How Safe Are Jews in America?

The Kansas City shootings should prompt Jews to add a fifth question to the Haggadah.

Thane Rosenbaum
Thane Rosenbaum
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Police outside the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas. April 13, 2014.
Police outside the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas. April 13, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Thane Rosenbaum
Thane Rosenbaum

A few short weeks ago Jews around the United States breathed a collective sigh of relief upon hearing the results of the Anti-Defamation League’s annual audit of anti-Semitic incidents. The number of such incidents continued its decade-long plunge, dropping by yet another 19 percent last year to nearly the lowest level since the ADL started maintaining these statistics in 1979.

With the ADL’s audit serving as an auxiliary Haggadah at the seder table, thoughts of liberation from the perennial evils of anti-Semitism were a fitting prologue to this year’s Passover. Yet, unsurprisingly perhaps and not unlike the plagues of old, the hatred of Jews, even in America, wasn’t about to disappear so easily. The ADL audit, alas, would produce no Dayenu moment. The initial news ultimately proved too good to be true.

On Sunday, the day before Passover, Frazier Glenn Miller, 73, an avowed white supremacist and anti-Semite, allegedly opened fire at both a Jewish community center and a Jewish assisted living facility in the Kansas City metropolitan area, killing three people, two of whom were Methodist, the third a Catholic.

In addition to first-degree murder, federal and state law-enforcement agencies have decided to charge Miller with having committed a hate crime. Soon after he was arrested he is said to have shouted from the backseat of the police car, “Heil Hitler!” Of course even without a Nazi salute it was no coincidence that Miller chose institutions of Jewish life as targets for the pre-Passover shooting spree of which he is accused. (It doesn’t help Miller’s case that next week is Hitler’s birthday and the shots appear to have been a homage to his avowed hero, too.) The fact that the suspect mistakenly took aim at three victims who were not Jews has no bearing on the federal hate crime law. All that matters is intent. The choice of targets, the timing -- the day before Passover, and the Hitler salute will supply all the motive a prosecutor needs to establish that the suspect’s murderous hatred was directed at Jews.

Not a great start to the holiday. And as the ADL audit suggests, American Jews have grown accustomed to living relatively unscathed from such overt and violent acts of anti-Semitism. (Actually, the ADL audit reported that while the number of “incidents” has been declining, the number of violent assaults against Jews has been on the rise, with 31 assaults in 2013, up from 17 in 2012.) In his recent book on global anti-Semitism, “The Devil That Never Dies,” Daniel Jonah Goldhagen observed that America is the one if not only country outside of Israel where an openly Jewish life is possible, where wearing a yarmulke is not a bull’s eye and where children can be dropped off at Jewish schools with absolute assurance that they will return at the end of the day.

Yet these tragic shootings in Kansas City now, invariably, present a mixed message, a rebuttal to the ADL audit -- as if to say “don’t get so comfortable; bondage comes in many forms; Jews will never be able to shake off the trauma that they were once slaves in Egypt.” We are told that anti-Semitism in America is less charged, and yet three people are dead all because they emerged at the wrong time from buildings where Jews ordinarily gather. (Ironically, the name of the senior living community was Village Shalom (“peace”). On the eve of yet another holiday the Jewish people are reminded that the world is not all that welcoming of the Diaspora, and that violence toward Jews is still very much present, no matter where one lives.

Is Jewish security -- even in places that have been certified as authentic safe havens -- no less elusive than an afikoman that can’t be found?

Of course, there’s no reason to become hysterical. Kansas City was once part of the old Wild West, after all. This didn’t happen in Brooklyn or even Los Angeles. Miller might be simply dismissed as an aberration from the ADL audit, a solitary psycho suffering from Nazi envy, a lone wolf banished from his Klan, a fringe lunatic who will never get past his prejudices.

Jewish immersion in America has resulted in the epitome of cultural acceptance. The Jews of Europe, Latin America and even Canada have lots to worry about. Hopefully they managed to get through their seders in peace. To read, “Next Year in Jerusalem” at an American Passover table is not an urgent rallying cry but rather a proposed vacation spot. Taken even at their worst, the ADL’s numbers are still statistically, and gratifyingly, small.

Yet, three Christians who were welcomed into the Kansas City Jewish community were luckless decoys for what were allegedly Miller’s intended targets. At such despairing moments that reveal the limitations and false promises of the Exodus, it is not unreasonable to add a plaintive fifth question to the Haggadah, one that will arguably never lose its meaning or become obsolete: When it comes to hatred, why always us?

Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and law professor at Fordham University, is the director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society and the author, most recently, of “Payback: The Case for Revenge.”

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