We have been saying Kaddish all week for eleven people murdered in the sanctuary of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. We have said it in our schuls, standing in the autumnal chill at candlelight vigils, contemplatively in the solitude of our homes. For many of us, it is a profound expression of faith; for others, it is a habit that has returned in a moment of horror and grief. The first Aramaic words come easily, even when we can’t remember the whole prayer: יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא, yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba…

We have said these words before, for the dead of Babi Yar, Kishinev, Würzburg, Mainz, York, and so many places of horror over two millennia. But this time feels different. Kishinev was in 1903. Babi Yar was in 1941. This was Pittsburgh, in the United States of America, in the 21st century. We told ourselves that it wouldn’t happen again. As Laurie Goodstein wrote in the New York Times this week, the taunts, the violence, the murder are merely half-remembered murmurings of a distant past.

But that’s a lie, and we know it. Antisemitism is the background static of our daily lives, a persistent and unremitting noise that we have chosen to ignore, or choose to live with. “The fathomless hatred has never ceased to smoulder,” the great German-Jewish novelist Jacob Wassermann wrote in 1921, “the Jew drew a deep breath whenever it did not actually scorch him.”[1]

The history of the Jewish experience has been a negotiation with antisemitism. European Jewish culture coalesced in medieval ghettos, subject to the often-homicidal suspicion of our Gentile neighbors and the cynical “protection” of their princes. Wassermann described our history as “centuries of accumulated criminal fury, ruthless massacre, spiritual and bodily ravishment, malicious slander, systematic blood-baiting mitigated by no scruples whatsoever, fanatical persecution to the point of utter exhaustion of the victims…”[2]

Yet the Enlightenment, liberalization and modernity offered relief. By the latter half of the 19th Century Europe’s Jews believed that they had found a way around antisemitism in the universities and professions that had begun to open to us. Secular modernity promised us citizenship in the wider community, and we enthusiastically lent our efforts to modernity’s science, philosophy, and art. But the promise was, at best, a half-truth. Wasserman ruefully noted that a German Jew was “a double concept which even to the disinterested lays bare copious misunderstandings, tragedies, conflicts, quarrels and sufferings.”[3]

Even this conflicted half-citizenship came at the price of outward conformity and visible assimilation, but it was one that we were mostly willing to pay, particularly in America, the global heart of secular modernity. We stepped onto the streets of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, cut off our payot, hid our tzitzim, and changed our names. Levi became Lewis, Kaplan became Copland, Wallechinsky became Wallace.

Perhaps it was a fair bargain. In any case, we accepted it as part of a social contract that offered access to a universalizing citizenship. We would become Americans because America did not demand that we stop being Jews. We were full members of a community that we helped build and enrich with our talents and hard work. American Jews were jurists and physicists, we wrote American novels and poems, composed the Great American Songbook, discovered vaccines, pitched no-hitters in the major leagues, and constructed the national mythology on the silver screen.

We agreed to at least pretend to enjoy the holiday party, as long as our Gentile neighbors didn’t push too hard on the Christ part of Christmas. So we lustily sang along with the songs that demanded figgy pudding, avoided the ones about “Christ our Savior,” and added a few of our own about anodyne things like chestnuts, open fires and winter wonderlands. It could be a tightrope; we trimmed the Chanukah bush and welcomed the time off, but we always felt self-consciously conspicuous when we had to leave early on Friday afternoon, or asked for time off for Yom Kippur.

We had reason to feel self-conscious, for we did not leave antisemitism behind when we crossed the Atlantic. There have always been slanderous whispers, and sometimes even shouts. For Henry Ford we were a global banking conspiracy, for Father Coughlin we were Communist globalists intent on subverting Americanism, capitalism, and liberty. The contradictions hardly mattered; it was so easy for many Americans to believe. It still is.

I devoted my US History class on the Monday after the shooting to a discussion about antisemitism, racism, and mass murder. Out of the blue, one student asked “what is Zionism?” I turned the question back to my students and asked them what Zionism means. After a pause one of them spoke up. “When I was younger, people always used to tell me that Zionism was the Jewish plan to take over the world,” he said, before hastily adding “but now I know that’s not true.”

“What about George Soros?” another asked.

We feel the pinprick of antisemitism every day in a hundred microaggressions so trivial that they are easy to repress and let pass. We laugh along, usually uncomfortably, at the jokes about Jewish girls or foreskins; we sigh when civic events begin or end with “non-denominational” benedictions invoking Jesus Christ; we avert our eyes from the stereotyped Jews of popular and high culture. Edith Wharton’s Simon Rosedale and Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz are cut from the same bigoted cloth: they are smart, successful, but morally-hollow kikes who lust after shiksas.

We are such good sports that we resolve the conflict between the persistent, quotidian antisemitism of Jewish life in America and our tenuous membership in the American community by donning Jewface, playing along, and turning the stereotypes around. There is a kind of empowerment in it; Woody Allen’s nebbishes, like Alvy Singer and Leonard Zelig, were always a satire of the Gentile gaze that sought to demean them, and Jerry Seinfeld’s scandalous tryst during Schindler’s List was a sharp critique of Hollywood’s fetishization of the Holocaust.[4]

We play the neurotic Jew because our playacting is our neurosis: even the most audacious détournements endorse unremarked, tolerated antisemitic insults. The scatological brilliance of The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel exists very much in relation to, and in relief with America’s most persistent – and misogynistic – antisemitic slur. You can almost hear the JAP drop her nail file with each of Midge Maisel’s jokes.[5]

We repressed the insults and slurs so we could believe that we were full members of the American community, and because of that, antisemitism could never take the form of a pogrom.

