The shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, represents a new and dismal milestone in our experience of terrorism. As this magazine reports, the local Catholic ordinary, Bishop Zubik, has been swift to condemn the action and to offer the sympathy and solidarity of Catholics.
There have been Jews in America since colonial times, but the major immigration of Jews in America began in the 1880’s and continued until the First World War. These immigrants came from the Russian Empire and they came seeking a place of safety and refuge from the government-sponsored campaign of pogroms. These pogroms predated the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, but they became much more intense after it. They were the Tsarist government’s attempt to blame the woes on Russia on a supposedly alien element, and they continued even after Tsardom had fallen.
Nicholas II, in his imprisonment in Siberia, as his surviving writings make clear, blamed the Jews for the Revolution. Just recently no less a person that Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has hinted that Nicholas II’s murder, along with that of his entire family (truly an abominable crime) was the work of non-Russians. Other more extreme voices have made the claim that the Tsar’s death was the result of ritual murder by Jews. This reminds us just how virulent a hatred the Russian Jews sought to escape. And now, tragically, the same sort of conspiracy theory has possessed a murderer in Pittsburgh, with calamitous consequences.
America, for the Jews who arrived there from Russia, was always “The Golden Land”, a place where they could not only worship freely, but live where they liked, and pursue whatever vocation they pleased. The section on Jewish migration to the United States is deeply enlightening in Simon Schama’s great Story of the Jews, and is also perhaps the most interesting and entertaining part of that magisterial book.
Of course, there has always been anti-Semitism in America of the country club variety, but there have never been murderous attacks – until now. That was, and still is, a European phenomenon. But now the Golden Land itself has been desecrated with Jewish blood. America has never been the sort of place where forgeries like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion have gained traction. But is that about to change? Let us hope not.
In the acres of commentary that the Pittsburgh attack has already generated and will continue to do so, someone may well have already pointed out that this attack is bad, not just for the Jews, but for everyone in America. America was founded by people who did not want to be European, and who wanted to get away from Europe and its injustices. Now the very worst of Europe has followed them across the Atlantic. Before this anti-Semitism spreads and becomes unremarkable, America needs to return to its roots with a period of deep self-reflection. This sort of violence is death to the American dream, poison to the American soul: it must be rejected by everyone, and extirpated wherever it is found.