Opinion

The massacre at the Pittsburgh synagogue was not an aberration, but a culmination

For years, Jewish North Americans toyed with the question of whether they had, at last, found a truly safe haven in the diaspora. Saturday's massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh answers that question definitively: no.

Anti-Semitism was already on the rise before it walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue, armed to the teeth

Here is the ugly truth: there will likely be other Pittsburghs. Like school shootings, the unthinkable might even become routine. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

I heard of the slaughter at the Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday just as Sabbath services ended at my own synagogue in Toronto. The children, including my two daughters, had just joined the congregation for the final prayer.

Over kiddush lunch in the hall, some had heard the dreadful news and others hadn't. We didn't even know the name of the synagogue at that point, but everyone immediately began to wonder if any of their friends, family and acquaintances might have been among the victims.

And in every synagogue in North America, we uneasily thought one other thing: are we about to come under attack too?

For centuries, Jews have been murdered for the "crime" of being Jewish. It is almost a cliché to say that Jewish history is the story of escaping mass murder at the hands of our tormentors, only to find a moment of respite before the next catastrophe arrives. After the expulsion from the land of Israel and the destruction of the Temple some 2,000 years ago, Jews were slaughtered during the Crusades, the Inquisition, the European and Arab pogroms, the Holocaust and much more.

The lesson from all this was that Jews never really could quite feel completely safe and secure in the diaspora. It's the central reason that Jews rallied a hundred years ago to re-establish a Jewish state.

Jewish experience in America

But then came the Jewish experience in the United States, and some began to wonder if the American Jewish community really was different. After all, Jews thrived in North America to such an extent that community leaders on both sides of the border considered assimilation their greatest threat.

The United States has not been immune to anti-Jewish hate, of course, but only in America could the threat frequently be called "country club anti-Semitism." When Jews were barred from certain golf clubs, but are otherwise largely secure and free, the times are relatively good — particularly given the alternatives.

Had Jews at last found a truly safe haven in the diaspora? Was America a place where Jews could thrive in genuine and enduring security?

Saturday's massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh answers that question definitively: no.

Eleven candles were lit in Vancouver on Sunday for the victims of an attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

While American Jews remain relatively safe for the moment, America is changing around them. What's not changing, however, is its president's relentless attacks on democratic institutions – the institutions that keep the American Jewish community not just safe, but viable.

Instead, the president expresses unyielding nativism, populism and chauvinism – the very things that never end well for the Jews, the very things that inspire a madman. Sooner or later, hatred works its ugly ways to target the Jewish community, as it did on Saturday in Pittsburg. Add in America's gun culture, and things get really scary.

So here is the ugly truth: there will likely be other Pittsburghs. Like school shootings, the unthinkable might even become routine. It already is routine in Europe. The deadly attacks on Jewish a museum in Belgium, a kosher grocery store in France or a synagogue in Denmark are now crossing the Atlantic.

It's utterly terrifying, but it's true. The massacre at the Pittsburgh shul was not an aberration, but a culmination – and a harbinger.

It's been a good run for the Jews in North America, but all good things must come to an end. Anti-Semitism was already on the rise before it walked through the doors of the Tree of Life Synagogue, armed to the teeth. No one knows precisely what's next, but it increasingly looks like the past hundred or so years in America has been one of those precious moments of respite, with something sinister lurking around the corner. One of the most spectacularly successful communities in history faces a future that is, at the very least, worse than its past.

What better symbol of this terrifying transition could there be than the forthcoming funerals? Beyond the shattered lives, Jewish communal culture, including here in Canada, will change in a thousand ways. This is a turning point.

But some things will never change. Next week, Jews will again gather for Shabbat services in Pittsburgh and around the world, as we do every single Sabbath. Some will come to honour the dead, others to demonstrate their defiance of evil, and others still just to pray to God.

But none will feel as secure entering synagogue next Shabbat as we felt entering last Shabbat.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Benjamin Shinewald

Benjamin Shinewald is a former CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress.