Opinion

As Pittsburgh Jews, We Will Mourn Our Dead by Mobilizing for Refugees

Our big, florid president shouted about a 'caravan.' The shooter joined the mob declaring: The Jews are behind it all. To which our answer is: We, as Jews, will welcome every single person seeking safety and opportunity

Members of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, whose slogan is 'Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee,' protest in Washington, D.C.,  September 14, 2017
AFP

We all knew that it was going to happen. It was impossible to imagine that it would not.

There had been the attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse, in France. There had been Dylann Roof. There had been - and still are - politicians resurrecting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in their evil, hook-nosed caricature of George Soros.

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There were the red-faced "patriots" screaming about Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter. There was Charlottesville.

There was our big, florid president and all of his cable news enablers shouting about a so-called caravan of asylum seekers, still 1000 miles away, and there were the thousands of social media accounts, right there in the open, unmoderated and brushed off by the authorities, saying that the Jews were behind it all.

Still. That it happened here. A short walk up Wilkins Avenue from my parents’ house. At a congregation where we have friends. Two congregations where we have friends, in fact, since they share the building.

I expected to read that someone had shot up a synagogue in St. Louis or a Day School in Cleveland or a JCC in almost any other average, anonymous American city, and I expected to read it and think, sadly: I knew this was going to happen.

But it didn’t happen in another city, and to another Jewish community. It happened to mine.

A woman reacts at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday's shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 29, 2018
\ CATHAL MCNAUGHTON/ REUTERS

I remember when Rhoda’s Deli on the corner of Murray Avenue and Douglas Street in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh changed its name to Kazansky’s, which felt like the passing of an era, even though I’m not convinced anything else about the business really changed.

My dad is old enough to remember when it was called Cohen’s, before it was Rhoda’s. My grandmother, who is 95, two years younger than Rose Mallinger, murdered in synagogue on Saturday, but old enough to remember when it was Polansky’s and, before that, Hebrew National.

Kazansky’s closed in 2010 in a wave of post-recession business busts in the neighborhood, when the whole commercial district seemed on the verge of ruin. It remained dark for several years, but now there is an Indian restaurant called Coriander in that same storefront.

The neighborhood always had a couple of Chinese restaurants. What Jewish enclave in America wouldn't?

But now it has no less than four excellent Sichuan joints and a Taiwanese noodle house with the best soup dumplings between New York and Vancouver. It still has the pizza parlors we went to when I was a kid, but one of the sit-down Italian restaurants left and was replaced with Vietnamese. There is a tea house called Dobra Tea, a franchise named for a group of communist-era Czech tea smugglers, though owned locally by an Italian guy.

Squirrel Hill is still a Jewish neighborhood. It lies within an eruv where you can see men in black hats and women in wigs and long skirts pushing strollers on Saturday morning, as well as fashionable couples getting out of BMWs and Audis for Reform services at Temple Sinai on Friday night.

But it is also a Chinese neighborhood and an Indian neighborhood. There are people speaking Cantonese and Spanish in the Carnegie Library branch on Murray and Forbes. You’ll hear Russian on the street.

This change - new people, new languages, new businesses and cuisines - far from diluting the Jewish character of the neighborhood has made it seem more so, at least to me.

The overflow crowd outside Pittsburgh's Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum where a memorial event was held for victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. Oct. 28, 2018
Matt Rourke,AP

How many times in our Diaspora have we found that the countries, kingdoms, and empires where we’d been living for generations, sometimes comfortably and sometimes precariously, suddenly decided we were no longer welcome? How many times, fleeing persecution, have we found ourselves strangers in a strange land?

So it is only right that, having established ourselves in this pretty, prosperous neighborhood in this this thriving, lovely city, we should welcome those who, like us, left their homes in search of their own measure of safety and prosperity.

That sentiment stands in stark contravention of the tenor of our times. The man who killed 11 of us on this past Shabbat allegedly marinated in a rhetoric that our press and pundits still call "extremist" because - fools or cowards - they are unwilling to grapple with the fact that it is now the common language of our culture and politics.

This man believed that Jews were conspiring to bring an army of racialized invaders into America from the South, to kill and rape and spread disease and destroy white civilization.

There’s no need to dip into obscure online message boards and underground publications to hear that sort of talk. It’s on Fox, CNN, and MSNBC. It’s in campaign commercials. NPR, in an insanely misguided attempt to debunk him, allowed one of the organizers of the violent rightwing riot in Charlottesville, where they chanted "Jews will not replace us" and murdered a woman with a car, to rank the races on air

"We don’t want them in our country," the president says. "This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!"  

And the feckless Democratic opposition is scarcely better, tying themselves in knots to deny that they want "open borders" and constructing elaborate hierarchies of their own, in which immigrants are either deserving meritocrats - so-called Dreamers, college graduates, "highly skilled workers" - or necessary low-wage workers for our slaughterhouses, farms, and golf courses: guest workers in all but name.

You will find virtually no one on the national stage who will dare say that immigration is a virtually unalloyed good, that those in need of refuge and asylum and those who simply seek economic and social opportunity should all - all! - be welcomed.

A police officer walks past the Tree of Life Synagogue and a memorial of flowers and stars in Pittsburgh. Oct. 28, 2018
Gene J. Puskar,AP

Now the very politicians who built this vicious environment will descend on our city to offer platitudes. The president is coming, and will tell us again that we should have been better armed. He will studiously ignore the work of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, since he believes, as did the alleged killer, that they "bring invaders in that kill our people."

Even Israel sent us its "Minister of Diaspora Affairs," Naftali Bennett, despite the fact that Israel’s newly passed Jewish Nation State Law enshrines discriminatory ethnic citizenship in Israeli law, despite the fact that Bennett, a far-right politician, views America’s Conservative and Reform Jews with a combination of condescension and disdain.

What we have learned in the Diaspora is that one is a citizen precisely until one is not. We have also learned what it is to become stateless and to have the doors of refuge closed to us.

It is one of the great blessings of my life to be associated, by accident of birth and geography, with a community that remembers this, and seeks through both direct action and simple daily coexistence to make its own home a home for anyone in the world.

I know that despite these deaths, it is something for which we will continue to live.

Jacob Bacharach is a writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of the novel The Bend of the World. Twitter: @jakebackpack