Opinion |

America's Synagogues Are Burning: A Turning Point for U.S. Jews

Pittsburgh and Poway were an abstract horror for me until last week, when the arson wave hit my own Chicago synagogue. U.S. Jews now join Europe's Jews in facing ongoing anti-Semitic violence against us and our sanctuaries

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Surveillance video screenshot from about 12:30 a.m. Sunday near Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation in the city's Lakeview neighborhood showing the suspect who threw Molotov cocktails at the synagogue, May 19, 2019.
Surveillance video screenshot near Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation in the city's Lakeview neighborhood showing the suspect who threw Molotov cocktails at the synagogue, May 19, 2019.Credit: ,AP

As the stroke of midnight on the second night of Passover drew near, Rabbanit Leah Sarna beckoned sleepy congregants, including myself, attending the synagogue’s communal seder to stand by the heavy carved oak doors of entry-hall as we welcomed the prophet Elijah into our midst.

For the first time in the "after Pittsburgh" epoch of American Judaism, we recited the controversial passage of the Haggadah calling on God to "Pour Out Thy Wrath" on the nations who target the Jewish people. As the chilly Chicago air drifted in through the open doors, it felt, this year, like an act of vulnerability - and determination.

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Only a few days later, the news came of the attack at the Chabad Center of Poway at the end of the Passover festival. As unnerving and unprecedented as recent terrorist attacks against Jewish houses of worship, and the dramatic increase in anti-Semitic incidents has been this year, it, thankfully, remained for me a kind of abstract horror of American Jewish history.

Until this week.

A month to the day after Passover, the immunity my synagogue and Jewish community in Chicago had enjoyed ended. Sunday afternoon, Rabbi David Wolkenfeld sent out an urgent email to the Anshe Sholom Bnai Israel congregation, alerting us to an attempted arson at the synagogue.

In the dead of night, an unknown perpetrator apparently threw several lit Molotov cocktails at the building. The incendiary devices had miraculously failed to break through the beautiful stained-glass windows that would have set the entire sanctuary ablaze.

True, the attack was unsuccessful, and was carried out (deliberately?) when our house of worship was unoccupied but it takes little imagination to picture a different scenario, scenes from the Jewish historical rolodex of fires burning Torahs and humans together.

Together with news of similar attacks on Chabad houses in Massachusetts before Shabbat (was this a copy-cat attack?), and another suspicious incident in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago over the weekend, the vivid images of Jews in the United States being burned out of their homes and houses of worship started to sound like a 21st century U.S. pogrom.

The Passover Haggadah’s pivotal question is: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" This year, an equally abiding question for American Jews might as well be: "How is the American Jewish experience different from that of all other Jews?"

I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about U.S Jewish assertions of unfettered opportunity and freedom from discrimination that we’ve found here, knowing our history, and my personal experience of both opportunities and anti-Semitism.

But this commonplace narrative of American Jewish exceptionalism has led some U.S. Jews to look with pity, if not outright condescension, at the fortress synagogues of Europe, at Diaspora Jews’ fear of physical harm, and the inadvisability of visible displays of Jewish identity in many other parts of the world.

But the question U.S. Jews now face is whether we are now much different from other Jewish Diasporas. We too are now a vulnerable, threatened minority in a democratic society.

After three centuries touting our successful assimilation and acceptance in American society, we must now consider whether we’re on the same trajectory as our co-religionists abroad. Violent attacks against U.S. Jewish targets doubled last year, according to ADL data; vandalism and harassment are at near record-high levels.

A menorah is installed before Hanukkah outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, scene of the worst massacre of Jews in U.S. history. Oct 27, 2018 Dec. 2, 2018Credit: Gene J. Puskar,AP

Many American Jews want to understand Pittsburgh as an aberration, a once-in-a-generation tragedy. But facing a daily iteration of anti-Semitic incidents and more deadly violence - and mindful of our responsibility for our next generation and the necessity to speak in good faith - we can’t frame the American Jewish future like that anymore.

For a professional historian, I seem to have a knack for being in the right place at the wrong time. This, the year violent anti-Semitism returned to America, I returned to the U.S. from a five year fellowship in the UK.

At the Oxford Jewish Congregation I passed through the security cordon on the way into shul (the unarmed police and lay security team was disconcerting to American sensibilities) and visited synagogues and Jewish communal centers across Europe patrolled by police with assault rifles in tow.

