Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And now Poway, California. Separated by almost 2,500 miles, these two American cities will be remembered forever together in Jewish history as killing fields of Jews at prayer.
John T. Earnest, the suspect in custody after yesterday's assault at the Poway Chabad synagogue, exactly six months to the day after Robert Bowers slaughtered 11 Jews during Shabbat services at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue, made sure that the two incidents would be linked in infamy when he cited Bowers as a source of white supremacist inspiration.
I'm inclined naturally to be charitable when assigning blame for wrongdoing. Perhaps it's the result of a congenial Canadian upbringing, but I've always tended to consider mitigating circumstances. Sympathy for cold-blooded murderers, however, is an indulgence that society cannot afford.
Racists have never lacked for motivation to target Jews. In the twisted mind of the anti-Semite, Jews are contemptible for being "non-white" yet, somehow, also the beneficiaries of white privilege. The Jewish people is, at once, the standard-bearer of both capitalism and communism. The "reasoning" of the conspiracy theorists who hate Jews is impervious to logic, but endlessly flexible.
Not that the bigots need any encouragement, it's horrifying to watch venerated institutions of American democracy now contribute to the pathology.
In all too many countries, Jewish houses of worship are easily identifiable by the police presence around the building's perimeter. This has not been the case in America, where Jews have practiced their faith publicly and proudly, confident in the protections granted by the U.S. Constitution.
That's changing rapidly. Armed guards are becoming increasingly common fixtures within the Jewish community. Meanwhile, conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, are busy finger-pointing. They accuse each other of indiscretions that are feeding, if not necessarily igniting, the flames of anti-Semitism in the U.S. But neither side can claim innocence.
A toxic political environment has decimated all remnants of civility in public discourse. Sensitivity to language and imagery has been a prime casualty. Both camps communicate with their respective followers, oblivious - or indifferent - seemingly to the nuances of messaging.
This cannot be overstated at a time when divisive, inflammatory rhetoric has become a serial feature of American politics, leaving the Jewish population acutely vulnerable.
Last October's violent rampage in Pittsburgh came after Bowers, trading on President Donald Trump's warnings of caravans besieging the southern border of the U.S., had singled out the Jews as rendering aid to the migrant "invaders." Earnest, the Poway assassin, has cast himself as a "soldier" with "the honor and privilege of defending his race" in the face of a "meticulously planned genocide of the human race" which he, too, attributed to the Jews.
A different sort of threat to the welfare of American Jews emanates from quarters of the progressive left. Claims of undue Jewish influence over the political process are powering accusations that Jews are manipulating the system. Coupled with insidious allegations of dual loyalty that draw into question the allegiance of Jews in the U.S., they could also hold the potential for a precarious Jewish future in America.
On Friday, President Trump doubled down on his response to the 2017 "Unite the Right" march in Charlottesville, Virginia, where demonstrators were heard chanting "Jews will not replace us" and "into the ovens" in the streets. Although criticized at the time for saluting "very fine people on both sides," Trump told reporters this past weekend that he had "answered perfectly."
Even if he had replied befittingly - which he hadn't - the president was irresponsible for reprising what was then characterized widely as a dog whistle to elements of the extreme right.
The next morning, the international edition of the New York Times – no fan of the current administration - chose to attack Trump in a maneuver that, once again, placed the Jews in the dock.
Suggesting that the president is somehow beholden to Jewish interests, the paper published an editorial cartoon portraying a blind Trump, with a kippah atop his head, being led along by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – represented as a dog with a Star of David collar.
Trump and the New York Times, like plenty of other politicians and media outlets, push back regularly against charges that they are tainted by prejudice against Jews or Israel.
Speaking in Wisconsin on Saturday, the president offered condolences to the victims of the Poway shooting, condemning "the evil of anti-Semitism and hate, which must be defeated." An editorial note in Monday's New York Times will acknowledge in print that the cartoon "included anti-Semitic tropes," was "offensive" and should not have appeared in the paper.
But apologies - and it's doubtful that these even qualify - are insufficient. They cannot reverse the damage inflicted when authoritative opinion-makers give sustenance to the worst instincts of their devotees. The obligation of leadership is to avoid these disgraceful pitfalls in the first place.
America's strongest suit is the decency and resilience of its people, often called upon to provide the example that their leaders fail to deliver. The outpouring of compassion and solidarity for the embattled Jewish communities of Pittsburgh and, now, Poway, remind us thankfully that good people will always rise to the occasion and show the ethical backbone that too many of their leaders have lost.
Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Twitter: @ShalomLipner
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