The Colleyville context


By Rabbi Danny Schiff

Another shattering Shabbat. Another sanctuary violated. Another assault on Jews and everything we represent.

For us, an attack on a synagogue is not just a visceral event; it’s personal. We don’t need to reach for the history books to understand how it feels.

Colleyville was an antisemitic act of terror that should remind anybody who needed reminding that there is reason for real concern about antisemitism in America, and for what it portends.

And yet.

When the day was all over, when the hostages were safe and the hours of dread had passed, I listened carefully to the words of Chief Miller of the Colleyville police. Miller said that during the ordeal they had called in the nation’s elite hostage rescue team from Quantico, Va., to come and take the lead. According to Miller, Quantico decided to fly in “60 to 70 people to help with the situation.”

Think about that. Without hesitation, the United States activated one of the most highly trained hostage rescue teams on earth, and more than 60 team members, together with all their equipment, hurried to a plane and traveled for hours across the country to reach Colleyville as fast as they possibly could.

All to rescue four Jews.

I know, I know. They were just doing their job. That’s what they’re supposed to do. But still. As a Jew, it brings a lump to the throat. Like the Pittsburgh police who, under fire, rushed in to save Jewish lives without regard for their own, we should take none of it for granted.

Eighty years ago this week, on Jan. 20, 1942, the Nazi leadership convened the Wannsee Conference. There, they confirmed the implementation plans for what they called “the final solution.” It was a decisive and revealing moment.

Wannsee underscored this bitter truth: The prevailing norm of Jewish history is for Jews to be treated as expendable, not precious.

For dozens of non-Jews to rush across the country with the intent to save Jewish lives, all paid for by the U.S. government, without a hint of complaint from any quarter is, from a Jewish perspective, remarkable.

Yes, it is undeniable that the number of antisemitic incidents and their brazenness is rising across America. It is undeniable that we live at a time of exacerbated societal fracturing, and that this phenomenon is often threatening to Jews. It is undeniable that Israel is being targeted as never before with reprehensible calumnies, and that there are those who see Jews as answerable by association.

All of that is true. But it is also true that tens of millions of Americans of all backgrounds prayed fervently for the lives of four Jews last Shabbat. It is also true that churches and mosques across the country have supportive and friendly relationships with local synagogues that are unknown almost anywhere else. It is also true that in Texas, as in all states, the government — elected to express the will of the people — provided its full resources to aiding Jews, declaring unequivocally that antisemitism would not be tolerated.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center asked Americans about how they rated a wide range of religious groups. Those surveyed could rate how they felt about a particular group from warmest (100 degrees) down to coldest (0 degrees). Of all the religious groups in America, which group received the warmest rating by Americans? Jews. Jews received an overall rating of 63 degrees of warmth. Pew repeated the same survey in 2017. Which group was rated highest this time? Jews. 67 degrees. Pew administered the survey again in 2019. The result was the same. Jews again came out on top.

How should we explain all this?

Context is everything. It may well be that antisemitism is rising in certain cohorts, but that the broad regard and esteem for Jews held by the majority is not diminishing. And what does that mean for the future? We cannot know. Perhaps the winds of change are indeed blowing, and America will one day become inhospitable for Jews. Or perhaps, just as antisemitism has moved up a few notches, the majority will hold, and antisemitism will ultimately be pushed back to lower levels again. Neither outcome is predetermined. America will need to decide. The decision will be fateful for American society.

It is always tempting for Jews to make antisemitism the number one issue on our communal agenda. But this is unwise and it ignores context. It puts the focus on fear rather than hope. It is disempowering. As we have always done, first and foremost Jews should live as Jews with determination and pride, demonstrating through our lives the “dignity of difference,” and — as has so often been the case — that the few can still inspire the many.

Rabbi Danny Schiff is the Jewish community foundation scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

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