Visiting America for the first time, in the 1980s, in my 20s, I was stunned and hugely appreciative. As a Jew who had grown up in England, I marveled that here, in the United States, I didn’t sense that people, upon hearing my name, were noting and registering, negatively, “ah, Jewish.” I’d grown up with that undertone of anti-Semitism in the Britain of the 1970s and early 1980s, and in America, it didn’t seem to exist.
In a Britain where the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn might well form the next government, the anti-Semitic undertone is now an overtone. Many British Jews feel vulnerable, targeted, deterred from publicly identifying with the Jewish homeland. Corbyn, just weeks ago, it will be recalled, wanted his party to declare that it is just fine, and not at all anti-Semitic, to assert that Israel is a racist endeavor.
But for all the growing hostility facing the quarter-million-plus Jews in England, the six million in the United States are, all too plainly, in greater immediate danger.
A tidal wave of hatred has risen and, with Saturday’s massacre of Jews at prayer in Pittsburgh — middle-aged and elderly women and men, slaughtered in a synagogue — vicious hostility has become mass killing.
There will always be extremists; in the climate of today’s America, they feel emboldened. And in today’s America, unlike the UK, obtaining the weaponry to turn dark thoughts into murderous action is straightforward.
Today’s America is polarized and shrill, increasingly intolerant, much of it engaged in an orgy of hatred on social media — an online factory of extremism.
Judaism, at its heart, contains the remedy: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others,” as Hillel summarized it. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Leviticus commands and Rabbi Akiva describes as a basic principle. Follow that, and nobody dies at prayer in Pittsburgh, or anywhere else.
Watching from Israel as the Pittsburgh community grapples with the shattering impact of what is being described as the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in US history, we mourn and we worry. We worry that this safe refuge of ours — where our norm is to be beloved by some but also widely loathed and misrepresented and targeted; where we too are not immune to murderous intolerance; where, crucially, we are responsible, stand or fall, for our own defense — might become a necessary haven for American Jews. We’d welcome a wave of aliya by choice; heaven forbid a wave of aliya by necessity.
One terrible shooting spree does not spell the end of America’s extraordinarily tolerant climate for Jewish people. But it will mark the beginning of the end if that vital Jewish value of loving thy neighbor as thyself does not reassert itself. The beginning of the end not only for America’s Jews, but also for the wonder that is America.
The Jewish people has survived because the divine precept at the core of our faith is essential for all. Jews, and others, are being targeted in America because that core precept is being forgotten.
This may sound simplistic. It is basic humanity.