Opinion

A tale of two synagogues

Students from the Yeshiva School in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh pay their respects as the funeral procession for Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz passes their school en route to Homewood Cemetery after a funeral service at the Jewish Community Center on Oct. 30, 2018. Rabinowitz was one of 11 people killed while worshipping at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(RNS) — Six decades ago this month, a bomb severely damaged The Temple, a Reform Jewish congregation on Peachtree Street in my hometown of Atlanta. Though this raw act of anti-Semitism took place years before I was born, the event looms large in my psyche, as it haunts the conscience of Atlanta to this day.

But so, too, does the courageous response of The Temple, the civil rights community and Atlanta civic leaders.

The virulent anti-Semitism that led to the murder of 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue this past weekend shares eerie parallels with 1950s Atlanta.

The group linked to the temple bombing in 1958, the National States Rights Party, believed that Jews were conspiring to destroy the white race by advocating for integration, which would lead to miscegenation. Blacks, the NSRP believed, were an inferior species and race mixing would result in a mongrel race. But the NSRP believed the real enemy was the Jewish people.

In the words of J.B. Stoner, NSRP’s founder and the man eventually found guilty in 1980 for another 1958 bombing, at Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., “the negro is not the enemy. The Jew is THE enemy of our White Race and the Jew is using the negro in an effort to destroy the White Race that he so passionately hates.” The NSRP’s solution was to deport minorities to their native lands: blacks to Africa, Asians to Hawaii and Jews to Madagascar as Nazis had planned to do initially as their Final Solution.

Robert Bowers, the man accused of killing the 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, was motivated by similar sentiments. Bowers believed Jews were weaponizing people of color — this time immigrants — to destroy the white race.

The Temple is seen in Atlanta on March 1, 2017. In 1958, a bomb blast ripped a hole in The Temple, an act of violence that still resonates today in Atlanta’s Jewish community. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

The Temple’s rabbi in 1958, Jacob Rothschild, was one of the authors of the Atlanta Manifesto, in which 80 religious leaders called on Atlanta officials not to give in to demands of segregationists. His prominence was part of what drew retaliatory violence to The Temple.

Similarly, the Tree of Life Synagogue and other congregations that met in its building were targeted for their work on fair treatment of refugees and immigrants.

Both attacks took place in a time of rising hate-motivated crime. The Temple bombing was one of at least 88 bombings in synagogues, black churches and homes in that era, when the South was in outright rebellion over the Supreme Court’s enforcement of school desegregation. In our times also, anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. have surged — by 57 percent in 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League. That is the largest year-to-year increase since the Jewish civil rights group began collecting data in 1979.

Just two days before the Pittsburgh attack, a white man in Kentucky tried to force his way into a black church; when he found the door locked, he shot and killed two African-Americans at a supermarket.

Today, speculation by extreme right and even mainstream conservatives that pipe bombs delivered to CNN and a number of Democrats were a “false flag” aimed at hurting Republicans in the midterms echoes claims made in 1958 that Jews had bombed their own Temple to gain sympathy for the civil rights cause.

Sixty years ago, bombers hoped to galvanize Southern whites around white nationalist goals, but they failed. The outpouring of support for the Jewish community from the Atlanta mayor and others gave greater momentum to the civil rights movement. Faith groups and civic leaders were outspoken and courageous and risked their own lives.

A Pittsburgh police officer patrols around the Tree of Life Synagogue and a memorial of flowers and Stars of David in Pittsburgh on Oct. 28, 2018, in remembrance of those killed and injured when a shooter opened fire during services Saturday at the synagogue. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Decades later, The Temple in Atlanta continues to provide leadership on civil and human rights, working with diverse religious organizations that support a more compassionate response to refugees. Temple congregants work alongside the Poor People’s Campaign, which is galvanizing diverse voices to end structural racial and economic inequality.

But the parallels break down when it comes to our national leadership. Through the 1960s, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson led the nation forward on civil rights and voting rights. Our current president has not firmly and clearly disavowed white nationalist groups, instead proclaiming himself an old-fashioned “nationalist,” warning about “globalists” (an anti-Semitic dog whistle). He insinuates that immigrants fleeing violence in their countries may include “Middle Easterners” — i.e., terrorists.

