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After Pittsburgh, remember: We’re in this together

By Rabbi Michael Knopf | 11/1/2018, 6 a.m.
The resurgence of a newly emboldened white supremacy is the challenge of our time. The attack at the Tree of ...

Rabbi Michael Knopf

Rabbi Michael Knopf

The resurgence of a newly emboldened white supremacy is the challenge of our time.

The attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, in which 11 Jews were murdered as they gathered for Sabbath prayers, was but the most tragic of recent battlefronts. A day earlier, a heavily armed man in Kentucky attempted to murder worshippers at an African-American church and, when he couldn’t get in, went next door and killed two African-Americans at a grocery store.

Demonizing anyone who can be called other — Jews, Muslims, Latinos, African-Americans, Sikhs, immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers — has become a grotesque new normal.

The magnitude of the threat has grown because, for the first time in recent memory, major public officials are giving new power to these hateful ideologies. Through word and deed, promise and policy, silence and sympathy, previously marginal forces have been encouraged to feel that this is their moment — their opportunity to “take their country back.”

Theirs is a chilling vision of white power, espousing the dominance of white, Christian men and the subjugation — or worse — of everyone else.

More than merely anti-Semitic, white supremacy targets people of color, immigrants, women and LGBTQ people — anyone who reflects our country’s historical shift toward diversity, pluralism and egalitarianism.

Remember, the alleged gunman in Pittsburgh had a record of deep-seated animus not only against Jews, but also against African-Americans, Hispanics, immigrants and refugees. Remember, too, that Oct. 12 marked the 50th anniversary of one of the other worst acts of anti-Semitic terror in American history — the bombing of The Temple in my hometown of Atlanta because of that congregation’s participation in the Civil Rights Movement.

The same menace that targets Jews encompasses glorifying the Confederacy, lionizing Jim Crow and torching mosques. It is the same force that animates policies like mass deportation and mass incarceration; building border walls and banning Muslims; tolerating sexual assault and curtailing voting rights. It fuels international know-nothingism, climate denial and war. By denigrating the worth of anyone but white, Christian men, white supremacy imperils us all.

These are indeed troubled times. The enemy we face together is formidable, resilient and persistent.

History can be our teacher in times like these. In her masterful study of resistance against the Nazi regime, historian Nechama Tec tells of brave efforts to limit and subvert Nazi brutality. True, those efforts didn’t topple Hitler or save every Jewish life. But through courageous action, oppression was periodically thwarted and many lives were saved.

What was the key to resistance against the Nazis? First and foremost, resistance required cooperation.

It’s true that Jews bravely helped each other during the Holocaust. But that’s only a small part of the story. Hundreds of thousands of European Jews owe their lives to what we call the “righteous among the nations,” non-Jews who defied Nazi cruelty.

What motivated average non-Jewish Europeans to risk their lives to save Jews?

The answer is surprisingly simple, yet its lesson for our moment is critical. Non-Jews who knew Jews helped Jews. By and large, those who would become the Righteous Among the Nations started out simply as non-Jews who happened to have Jewish friends.