The 11 people slaughtered as they worshiped Oct. 27 at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue were not chosen because of who they were — Bernice and Sylvan Simon, married 60 years and still holding hands in public; Daniel Stein, a 71-year-old man thrilled to be a grandfather for the first time; Irving Younger, whose neat little brick house was just a few miles from where he was born; Richard Gottfried, a dentist who often provided no-cost services to those who couldn’t afford them; Joyce Fienberg, the warm, elegant woman who was at the synagogue every day to pray for her deceased husband; Melvin Wax, the diehard Pittsburgh Pirates fan who took up any odd job that needed doing at Tree of Life; Rose Mallinger, the 97-year-old who, as a young woman, watched the Holocaust unfold in distant Europe.
These 11 people, those who were hit but survived, and the others who ran or hid as the gunfire echoed through Tree of Life, weren’t even targeted for what they believed — not what they really believed. Instead, they died because a twisted soul fomented a delusional fantasy that cast them as faceless villains.
It changes from massacre to massacre. On one June evening in 2015, they were African-American congregants at a Charleston prayer service. A year later, patrons attending Latin-music night at the Pulse nightclub, an Orlando gay bar. Sometimes there was a tenuous personal connection — the man who murdered five employees of The Capital in Annapolis, Maryland nursed a long-standing grudge over a story published eight years prior. Others were targeted seemingly at random — people at a concert on a Las Vegas night, or children attending high school in Parkland, Florida, or elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
American Jews, in particular, know what it feels like to be irrational targets of sick, dehumanizing hatred. Throughout history, they have been the identified targets of bizarre conspiracy theories, the scapegoats of paranoia. The New York Times reports that the Anti-Defamation League documented a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017.
Yet free speech — even hateful speech — is not the enemy. Nor is the hotly debated right to bear arms.
Hatred is most likely to flourish when average Americans look aside, rather than confront it. Many Americans seem more concerned about being tagged with derision as “politically correct” than they are about contradicting bias and bigotry. This must change. Most of us have no problem living in harmony with — even befriending, or loving — those with whom we disagree on matters of politics, lifestyle or faith. And the vast majority of Americans reject the idea that hate could ever be a national value.
Stand up, and say so. Keep saying it even after the news of this latest tragedy fades, before the next one happens, or the next. Confront it wherever it crops up, with consistency, logic and moral certitude. Make it clear that Americans themselves — not some shadowy government conspiracy — reject hatred and will not tolerate scapegoating.
We are better than this, and we must re-commit to showing it.