Rabbi Eli Wilansky lights a candle at Tree of Life. Photo by Steph Chambers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." - Voltaire
A week of horror: Bombs mailed, black people executed, Jews slaughtered at prayer while a well-armed lunatic shrieked, "All Jews must die!", all as the heedless Nationalist in the White House blathers, "It's a terrible thing what's going on with hate in our country." There were abundant signs: Michael Moore has outtake footage of a bulked-up Cesar Sayoc yelling "CNN Sucks!" at an early Trump rally, another sorry soul full of fear and anger, looking for someone to hate, "a lost dog with no direction home." The same week, a white supremacist in Kentucky looking for black people to kill found the doors locked to the 185-year-old Baptist church he tried to enter; instead, he went to a Kroger's grocery store and shot two black senior citizens at point blank range. On his way out, he encountered a white man with a gun; he assured him he wouldn't shoot, because "whites don't kill whites."
And before Robert Bower took his Glock and AR-15 into the Tree of Life Synagogue, he posted anti-Semitic rants - "All I want to do is kill Jews" - and blamed the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society - “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee" - for the menacing "caravan" of 7,000 poor, brown families walking hundreds of miles in flip flops in search of safety, against whom Trump has vowed to call in "troops" to "protect" us. As "a Jew hater looking for a reason," Bower found it in the lurid if fictional tales of "Middle Easterners" in their midst; according to the illogic of hate, every caravan of desperate Latin Americans harboring illicit Muslims is, ultimately, the Jews' fault.
It is all Trump's to own; such are the tales and monsters he helped create. Over the past two years, he made the hate, stoked the fear, allowed the weapons, sanctioned the violence and, more recently, move to rationalize the bigotry with his increasing dog-whistle talk of "globalists," thus affirming the fear and rage of weak white men filled with resentment at what they perceive as an unfair world and looking for "others" to blame. Now, they've found them. "What a shame," Trump mewled after 11 people were murdered in Pittsburgh. "It looks like it's an anti-Semitic crime, and that is something you wouldn't believe could still be going on...We just don't seem to learn from the past." Asked what he might do about the bloodshed, he said guns had "nothing to do" with it - in a state of famously lax gun laws - blamed the victims - the worshipful should have stationed an armed guard - announced, "The world is a violent world" and "They should very much bring the death penalty into vogue," and cheerfully went off to speak at the Future Farmers of America convention.
"We have come to it at last," writes William Rivers Pitt of the current moment, with its hateful rhetoric, "rage-flecked rallies," plunge into full-throated nationalism, all the "old tricks found on the pages of an old, bloody book that should never have left the shelf." Addressing Trump's sole skill - manipulation - he borrows the term “stochastic terrorism” from the Greek for "skillful aiming": "The use of mass communication to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.” Then he quotes himself from the Bush era when he argued, "We must disenthrall ourselves from the idea that our institutions, our traditions, the barriers that protect us from absolute and authoritarian powers, cannot be broken down. They are being dismantled a brick at a time." He sees a threat "not yet marching down your street or pounding upon your door in the dead of night" but urging, "We must listen beyond the whispered fascism of today to the shouted fascism of tomorrow." Now, "the shouted fascism of tomorrow is here today."
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The week before the murder of 11 Jews from their 50s to 90s - doctor, dentist, academic, volunteers with the disabled, "good souls" all - an American Sufi wrote an open letter to Trump after attending his Montana rally to bear witness to "your venom and your hatred...and to see firsthand the ways in which you are laying the foundation for things unspeakable yet to come." After describing "a crowd seething with ugliness," he wrote, "I am no hero. But I promise you that I and everyone I know will find whatever courage we need to resist you." Today, many others work to find a way forward. In Pittsburgh, thousands gathered vowing to "defeat hate with love"; some cited the central tenet of the Tree of Life in the Torah, Judaism's sacred text, as a source of strength: "It is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it; its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace."
Peacefully but forthrightly, the city's Jewish leaders went further: The former president of Tree of Life declared Trump "a purveyor of hate speech (who) is not welcome here," and members of Bend the Arc, a group of progressive Jews, sent a scathing open letter, signed by thousands, with the same message: "You are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you fully denounce white nationalism...until you stop targeting and endangering all minorities...until you cease your assault on immigrants and refugees. "The Torah teaches that every human being is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God," they wrote. "This means all of us." May we all thus resist, and abide. From "Heal Us Now" by Leon Sher: “We pray for healing of the body. We pray for healing of the soul....We pray to once again be whole.”
Pittsburgh vigil. Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI