Opinion |

Why I Call the Pittsburgh Massacre a Pogrom, and Trump a Czar

There is a czar in Washington, who has nothing against the Jews as a whole. But one who lets his people know about Jews who, he signals, seek to ruin the lives of Real Americans, that is, his loyal followers

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
Community members hold candles at a vigil for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting at Cambridge City Hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 30, 2018.
Community members hold candles at a vigil for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting at Cambridge City Hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 30, 2018.Credit: AFP
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

I am not a person who shocks easily. I knew it was bad for my people, the Jews in America. But I had no idea it was this bad.

When I heard that a white nationalist terrorist had burst into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and massacred 11 worshippers, I was thousands of miles away, home in Israel. I felt strongly that I wanted to recognize the love and caring that the members of the congregation so clearly felt for one another, and the efforts of the wider community, of all faiths, across America, to console, to shore up emotionally, those who had lost so much, so tragically, so abruptly, so senselessly.

I wrote a prayer. It was titled, "There was a pogrom this week, Lord. In the United States of America."

I wanted to embrace those who had shown such quiet, courageous might, such monumental respect, in their remembrance of those who had been slain, just for being Jews, and their outpourings of gratitude for those first responders who endangered their lives to save others, just for their being human beings.

Then the last thing that I might have expected, happened. In response to the prayer, I received irate mail. From Jews.

"What an obscene article by Bradley Burston," tweeted one reader.

"I was born in USSR. Had family that actually went through the pogroms. What happened in Pittsburgh, was true evil. But it was not systematic mass assault against Jews as a whole. Must everything be compared to the Holocaust/Pogroms?"

Other Jews wrote me in fury, telling me, for example, "There was a SHOOTING, not a pogrom. Congratulations for creating hysteria."

I cannot be sure why this, of all pieces, touched so sensitive a nerve.

All that weekend, I turned to the words of the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, broken and furious and drained of all hope in the wake of a horrible pogrom more than a century ago in a corner of the Czar's empire then called Kishinev.

In a poem called "Al Hashchita", "On the Butchery", Bialik cried out to a God who seemed, to him, to be uninterested in or unaware of the plight of the Jews murdered in the pogrom. "I - My heart is dead," Bialik wrote.

But my heart was full. Full of admiration for the people of that congregation, the people of Pittsburgh, the Jews of America and the non-Jews who have been so forthcoming in standing with them in an hour of crisis and stunned grieving.

I wrote nothing about the politics behind and surrounding the mass murder. I wrote nothing about the official dog-whistling and anti-migrant vitriol that fostered and led to the attack. Nothing partisan. No names except those of the slain.

But when Donald Trump, turning aside the advice of Jewish leaders, decided to make what amounted to a campaign photo-op at the Tree of Life shul in Pittsburgh, much of my mail began to make sense.

It was not Bialik, nor, for that matter, Trump, that I was thinking of, when I titled the prayer. It was my grandmother, who had known pogroms first hand. Hour after hour, she'd told me stories of the nightmarish killings which had, in part, persuaded my grandparents to leave Russia for a place where there would be no pogroms.

No pogroms, and no Czar and his people fostering anti-Semitism, scapegoating and imperiling the Jews, for the government's own political gain.

But she told me other stories as well. When they arrived in the States, the Klan was on the rise. My grandparents read in their Yiddish anarchist newspaper about the details of violent attacks against immigrant Jews, and of a Texas-born Jewish man taken by a mob in Georgia and lynched.

At the time, nativist politicians, taking advantage of and fostering hatred against immigrants and non-Christians, were careful to refrain from cracking down on white nationalists, who represented a vital, politically active segment of their electoral base.

I want to thank those who have written to tell me how disgraceful it was of me to call this a pogrom.

Because they have made me realize that the difference between Kishinev and Squirrel Hill is the century we live in: automatic weaponry and the violent mob-insanity of white nationalist social media circles.

Responding to American outrage over the 1903 pogrom, the Czar's ambassador to Washington said in an interview at the time that, "The situation in Russia, so far as the Jews are concerned is just this: It is the peasant against the money lender, and not the Russians against the Jews.

"There is no feeling against the Jew in Russia because of religion. It is as I have said—the Jew ruins the peasants, with the result that conflicts occur when the latter have lost all their worldly possessions and have nothing to live upon. There are many good Jews in Russia, and they are respected."

Now there is a czar in Washington, who has nothing against the Jews as a whole. But one who lets his people know about Jews named Soros who, he signals, seek to ruin the lives of the nation’s real people, by letting in criminals and terrorists from outside.

My grandmother was never fooled by this.

In her memory, I'm not about to be fooled now.

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