The Stench of Violence

Politicians are feeding the atmosphere in which hatred incubates and breeds.

Flowers and candles outside the Tree of Life synagogue
Flowers and candles outside the Tree of Life synagogue (Aaron Josefczyk / Reuters)

There is a passage from the prophet Ezekiel in the Passover Haggadah, often omitted or skipped over: “And when I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live.” And after the Pittsburgh massacre, that is where the Jews are today, as in some measure they always have been: wounded and bereft, torn and bloody, yet very much alive.

The laws, traditions, and rituals prescribe what to do, which is a comfort. The bodies are treated with reverence by the chevra kadisha, the “holy company” of community volunteers, who ask forgiveness of the departed as they gently wash the corpse and prepare it for burial. The body is not left alone until the funeral, as others recite psalms near it. The coffins are of plain wood, for we are all equal in death. The chants are of immemorial age: “God full of mercy, who dwells upon high, find complete peace beneath the wings of your presence for the soul of …”

In traditional Jewish practice, the mourners return from the cemetery and wash their hands before entering the home, where for seven days their daily wants are supplied by the community, which has covered the mirrors, set up chairs, and brought food while they were at the graveside. They let themselves weep, because unlike those who think that tears indicate weakness, they know that they reveal humanity. Guests will come, waiting for the mourners to speak and following their mood, be it one of reminiscence or grief or both. And then—for a month for relatives, and 11 months for one’s parents—the daily recitation of the kaddish, a sanctification of God’s name rather than a prayer of remembrance.

For the larger community, there will be things to do. This Sabbath, and for some time to come, the usual companies of volunteer guards outside synagogues will probably have several times as many volunteers as usual. There have been, and will be, collective services, and this event will probably be mentioned in future years during the brief memorial service that occurs on each of the major holidays. But there will continue to be whiskey and cake after Sabbath services, the bar and bat mitzvahs will be celebrated, the holiday foods will be made, and the laughter will return.

The Jews, in short, have been here before, and they know what to do. They will not doubt their place in the United States, the country in which, as George Washington told the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, “it is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” They know that they belong here as much as anyone else. But they will brood, as will many of their fellow citizens, about why this slaughter happened now.

To some extent, they will understand that it was ever thus. No one goes around fuming about Semites—so let us drop the term anti-Semitism for Jew-hatred, because that is what it is. It is ancient and enduring; of left and right; of Christian, Muslim, and atheist; of Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Crusader, and Nazi. It has always been there and always will be there—although any Jew who visits the Arch of Titus in Rome, with its bas-relief of Roman soldiers triumphantly carrying off the instruments of the temple after the sack of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., bears witness to a second truth: Collectively, the Jews outlive their enemies. In 1948, Jewish refugees in Rome, still displaced after World War II, assembled by the arch to celebrate the creation of the state of Israel.

The Pittsburgh massacre was the work of a single, deranged man. No one told him to do it, although in the dark corners of social media, plenty of people applauded him and would have gladly egged him on. But it is not entirely accidental that this happened now, nor is it accidental that it happened to the Jews.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the miasma theory of infection held that foul air bred disease. Medically, of course, this was incorrect. Socially and morally, however, the miasma theory remains valid. In 2017, an eminent academic figure with whom I was having coffee, and who does not wear his heart on his sleeve, leaned over to me and said, “You know, we Jews can smell it”—the atmosphere in which violence incubates and breeds.

The miasma of today is one created by a world in which journalists are described as “enemies of the people,” in which immigrants fleeing chaos or seeking opportunity are accused of harboring terrorists and carrying leprosy, in which a politician aspiring to the highest leadership positions in Congress says, “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer and Bloomberg to BUY this election!” It is the miasma created by a leader who cheers a candidate for body-slamming a reporter, and whose subordinates’ professed sorrow for bullet-riddled old men and women is swiftly displaced by self-pity and grievance that their boss is being picked on.

This miasma floats up on the left as well as the right. In Britain, the trope of hook-nosed financiers troubles the leader of the opposition not at all. One day, probably not long from now, a politician on the American left may warn about Adelson and the wealthy Jews of Miami buying a political party, and then the bullets may fly from a different direction.

The Jews can indeed smell it. It is why a disproportionate number of the conservative intellectuals crying out in alarm in 2016 and 2017 were Jews. The People of the Book know that words are powerful, for ill as well as for good. They know that one thing leads to another, and that if someone promises violence, they will deliver it. They know that evil never really goes away, but rather remains dormant, ever ready to be awakened, deliberately or unintentionally, retail or wholesale.

On the way to the graveside, Jews recite the 91st psalm, which speaks in part of “the pestilence that stalks in darkness.” The celebration of force, the disdain for compassion, the suspicion of the other, the hatred of the stranger and the homeless, the vaunting of toughness over mercy, the manipulation of dark forces—are all bred by the foul air of today’s American politics. And they have again brought pestilence.