Although the American cycle of mass shootings began to feel predictable long ago, I still haven’t numbed to it. When I got the notification that 11 people had been killed at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue, my stomach clenched, the world got hazier, and I felt disconnected from reality: all too familiar reactions by now. But days later, when the sensation refused to subside, I realized something was different. I felt connected to this tragedy as a Jew in a way that I hadn’t felt as a high school student after Parkland or as a concertgoer after Las Vegas.
I was surprised by this feeling, since I am entirely secular. I could count on two hands the times I’ve been to synagogue, mostly for friends’ bar mitzvahs. My family lights candles on a menorah across the room from our Christmas tree. At Seder dinners, we skim through the Haggadah to get to politics. I am Jewish by name, features and family history.
While growing up in the US as a Jew hasn’t made me feel non-white, at the same time, I know Jews are hated targets of white supremacists. I’ve lived mostly in Berkeley, California, the son of two professors, in a social bubble where Jewish integration is complete. Some of my friends are white, and some of them are Jewish, but we go about our lives with many of the same privileges.
I’ve also grown up partly in Paris, France. Despite my French passport and family ties, I don’t feel quite as white in France. Although France has a history of republicanism–emphasizing civic duty and individual liberty—still, for many, “being French” means generations of French people in your family history and a last name like Beaulieu or Chevalier. I remember that in Paris, in fifth grade, I had a friend whose father was a Holocaust denier. At dinner my friend’s father announced that if people were truly deported from France to death camps, they weren’t really French, but foreigners (he meant Jews, both French- and foreign-born, casually referring to my own family members who had been sent to to their deaths).
Of course, anti-Semitism exists in the US, too. My grandmother’s family came to America after World War II. When her parents tried to rent an apartment in Minneapolis, the landlady apologetically told them that she couldn’t rent to them, since her sister was unwell and living downstairs — presumably because Jewish refugees carried diseases.
But my grandmother climbed the academic ladder, helping to set the stage for my life in Berkeley, and now as a student at Harvard. The US has traditionally made space for this possibility: outsiders—though only certain outsiders at certain times—have had children and grandchildren who felt like insiders. Harvard’s new president, Lawrence Bacow, has said that his mother arrived in the US as a 19-year-old Auschwitz survivor, the only one in her town to survive. “Where else,” he asked, “can one go in one generation from off the boat with literally nothing to enjoying the kind of life and opportunity that I and my family have been fortunate to enjoy?” Now, he went on to say, we must defend the things that made that possible, including a humanitarian openness to immigrants. Many people, I know, never had the opportunity to become insiders in America. But it was possible for some, who have a responsibility to work to make it possible for more.
And yet, instead we’re building walls, putting up razor-wire, and sending troops to the border to defend us against exhausted, famished refugees.
Shortly before the Pittsburgh massacre, the shooter tweeted about HIAS, a Jewish organization that helps refugees, and about the caravan of migrants crawling towards the US border. The Tree of Life Synagogue works with HIAS. Extreme-right groups and authoritarian governments tend to tout conspiracy theories about this connection between Jews and refugees, especially focusing on the billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Trump, energized by the midterms, joined these conspiracy theorists, railing against Soros, accusing him of funding the migrant caravan and resistance to Brett Kavanaugh.
Perhaps I feel connected with Pittsburgh because it is a reminder that, even as a non-practicing Jew, I am — as my great-grandmother put it — “Jewish enough for Hitler.” I am Jewish enough for his current admirers, too. But my dismay extends beyond concerns for the Jewish people. There is also a more universal worry: what is happening to our democracy, in the wake of these racially motivated attacks? Manuel Valls, French Prime Minister during the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, observed: “History has shown us that the reawakening of anti-Semitism is a symptom of a crisis of democracy.”
A resurgence of anti-Semitism in the US is scary to me as a Jew. Recognizing it as heralding the collapse of a humane, democratic international order is scary to me as an inhabitant of the world.