Opinion |

Pittsburgh Massacre Underscores the Dilemma of American Jews

Jewish values like protecting the stranger and the immigrant are often the core of identity – but they are also highly politically charged issues in a country divided over migration

Tzvia Greenfield
Tzvia Greenfield
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Vigil in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
People gathered in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Oct. 27, 2018. Credit: John Altdorfer/Reuters
Tzvia Greenfield
Tzvia Greenfield

The massacre in the Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday leads to a number of queries and conclusions, among them: The question of free access to guns in the United States; the issue of securing sites and events that are particularly subject under threat, like Jewish schools, religious institutions in general and LGBT institutions and events; the understandable criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump, who looks like someone trying to maneuver between a rock and a hard place and avoid an unequivocal condemnation of right-wing, neo-Nazi violence so as not to undermine his electoral base.

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But it seems that above all, the Pittsburgh murders – the excuse for which was that Jews are encouraging immigration to the United States – once again highlights the dramatic question of the status of minorities and attitude toward them. It turns out that the huge country that was founded by various groups of immigrants from the Old World and that had always been considered a melting pot swallowing the particularistic identities of its components, cannot today deal with immigrants and with the ethnic and cultural pockets they form in American society. The huge migration crisis, whose political ramifications are threatening the stability of the European Union, is also affecting American society. In the end, this was the real reason for the election of Trump, a descendant of German immigrants, as president of the United States.

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The American Jewish minority still faces the question that has preoccupied the Diaspora since the French Revolution and the departure from the ghetto: Is it better for Jews to maintain a separate identity or to assimilate into local society? Recognizing that on the broader level (although perhaps not on an individual level) assimilation as a solution is an illusion that would sooner or later come to a violent end was what motivated Theodor Herzl to offer the Zionist solution – Jewish self-sovereignty. But the large American Jewish minority did not choose Herzl’s proposal, and today most of it chooses to assimilate into society at large and assume everything will be fine.

Those left behind are the Jewish communities that decide not to abandon their cultural or religious identity. In a post-religious era, which nevertheless encourages a discourse of separate identity, these communities must define for themselves what justifies their distinct identities. This question often leaves them confused. Along with the folklore of food and a few customs, there is of course a certain affinity for Jewish history, especially the Holocaust, and, to a very limited extent, also a link to Jewish texts.

The truth is that in this sense, the Jewish communities in the United States or elsewhere in the West aren’t very different from Israeli society. But there is one huge difference: In Israel, the country itself, with its difficult dilemmas and great successes, is the grand vision of the new Judaism. It provides the answer to the question of why it’s worth remaining Jews, and what it means to be a Jew in the post-halakhic era. Those who reject this answer remain with a question that has no resolution other than assimilation.

To overcome the problem, Jewish communities in the United States speak of “Jewish values,” like protecting the stranger and the immigrant. But these values, which originate from a Jewish truth, must be universal. In a divided society coping with the consequences of mass immigration, they are charged with political significance that is too painful. It would be better if American Jewry’s self-definition were not based so much on a controversial political stance in a legitimate dispute.

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