NOVEMBER 1, 2018, JERUSALEM – Israel was just starting to shake off the Shabbat cobwebs, and for Israelis who are religiously observant and for those who just shun the news over the weekend, it was a time to get back online and check out what took place over the 25 hours of power down.
The headline hit like a cold smack to the face. This time the shock didn’t emerge from Gaza, although there certainly was continued bad tidings over the weekend as southern residents of Israel were once again targeted with rockets launched by the Strip’s terrorist regime. And it wasn’t yet another domestic scandal involving our prime minister or another top official.
No, the bad news this time was taking place 6,000 miles away, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But for many Israelis who spent the next few hours glued to their TV or computer screen, it could have been next door.
A synagogue full of Jews on Shabbat morning targeted by an anti-Semitic lunatic – it took a minute to sink in. How could such an atrocity take place in the 21st century, in the United States where Diaspora Jews have flourished and integrated into all phases of life in an unprecedented fashion?
In Israel, we’ve endured ongoing terrorism that has targeted synagogues, hotels, cafes and any place where regular people congregate. Yet we’re still shocked when an attack occurs in a place we perceive as ‘safe.’
Of course, the America that we know of the last few years is no longer the same ‘safe’ refuge of normalcy, the oasis of calm that Israelis have always turned toward to counteract the swirling mayhem of uncertainty that has engulfed Israel since its inception.
Now, with each mass shooting, we see a United States that is becoming as chaotic and random in its violence as Israel is perceived to be by outsiders.
In Israel, we tend to know who the enemy is. The perpetrators are clear in their motives, however savage they may be. That’s enabled us to deal with terrorism and hate in a rational manner.
What we’ve learned here is to always be on guard, while still carrying on daily life with little regard for that eventuality. It’s a tightrope to walk, but nobody’s going to stop us from going to restaurants, ride buses or for sure, go to houses of worship.
During the second Intifada in the early 2000s, Israelis were pummeled by the viciousness and relentless onslaught of suicide bombers and shootings and, as a result, we adapted. Armed guards were hired to stand outside cafes and stores.
At my Conservative shul in Jerusalem, we worked out a rotation of congregants equipped with pistols to stand outside during services, and when there weren’t enough with gun licenses, we hired a private security firm. We did what had to be done.
After a downturn in terrorist attacks, we discontinued the guard duty while knowing that it might need to be reinstated at any time.
On trips back to America in recent years, instead of breathing easy and walking lightly, I always feel trepidation when walking into a mall or driving into a parking lot. Where are the guards? Why is nobody checking my trunk or my knapsack?
The scourge of violence in America seems to have no rhyme or reason, with attacks on a Las Vegas plaza, schools, churches and now, synagogues.
Americans cherish civil liberties, and for many, it’s an anathema to be forced to go through a security check at the mall or at a house of worship. But the Squirrel Hill massacre points toward that sad but perhaps necessary inevitability.
There has been much discussion of the growing chasm between Israelis and US Jewry, how we’re no longer on the same page about religion, about Israeli democracy, about the West Bank.
The Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly (GA) that gathered last week in Tel Aviv acknowledged that division by naming this year’s conference theme “We Need to Talk.”
But when something like the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting takes place, there is a tangible pain among Israelis – as if an attack has taken place on our home turf. We take it very personally. We do certainly need to talk and keep working on the complex relationship Israeli and American Jewry find themselves in. But it only takes an atrocity like this to remind us that we are family.
David Brinn is a Jerusalem-based journalist.