We were wrong on both counts.

The social contract that guaranteed our cultural citizenship, our Americanness, began to crumble in the 1980s with the election of Ronald Reagan and the rise of neo-Conservatism. It was subtle at first; Jews could be conservatives just as they could be liberals – and many were. To some of us, the Republican Party’s commitment to Israel was reassuring.

But in the last few years, the words and actions of the most zealous and potent champions of Christian America have pushed Jews ever closer to the margins of the American community until, in their minds, we have been excluded from it completely.

Its power supercharged by the crisis of white masculinity, the Christian Right that had been mobilized at the start of the current century by George W. Bush and fears of an apocalyptic “clash of civilizations” after 9/11 has nearly succeeded in constructing a cultural-political hegemony. Evangelical conservatives control the agendas and terms of the debates over reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, marriage equality and, above all “religious freedom.” Engaging with the debate at all means legitimizing parochial Christian ideology as American values and, in effect, deligitimizing the American secularism that ensured Jewish cultural citizenship.

The “War on Christmas” controversy promoted by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News is only the most absurd – and poignant – manifestation of the anti-secular hegemony. To demand that Americans remember “the reason for the season” and return to civic and commercial displays of Christian iconography in holiday observance is to explicitly repudiate the social contract that our citizenship relied upon.

O’Reilly might be a nutcase – that is, a meshugenner – but his craziness is part of a wave of crosses, angels, statuary, and pronouncements from TV screens and town council meetings. When President Trump confidently announced in October 2017 that “we’re going to be saying Merry Christmas again,” he was heralding the end of the culture war and the death of secular America. The statement might be premature and aspirational, but it sent a clear signal to those of us who cannot celebrate the birth of the Christian savior that we do not belong in the America of a president blessed and endorsed by the evangelical, Dominionist Church Militant. It amplified his message that at the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville two months earlier “there were very fine people, on both sides.” You can only be a good American, a “fine person,” while chanting “The Jews will not replace us” in a political culture where Jews are not citizens at all.

We were shocked by the massacre in Pittsburgh, but I doubt that many of us were surprised. This was a pogrom, and we have seen those many, many times before. It feels like all of the rhetoric, the politics of division, and the mobilization of an explicitly Christian national identity have been leading to this exact point. The talk of globalists, of a shady anti-conservative, anti-Christian, anti-American cabal led by foreigners with names like Soros could add up to one thing. Neither President Trump nor the evangelical Christian leaders of the Republican Party ordered the massacre. They didn’t have to.

In many cases, the pogroms of Europe were neither planned nor directed by government or military authorities. They were invariably the work of mobs who, inspired by hatred legitimized by authority, sought to erase the other in their midst. Jan Gross observes in Neighbors that the Nazis never forced anyone to kill Jews. “In other words,” he writes, “the so-called local population involved in killings of Jews did so of its own free will.”[6]

The genocidal mob that murdered as many as 1,600 Jews at Jedwabne in July 1941 needed no direct orders or instructions. All they needed was a social consensus that excluded their long-time Jewish neighbors from the community, denied their citizenship, and placed them beyond the protections of the social contract.

Robert Bowers did not need a direct order from Donald Trump or the Republican Party to inspire his rampage in Pittsburgh. It was enough for him to know that his antisemitism was legitimate, that his national community was under threat of invasion from the outside, and that this invasion was sponsored by others within his community’s borders, and that is what Trump’s America gave him.

Nor did it end with the last bullet Bowers fired from his assault rifle. Nothing that has happened in the last week has restored our citizenship. The president’s initial tweeted condemnation of the violence neglected to acknowledge at all that the victims were Jews; later, he blamed the “anger” in America on the “inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news” before enjoying a World Series baseball game. It is almost as if the death of Jews does not matter.

Indeed, Vice President Mike Pence’s introduction at a campaign rally of the messianic Jewish “rabbi” Loren Jacobs as a “leader of the Jewish community” amplified the message to an ear-splitting volume. “Rabbi” Jacobs began a memorial prayer “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God and father of my lord and savior Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, and my God and father, too.” He then prayed “for the Republican Party and its candidates so that they would honor you and your ways, that you might grant them victory in this election.” This was no Kaddish.

The message, however, was clear: The only Jews who belong in the America of Mike Pence, Donald Trump, and the Republican Party are Christian Jews, or Jews-as-props, or Jews-as-collaborators. And in the America of Robert Bowers and many, many more like him, the only good Jews are dead Jews.

This will happen again.

יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא.


[1] Jacob Wassermann, My Life as German and Jew, tr. S.N. Brainin (New York: Coward-McCann Inc., 1933), 275.

[2] Wassermann, 274.

[3] Wassermann, 1.

[4] “The Raincoats,” Seinfeld, Season 5, Episodes 18 and 19.

[5] “Q: How do you know when a JAP has an orgasm? A: She drops her nail file.”

[6] Jan Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 133.