Re­flec­tions on Pitts­burgh

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - Libby Znaimer ( [email protected]) is VP of news on AM740 and Clas­si­cal 96.3 FM (ZoomerMe­dia prop­er­ties).

Libby Znaimer

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.

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