Anti-Semitism in Squirrel Hill America
Network executives interrupted the A.M. Joy show Saturday morning on MSNBC. The special report informed us of an active shooter loose in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in the East End of Pittsburg. A deranged anti-Semitic man executed 11 worshipers and injured a half a dozen others at the Tree of Life Synagogue. It was a gruesome slaying aided by heavy ammunition used by the shooter who aimed to, and accomplished one of the worst massacres of Jews on American soil.
As we learned more about the dead: the 80-something couple who were married in the Synagogue 60 years ago; the spry 97- year old lady who friends said had just begun to live; and the doctor who provided primary care to the community for decades. They all were kind-hearted Americans tied to the Jewish neighborhood they called home for decades. There is no plausible reason they had to face such a violent death.
Fighting back tears, it became clear to me the magnitude of what was actually going down. For some reason, I immediately thought of my friend Goldstein and his wife, Sharon, and the many conversations we have had about Blacks-Jewish relationships and the role of history, culture and the significance of identification with a homeland, both figuratively and literally.
Goldstein is not from Pittsburg nor is he related to anyone who lost life in the massacre. He lives in New Jersey but will soon transplant to Florida. I know many Jewish Americans and Goldstein is not the “symbolic Jewish friend” in my network and circle of acquaintances. But my wife and I feel close to him and his wife, and we talk with them for hours about everything, but most passionately about the African American and Jewish experiences in America—similarities and differences. He has enlightened me on the thousands of years of hate, discrimination, and oppression the Jewish people have encountered. We have shared with them the depths at which we experience physical, structural, institutional, and psychological racism every minute of our lives.
Goldstein is my friend, but through him I get something that I do not get from my African American friends. He sees me from a perspective outside of my experience but from an inside the fence view of one who has struggled against bigotry and discrimination all his life. He is not overtly religious, but he observes Jewish holy days. His willingness to preserve old traditions reminds me of the importance of cultural identity and historical values in keeping you grounded.
I do not always agree with Goldstein. He believes Christianity is the “white man’s” religion and cannot understand why so many Blacks would embrace the religion of their “oppressor.” He and I believe the state of Israel is sacred and must be protected. When I asked him about dissent that occurs within Israel and whether or not we err in equating the official actions of the government with the attitudes and aspirations of its citizens, he says no. Does a loathing of the Republic of Israel lead to a hatred for all Jews? Has this debate contributed to the rise of anti-Semitism on college campuses across this country?
We don’t resolve every difference or reach consensus on all important questions, but we discuss them civically and think deeply about what the other says long after we meet.
I met Goldstein over a decade ago on a plane on my way back to Atlanta. I was seated next to a man from Canada who was rudely calling then Senator Barack Obama a socialist. This was during the former president’s first campaign for the U.S. Presidency. The Canadian assumed because I was black, I had to be an Obama supporter. He was right but for the wrong reason.
For the better part of two hours, I had to listen to this nut degrade the one destined to become America’s first Black President. Finally, I could take it no more, so I responded, “What in the hell do you know about Sen. Obama, Socialism or America? There are major problems in this country and Obama represents the type of change that many of us are looking for.”
Goldstein and Sharon hung on every word I said. I could tell from my peripheral vision that they wanted to participate in the discussion. I wasn’t sure at the time where they stood on Obama or which side of the political spectrum they would land on, so I ignored them.
Later I discovered they were Obama supporters and they admired how I handled the Canadian. After this chance meeting on a plane, we became very good friends and stay in contact with each other up to this day.
So when I first heard about the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue, I wanted to express how my heart and soul had just been busted apart. I want them to know deep inside I felt as if someone in my own family had been shot down.
The mass killings transported me back to the murder of my friend State Sen. & Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the massacre of eight other parishioners gunned down in Charleston as they attended bible study in a historic black church. It also compelled me to recall the bombings that killed the 4 little black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. I conjured memories of 145 black church burnings between 1995-1996. I remembered Dr. Martin Luther King’s mother who was gunned down in church while playing the church organ in 1974.
America has a horrific history of such attacks that date back in time.
The aforementioned attacks were acts of racism perpetrated against African Americans. What happened Saturday in Pittsburg was the ugliest form of anti-Semitism yet. When we tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and anti-Semitism innocent Americans die.
When we coddle and give legitimacy to white supremacy and anti-Semites and see good people on “both sides,” we send a message that it is alright to be that way. When we attempt to associate Sen. Bernie Sanders’ advocacy for the little guy and his distaste for a “rigged system” with our president openly declaring himself a nationalist, we tell white nationalists they are welcomed once again as part of American mainstream political thought and practice.
When no statewide or nationally elected Republican will challenge the president when his words and actions are overtly racist, sexist, nativist, and Islamophobic, we as a nation become less safe and free.
The President and his very quiet and scared Republican sycophants are clearly violating their oath of office that compels them to act always without fear or favor to serve the public interest. They do not need to pull triggers or ignite bombs to be liable for violent actions against Americans. They just need to create and allow for an atmosphere to exist where followers, sane, insane, and others, feel empowered and embolden to act on their deepest fears of religions, ethnic and vulnerable minorities taking over America which they believe belongs to them.
But we all know, America belongs to all of us, especially those of us who have worked for years to make America great. It belongs to the good, the righteous, and those who exhibit the highest levels of humanity at times like these. America has never been perfect, particularly for its national minorities. But I fear we are nearing the end of America as we have known it. I cannot be silent at such a time.
We must decide if our values are still, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
If there is a consensus in America for another vision based on anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, tribalism, clamping down on the press, and the dilution of civil liberties and civil rights—count me out.