This is an unapologetic, unconventional blog post with an unexpected conclusion.
My thoughts and prayers are with the victims of Pittsburgh who were shot to death during their Sabbath prayer service for no reason other than being Jewish.
As is so often the case, thoughts and prayers are simply not enough. They may (and do) provide personal solace, but they will do little to solve the systemic problem unless they are followed by both individual and collective resolve.
There have been calls to action, many words spoken, many profile pictures tagged with #TogetherAgainstAntisemitism, and tehillim recited.
I dare say we will be continuing to express our outrage for the next few days, or until the next murderous act of anti-Semitic terror, whichever comes first. Then all the energy garnered through the global Jewish response to this tragedy will revert back to its usual passive state. The media will only pay tribute to dead Jews, whilst continuing to castigate live Jews for defending themselves. Jewish communities will limit their solidarity to platitudes and endless speeches. Some people will think twice about being at a Synagogue or event due to the security risk.
What more can we do?
Amongst the grief is also anger, and it has taken less than three days for the predictable but ugly rhetoric to emerge.
From within the Jewish world the hostility was directed at Israel’s Chief Rabbi who allegedly refused to acknowledge the status of a progressive Synagogue, a report that turned out to be totally taken out of context.
Then Naftali Bennett, Minister of Diaspora Affairs whose solidarity encountered hate and vitriol for flying to Pittsburgh to offer the support and condolences of all the Israeli people. For the record, here is a small extract of his address to the Pittsburgh community;
“We stand together, as Jews from all communities united, as well as members of all faiths. Together we stand. Americans, Israelis. People who are together saying, “no to hatred. The murderer’s bullet does not stop to ask: are you Conservative or Reform, are you Orthodox? Are you right wing or left wing? It has one goal, and that is to kill innocent people. Innocent Jews.”
“Nearly eighty years since Kristallnacht, when the Jews of Europe perished in the flames of their houses of worship, one thing is clear. Antisemitism, Jew hating, is not a distant memory. Antisemitism is a clear and present danger. From Sderot to Pittsburgh, the hand that fires missiles is the same hand that shoots worshipers. We will fight against the hatred of Jews, and anti-Semitism wherever it raises its head. And we will prevail.”
Outside of the Jewish world, the discussion was immediately diverted to matters such as anti-Trumpism, gun-control regulation, and mental health identification. In some instances anti-Semitism was invoked in a way that insidiously compounded the anti-Semitism, namely by applying a victim blaming reaction.
With these matters the problems remain, whilst the rest of society continues to fight for other things not anti-Semitic. They will not place this incident above politics, nor will they care to admit that it was not President Trump that caused this massacre. They simply won’t move beyond their pathological hatred for Trump to admit that after Trump has gone, anti-Semitism and mass killing will sadly continue to occur. The same way it did for millennia before him.
We simply cannot afford to incur the wrath of the social justice crowd. Our only option is to harness the Jewish unity that found expression in the wake of this tragedy. We must strongly assert to those amongst us who drive internal division that this is not the time or place to bring forward wedge politics over our differences, but rather to bring together expression that which us. To those outside of the Jewish world, we need to let that unity shine, and display the values and solidarity that are unique to the Jewish people.
Local Community Security
As I walked into work on Monday morning, my first watercooler conversation was prompted by the headline and photo on the front page of the newspaper. “Had the massacre impacted me?” I was asked.
I mentioned that I only had one friend in Pittsburgh who had marked herself as safe. I also mentioned that our Synagogue had recited prayers, and that a lot of solidarity had flooded my social media feeds. Jewish solidarity is indeed global, and locally we very much feel the pain and grief of our brothers and sisters. Who could imagine the horror of going to a religious service and being murdered in cold blood.
As we continued to talk I was further asked whether Jewish people in Australia were fearful that something similar could happen here. My immediate reaction was that some fateful matters are beyond our control. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time is circumstance, and nobody knows when their time is up. Our Perth suburbs are quiet neighbourhoods, probably not too dissimilar to Pittsburgh. Our media is full of the same horrendous distortion as occurs around the world, which continuously incites hatred of Jews by portraying Israel as an aggressor.
There are crazed people everywhere and anything can happen. I mentioned that I will never forget the day in 1990 when a disturbed individual entered the courtyard of my then Synagogue in Auckland, New Zealand and stabbed four children whilst screaming anti-Semitic remarks. Our Synagogue turned from an open access area into a guarded fortress overnight.
We further talked about security. I advised that, like most Jewish communities around the world, Perth has a wonderful community security group (CSG). The level of commitment and dedication given by a cross section of community members to this group is beyond exceptional. People volunteer their time to identity check entrants to Synagogue services and community events. There is much overt and no doubt some covert activity that demonstrates vigilance, liaison with authorities, and general security checks to support our wellbeing. The people involved with this activity cannot be thanked enough.
It was at this point that my conversation with my colleague took an unexpected turn. Surprised by the need for community driven security in Perth, I was asked about the resourcing of security infrastructure. Whilst much of the operational time given to the CSG is voluntary, there is still and administration and cost to the community. Some is covered by fundraising, but there is a significant impost on the Perth Jewish community to maintain this essential activity that is sadly necessary.
“So how much do you have to pay?” I was asked. The answer is that I have to pay a security levy on my school fees of $530, and that I pay $375 per year on top of my Synagogue membership ($75 per seat), also as a security levy. That totals $905 of after tax income a year, which admittedly is a significant impost on a tight household budget.
It had not occurred to me until then, but the significance of this, not only in dollars, but also in terms of principle, suddenly struck me. My friend was more outraged than I was, suggesting it was like a “school bully scenario” demanding protection money to keep you safe.
From where I stand, I would far rather have that money available to invest in education, communal philanthropy, and positive expressions of Jewish identity, rather than security apparatus. My workmate concurred that I pay my taxes in order to be safe, and that just because I am Jewish should not mean that I have to pay extra for protection.
In New South Wales, a product of the by election, the Federal Government is delivering $2.2 million dollars for the Jewish community to upgrade its security.
So I come back to the question, what can we do?, and would like to pose one practical answer. Suggest to our Governments (State and Federal), who have both sent messages of condolence to the Jewish community in WA in response to the news of the Pittsburgh massacre, that they directly fund community security. Other ethnic and minority groups within society should also have additional security protection when at risk. Security and protection of citizens is a role of Government, and should not need to be augmented by our own “protection money”.
Unfortunately and sadly, the truth is that it can happen here. We do have a duty to protect ourselves. I will proudly pay my dues to the CSG and somehow absorb the cost until such time as there an alternative. I will continue to be grateful every single day for the amazing work that the CSG do. However I will also put on record, for myself and every other member of the local Jewish community that it is an outrage that we have to pay protection money to stay safe in the streets of Australia.