Green's America: The Pittsburgh massacre was just a taste of things to come

Violent attacks on Jews since the The Tree of Life killings confirm that this is not your grandmother’s America


PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 31: Mourners visit the memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 31, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Eleven people were killed in a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood on October 27. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

May 04, 2023 11:28

More than four years have passed since the deadliest attack on Jews in American history. On October 27, 2018, a white nationalist named Robert Bowers shot 11 worshippers to death and wounded six more at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The wheels of justice grinding with their customary slowness, jury selection in his trial began this week.

It is hard to remember what American synagogues were like when we moved here, nearly 20 years ago.

True, there were concrete barriers outside shuls in Manhattan, but these were the exceptions that proved the rule. In Boston, we could walk into a synagogue without being challenged, or having to make an explanation, or give a proof of identity.

After living under what felt like siege conditions in Stockholm, it was hard to believe. Perhaps some of it was it-couldn’t-happen-here naivety on the part of our hosts.

When I was touring in the US in the Nineties, we sometimes wandered on to planes without an ID check. This seemed to be asking for trouble, and it was.

The “American exception”, a phrase which originated when historians tried to explain why American never had a serious socialist movement, now stands for any unusual aspect of American life.

The United States has been the exception for all the people who have come here, by choice or not, because America, whatever you think of it, is exceptional.

For Jews, the US has been more exceptional than anywhere else. Not surprisingly, Jewish Americans tend to emphasise the success stories.

They tend to gloss past the uglier episodes, such as the lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia in 1915, following his acquittal on near-medieval charges of murdering a young girl. The Tree of Life killings were so ugly that they cannot be ignored.

Americans talk a lot about freedom. Like pornography, you know it when you see it. To walk freely into a shul, or walk down the street in a kippah, is what freedom means.

The Tree of Life killings ended that. The shootings at Chabad of Poway, California in 2019, the hostage-taking by a British Muslim at Colleyville, Texas in 2022, and the ever-growing epidemic of street violence against Orthodox Jews in New York City confirmed that this is not your grandmother’s America.

Donald Trump did not incite Robert Bowers to murder. In fact, Bowers seems to have despised Trump for being, in his opinion, insufficiently racist and far too friendly with Jews. Trump’s coarseness did, however, reflect the coarsening of American life.

Trump spoke crudely and sometimes apocalyptically, even when he was president. This hyperbole is a perennial American tendency, and it is the tone of online politics, left, right or round the bend.

Trump was supposed to lead, not follow the downward trend. The same might be said of Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who incited racial strife and defended rioting in the summer of 2020.

The prosecution will no doubt try to make political hay from Bowers’s trial. The Justice Department behaves curiously these days, and Bowers’s trial happened to convene a day before Biden announced his 2024 run.

When he ran for the presidency in 2020, Biden said he was fighting a “battle for the soul of America”. When you consider the American mania for guns, you wonder what is in that soul.

Biden’s new campaign video is heavy with imagery of combat. He too is supposed to lead. Instead, he is led by his handlers and the strategists, and incites against the other side.

Polls show that a majority of Democrats don’t want Biden as their candidate, and a majority of Republicans don’t want Trump.

We are likely to get both. The paralysis of American politics is dismal. It would be exceptional if, over the next 18 months, Jews did not once more become collateral damage to America’s nervous breakdown.

Dominic Green is a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and a columnist for the ‘Washington Examiner’

May 04, 2023 11:28

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