whether tougher laws will put a lid on what is out on the internet and in the community, let alone the so-called dog whistles, the code words that energize those who want to demonize Jews.
The big difference from 1938 is that in Pittsburgh, the authorities and the public rushed to help, to condemn the violence, to offer sympathy and support. The gunman has been charged, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Rabbi Yael Splansky of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple is looking for the balance between vigilance and alarm. She has a special connection to the events because friends and relatives of one of the victims are in her congregation. Joyce Fienberg grew up in Toronto. She was confirmed and married at Holy Blossom before moving to the United States. The rabbi was on hand when worried relatives tried in vain to reach Ms. Fienberg and when the worst was confirmed. “We need to be careful about watching for signs and signals that the groundwork can be laid
“... looking for the balance between vigilance and alarm”
to stir hatred,” she told me. “But we also have to be very careful to say now is not then, and we are not at risk of repetition of that. We need to learn from our history, but now is not then.”
And if there is any lesson from Jewish history – for people of all faiths and no faith – it is about the power of resilience.