I remember Jerusalem.
I remember Jerusalem twenty years ago, when weekend after weekend the morning news started with another bus blowing up, another mass shooting, another bulldozing of someone’s home.
I remember that once it was the bus my sister almost took.
I remember when it was the café that my sister almost went to.
I remember when it was my friend who got injured, when it was my brother’s teacher who died.
Those memories are very painful.
When I came back to North America, I thought I would never have to fear hearing those words: “All Jews must die”, “Mavet la’aravim’ (Death to all Arabs), followed by a bomb detonating or the pounding of a machine gun.
But now I do.
We cannot let this fear debilitate us.
We need to mourn, mourn not only for the dead and injured in Pittsburgh, but for the illusion that this could never happen here.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise, there has been a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidences, according to the Anti-Defamation League in 2017. I am not a betting man, but I would wager that the figures for 2018 are going to be much worse.
It does not take a genius to figure out why this happened now. White supremacists, Nazis, and all their disgusting ilk, have felt emboldened due to the mainstreaming of hateful rhetoric. When you keep on calling your opponents evil, when you valorize violence, when you play footsie with Nazis, some sick person is going to think that it is okay to take the next step, that our elected leaders have given him a green light.
Some sick people have acted. Robert Bower did.
Words matter. They themselves do not kill, just like guns without people do not kill. But they can push people over into the abyss, where extreme violence becomes possible.
What do we do now?
Let us first take a deep breath. And gain some perspective; this kind of attack on Jews is not yet commonplace , not all of our institutions are under threat. The United States is still one of the safest places for Jews to live. It is actually less anti-Semitic than Canada in many ways, where my brother, father, and I have all endured anti-Semitic comments and even attacks.
But fear is an entirely valid emotion. I never thought I’d have to share my martial arts experience with my congregation, to give advice on how to respond when you are attacked by guns or knives, and yet on Sunday I did, and it was relevant.
If learning how to protect yourself makes you feel safer then I encourage anyone who feels vulnerable to study self-defense. I am happy to advise.
More important is to attack this problem at its roots, to deem hate speech completely and utterly unacceptable, to call it out, shut it down, never to accept its mainstreaming.
It is clear to me that this hateful rhetoric is mostly one-sided, but not entirely. As Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we must go high”, we cannot label our political opponents as evil, we cannot use escalating language, we must do our part to maintain a civil discourse.
This is so hard after Saturday, but by going high we elevate the discourse and we force our interlocutors to speak with us on this level.
Civility is not a sign of weakness, it is our strength, and I will not give it up.