European Jews have been confronting anti-Semitic dangers on daily basis for years, but it is still hard to fathom that nearly 75 years after Auschwitz, Jews were hiding from ISIS storm troopers in the Hyper-Cacher kosher supermarket’s basement freezer or that anti-Semites around the world are trying to torch synagogues.

Yet little did I think American Jews would soon be hiding in the cloakroom of Pittsburgh’s Congregation Etz Chaim, or it would be my synagogue in a residential neighborhood of Chicago that would be firebombed.

Yisroel Goldstein, Rabbi of Chabad of Poway, holds a yellow rose at the funeral for Lori Kaye, pictured at left, killed by a gunman who opened fire during Passover services. April 29, 2019Credit: Gregory Bull,AP

Perhaps recent generations have unconsciously airbrushed from American Jewish historical memory the fact that synagogues have been the focus of far-right attacks for decades.

As non-Chicago native, only in writing this piece did I myself learn that the Conservative synagogue in the same Chicago neighborhood as mine was bombed in the 1960s and the target of anti-Semitic graffiti in 2012. In 2014 another Chicago synagogue was smashed and marked with swastikas; and in 2017, a perpetrator spraypainted swastikas on a Chicago synagogue door and smashed a window.

These and many other incidents have long been part of an underground sub-culture of Jew-hatred. Perhaps the most famous public assertion of post-Holocaust anti-Semitism in America took place in the Chicago area: The Nationalist Socialist Party of America’s attempt to march in Skokie in 1977. And a self-proclaimed Nazi and Holocaust denier, who won the GOP nomination, even won 26% of the vote in the 2018 Congressional elections here in Illinois.

White nationalist anti-Semitism has been reactivated, after a period of relative dormancy, targeting not only Jewish houses of worship, but mosques and black churches as well. It is the return of the repressed historical underbelly of America that defines "American" as white and hates all non-white races and creeds. It is a danger we know as Jews all too well - and one that is firmly on the communal horizon, as an imminent threat to our peace and prosperity.

But will we face the weaponization of another kind of anti-Semitism, from the other side of the political spectrum? I witnessed the rise of an institutionalized, venomous anti-Semitism within the UK Labor party, and I wonder if the Cobynization of the halls of Congress has already begun.

I saw see the solidarity between the anti-Zionist radical left and terrorist movements like Hamas and Hezbollah, whose systematic anti-Semitism equals their commitment to annihilating the Jewish state. I see a new generation who are asked to check their Zionism at the door of progressive spaces and are shunned for suggesting that Jewish identity politics are as valid as any other groups'.

French policewomen stand guard outside the Nazareth Synagogue in Paris, France. October 7, 2012Credit: AFP

I worry that Diaspora Jewry may soon face a two-front anti-Semitic war. Perhaps we will soon need to look both ways before we cross the street to enter our synagogues.

Will we acquiesce in the normalization of anti-Semitic violence in America? Is it imaginable that, one day in the not too distant future, we’ll say: Oh, another one on the news, you say? That our lack of capacity to end the attacks will engender outcry – then helplessness and apathy?

Will the long-forgotten image of Israel as a safe-haven suddenly appeal to a new generation of U.S. Jews? (That’s highly unlikely if historical trends on aliyah have anything to tell us.) Will we see the Diaspora-Israel relationship differently - not a positive sense of solidarity or a shared vision and vocabulary, but just dread and fear of a common danger?

The American Jewish community may now be stepping on to the same path well-trodden by other Diaspora communities - but we don’t have to travel solo.

Our emerging predicament may actually offer new opportunities to be in dialogue and solidarity with the global Jewish diaspora; and a newfound understanding of what Israelis confront may also inspire new conversations and commitments.

And even if bonding over common enemies isn't a panacea to resolve all inter-communal tensions, this new reality does offer an opportunity for engagement and empathy with U.S. Muslims and black Christians, who have also been targeted – conversations that might build trust and confidence for other difficult conversations.

Most importantly, American Jews will keep honoring what brought them to the Goldineh Medinah in the first place: a place for members of all faiths and none to make their unique contributions to the fabric of the United States.

Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn is Visiting Assistant Professor of Israel Studies at Northwestern University and author of City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement Since 1967 (Harvard University Press). Twitter: @SaraHirschhorn1

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