‘Hitler did not care what kind of Jew you were. Why should we?’
Unity among Jews.
Who defines it?
What makes it meaningful?
In what way can it be fallacious?
We all know that the differences and distinctions that Jews draw among themselves on religious, political and other lines make no difference to anti-Semites. To them, a Jew is a Jew, and a Jew is an enemy. The person who carried this to the most absurd and most lethal lengths was Hitler, who defined Jewishness backward a couple of generations even when the successive generations had converted out and were no longer Jews in any sense, according to any Jew’s definition.
This is how the evil mind worked in Pittsburgh as he targeted a synagogue of one religious stripe while he could just as well have targeted a synagogue of another religious stripe. To him, it made no difference whether one was Conservative, or Reconstructionist, or Orthodox, or Reform, or Renewal; and, for that matter, it made no difference to him whether the Jewish worshippers were Democrats or Republicans, believers or atheists, Zionists or non-Zionists, immigrants or native born, etc. He did care that Tree of Life supported immigrants, but so do countless other synagogues. The specific character of Tree of Life made no difference to him.
And if it made no difference when he and others like him come to kill the Jews, then it should make no difference to Jews, either. Hitler drew no distinction when he came for the Jews. We were all Jews in his eyes. And if we were all good enough to be killed as Jews, then we are all Jews. Stop the Jew v. Jew!
This perspective is an emotionally powerful argument, recalling the unique terrors of the Holocaust. But consider:
It hands over the right to define a Jew to Hitler and to his like. It assigns to our worst enemies the right to define who a Jew is. It hands them authority over us in our essence, our own self-definition. It enables the haters. Is this really what Jews want? We hope not.
It troubles us that Israel has adopted the Nazi definition of a Jew for the purposes of the Law of Return. It’s as if Jewish identity is defined by the Nazis.
If religious, political and other differences between Jews are to be bridged, it should not be on the basis of the thoughts of those who want to murder us. It should be on an entirely different basis, a positive one — the basis of ahavat Yisrael, love between Jews. A unity putatively imposed upon Jews at the time of their most negative vulnerability — when the Hitlers and Hamases and Robert Bowerses (of Pittsburgh) come for us — is repugnant. Real Jewish unity is a beautiful, internal, intrinsically Jewish aspiration, not an ugly, external, intrinsically evil one.
Of course, real Jewish unity does not obliterate the legitimate differences among us, but embraces the underlying commonality all Jews share.
It troubled us that some in the Jewish community commemorated only the death of 11 individual Jews in Pittsburgh, though they surely deserve individual respect, remembrance and mourning. But it was not just individuals who were targeted in Pittsburg. Consider:
Had this very same killer opened fire not in the Tree of Life synagogue, but, say, in the Pittsburgh Steelers stadium, and had he even killed the very same people whom he did kill in Tree of Life synagogue, we would have all called this terrible deed a terrible coincidence: every victim in a random act of mass murder was a Jew! The Jewish community per se would not have been shaken. The question of the safety of our synagogues would not have been raised. The destiny of Jews in America would not have been put in question.
It was only because the murderer selected his targets in a synagogue that the Jewish community in America was shaken to the core. It was only because it was a synagogue he chose, and not an accidental crowd of Jews somewhere else, that the Jewish community reeled. The murderer took aim at the Jewish collectivity, the Jewish people as a whole, not only at 11 individual Jews, martyrs though they surely are.
We reeled not because, to the murderer, it made no difference what type of synagogue he chose. The murderer’s indifference to the type of Jew he chose demonstrates not the irrelevance of legitimate differences between Jews, but the vulnerability of the Jewish people as a whole. We reeled not because the murderer drew no distinction between Jews. Rather, the American Jewish community reeled because it was the community as a whole that came under attack.
This sense of the attack stemmed only from the fact that 11 Jews were murdered not in a football stadium or on some other neutral or non-Jewish turf, but in a distinctly Jewish institution. Our own direct, instinctive, immediate horror stemmed from the fact that a synagogue was attacked. To characterize the loss as that of 11 Jewish individuals is not true to the horror of the incident and to the horror we feel.
When our enemies come after us, the appropriate response is threefold: to acknowledge that it is the Jewish people whom the enemy opposes; to fight back with the right political, security and spiritual means at our disposal; and to reaffirm that our true strength lies in the Jewish unity we Jews ourselves define and muster.