US synagogue shooting no surprise as anti-Semitism thrives

This past Saturday a man walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in the United States (US) and opened fire on the congregants. Eleven Jews died in the attack. They included a married couple in their eighties, brothers in their fifties and a woman of 97.

They were all attending a baby naming service.

The baby was unharmed physically, but it is hard to imagine the impact that this will have in the years ahead. It is difficult to contemplate how someone grows up with the knowledge that 11 people were murdered on the day they were named. The stigma of being the baby at the largest anti-Semitic attack in US history is a burden that will not be easy to shoulder.

American media were quick to draw lines and to attribute blame: “Gun control!” “Donald Trump!” “Republicans!” “Democrats!”

The fact that the US mid-term elections are around the corner in what is proving to be a highly contentious battle for the Senate serves to divert attention further from the fact that 11 people who went to a place of worship have died because of their faith.

They died because the perpetrator hates Jews and immigrants and screamed that Jews need to die while spraying them with bullets.

The Jewish world is a small one. With numbers still smaller than before World War II, it is unsurprising that the event has unnerved members of the faith the world over. Many Jews are the children of survivors of Hitler’s Europe and many still live with a mantra of fear encoded along with the lullabies of their youth.

South African Jews are not an exception. Fears of “copy-cat” attacks, a rise in so-called lone-wolf attacks and the impact of the publicity have galvanised an already vigilant community. The fact that a number of mosques have had to deal with violence and that there have been reports of an IS cell in KwaZulu-Natal has done little to calm the fears of the community.

Sadly, the attack should come as no surprise. Levels of anti-Semitism are at the highest point since Germany in the 1930s. Jews are routinely singled out on social media and the opportunistic use of Zionism as an excuse for anti-Jewish sentiment is all too common.

Two weeks ago, American religious leader Louis Farrakhan, in a live broadcast, made the following statement. “I am not an anti-Semite. I am an anti-termite.” Jews, he seemed to suggest, are insects. And we know that insects need to be exterminated. It took ten days for someone to do just that. I wrote more on this here.

But Jews are not victims. Although often accused of revelling in victimhood, nothing could be further from reality. There is little doubt that the American Jewry will emerge stronger following this attack and that the death of the 11 will be used to celebrate life in other ways.

As tragic as this is, good will spring from it.

Already American Muslim communities have raised funds for the families of those who have lost loved ones, and around the world the project #ShowUpForShabbat has been launched. This is an initiative to bring Jews and non-Jews alike to attend a Sabbath service this Saturday in support of freedom of worship. If this initiative brings even just a few neighbours together, then the memory of those who lost their lives will already be for a blessing.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and leader of the opposition Mmusi Maimane both issued statements condemning the US attack and re-affirmed their strong and fundamental right to worship.

The attack on anyone at a place of worship is horrific and needs to be guarded against at all costs. An attack on the elderly and the defenceless at a baby naming makes it more shocking and more painful. That it took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue adds another layer to the horror.

The way forward, although still painful, is to create light out of the darkness. It is to remove the attacker’s negative power by filling the void with positivity and with hope. It is by sending a message that no matter which religion someone practices, that they are respected and valued. It is to send a clear and unambiguous message that this will not be tolerated and that there is no place for it in the world in which we choose to live.

This article was first published as an Op Ed in News24.com