Does anyone really believe that the slaughter of 11 elderly Jews worshipping in Pittsburgh or nine African-Americans praying in Charleston makes the world a better place?
Jewish people strive for tikkun olam, to improve the world. On Saturdays we, like the congregants of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, were praying when an angry gunman shouted anti-Semitic slurs and shot them. They were killed before the customary prayer for our country. The Torah and liturgy urge us to observe the commandments, including Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy and Thou shall not murder, and to act righteously with compassion. We pray that God grant our leaders wisdom to make our country safe, peaceful and secure for everyone.
The men responsible for these tragedies had surely been taught that killing was forbidden and that murder was a terrible crime. What were they thinking? Were they thinking at all? If they thought their act was justified, what was the justification in a country founded on religious freedom? Did anyone praying threaten the shooter? Were they enemies at war? Wars are not fought in sanctuaries. Was this one virulent antisemitism?
Our choices seem limited to mental illness or strongly held belief. Prejudices like antisemitism, based on myth and misinformation, amplified by provocation are powerful. They may have made someone, able to distinguish right from wrong, unable to resist the bilious anger that drove him to shoot and vilify innocent Americans. We know that anti-Semitic incidents and threats rose by nearly 60 percent in 2017.
For someone incapable of understanding reality and the consequences of their actions, we should feel regret that that was not recognized or treated. Someone driven by racial and ethnic stereotypes and false allegations hasn’t learned to distinguish opinion from information and truth from fiction. We should teach these essential skills in school. We should help our legislators and leaders untangle the tortuous knot that makes freedom of speech and hateful rhetoric that inspires murder so hard to separate. We should react to armed assaults on our constitutional right to life, liberty and religious freedom. We should seek swift justice for those who violate our laws, identify the elements that motivate and enable them and address those.
Jews are sadly accustomed to slurs and threats but are horrified and frightened by the murderous antisemitism in Pittsburgh. We grieve our Jewish brothers and sisters, living with memories of the holocaust and dying in their beloved sanctuary in America. We extend consolation to the survivors, including policemen, who risked their lives to defend ours.
Shortly after the tragic attack in Pittsburgh our three largest congregations bravely held vigils to honor the victims and pray for survivors and families. Many people and leaders of all faiths consoled, supported and prayed with us. A monthly Jewish/LDS Dialog and the Interfaith Roundtable strengthened and united us in the face of this attack on religious freedom.
Our United Jewish Federation of Utah works to help Jewish communities everywhere. It helped bring survivors of Nazi genocide and Russian oppression to our state where they and other refugees are safe. In response to local threats it assembled a Task Force on Antisemitism and Community Relations to report and respond. It has alerted the University of Utah to anti-Semitic demonstrations and tactics on our campuses to ensure student safety. It will advocate for holocaust and genocide education in our schools.
Our federation is committed to maximizing the safety of our Jewish community. We are glad and grateful that we have supportive, responsive law enforcement agencies and many people and government leaders who have expressed solidarity, shared our sadness and felt our anger at injustice. We are ready to work with lawmakers, law enforcers, educators, media leaders, mental health professionals and concerned community members of all faiths to make us all feel peaceful, safe and secure. That is what we and those killed in Pittsburgh pray for on every Shabbat.
As President Lincoln said at one of our darkest times, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”
Jay Jacobson is emeritus professor of the University of Utah School of Medicine.