He continues to send mixed messages, as he did after Charlottesville, Va., saying there “good people on both sides” of the 2017 Unite the Right rally there that was organized by white supremacist groups. He is now blaming the victims in Pittsburgh by suggesting the synagogue should have had more security.

To preserve the dreams of those who came before us, we need more than civility. We must acknowledge that the core issues of anti-Semitism, racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia and all forms of “othering” are intertwined. We must condemn in no uncertain terms white nationalism. We must show courage and stand up alongside “the other.” We must not allow ourselves to be manipulated and divided. When we are, our nation suffers and our souls are wounded.

In The Temple’s response in 1958, we have a lesson from the past of how to respond to evil acts. I pray we listen.

(The Rev. Jennifer Butler is CEO of Faith in Public Life and former chair of the White House Council on Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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Jennifer Butler

4 Comments

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  • Actually, Trump is not blaming the victims AT ALL. That’s just a false accusation. The raw truth, as per media reports, is that Tree f Life already relied on the police — that’s right, armed police — to protect them on the High Holy Days. But an ongoing armed presence, including on the fateful day, might have stopped Bowers’ psychotic attack. People are at least taking Trump’s argument seriously.

    Nobody’s tipping their hand, but I would not want to be the foolish bigot that tries to shoot up another church in the Charleston SC area. Or a church in the Sutherland Springs, TX area. I wouldn’t even try such a crime at my own hometown church, nor the local mosque or temple.. People don’t wanna do public debates, but they ARE doing security plans of unknown description.

    Trump was merely saying what many people of religion (and again, not just Christians) are considering — that an armed security or police presence is not a sin, and may even stop would-be killers in The Age Of Mass Shootings.

  • “He continues to send mixed messages, as he did after Charlottesville, Va., saying there ‘good people on both sides’ of the 2017 Unite the Right rally there that was organized by white supremacist groups. He is now blaming the victims in Pittsburgh by suggesting the synagogue should have had more security.”

    https://disqus.com/home/discussion/religionnews/trumps_pay_tribute_at_synagogue_where_11_were_fatally_shot/#comment-4171266010

    “Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups. Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America. To anyone who acted criminally in … racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered. … As a candidate I promised to restore law and order to our country, and our federal law enforcement agencies are following through on that pledge. We will spare no resource in fighting so that every American child can grow up free from violence and fear. We will defend and protect the sacred rights of all Americans and we will work together so that every citizen in this blessed land is free to follow their dreams, in their hearts, and to express the love and joy in our souls.” – US President Donald Trump, August 14, 2017.

    https://disqus.com/home/discussion/religionnews/pittsburgh_synagogue_shooting_shakes_the_citys_iconic_jewish_neighborhood/#comment-4169570366

    “Linking Trump to anti-Semitism is factually incorrect and morally wrong. You never heard it before he ran for office. He has a history of giving generously to Jewish charities, including the Anti-Defamation League, and he received the Jewish National Fund’s ‘Tree of Life’ award. This is a president whose high-profile daughter Ivanka is an observant modern Orthodox Jew and whose Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is a trusted White House envoy and personal adviser. President Trump also has longstanding ties to Israel’s conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and, unlike three of his Oval Office predecessors, made good on a pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.” – James S. Robbins, “Synagogue shooter hated Donald Trump and shows what real hatred, anti-Semitism looks like: Donald Trump is often blamed by the media as inspiring attacks and violence, but he is not anti-Semitic: The synagogue shooter shows what hate is”, USA Today, October 28, 2018.

    Add this article to the spin machine, along with:

    https://disqus.com/home/discussion/religionnews/the_pittsburgh_massacre_was_about_refugees/

    https://pantheon-live.religionnews.com/2018/10/29/pittsburgh-suspects-hatred-of-jews-hias-part-of-larger-anti-immigrant-surge/

    as part of the effort to recycle and repurpose an anti-semitic attack for base political purposes.

  • Trump spend his time yesterday tweeting about protesters than giving any kind of condolences or words about the victims of the shooting.

    He is a narcissistic tool who was just going through the motions of acting like a human being in what was an obligatory event that held no meaning for him He was doing his bit to the NRA support base with such a ridiculously offensive and tone deaf remark about security. Sorry Floydlee, but the reasonable first response to a mass shooting isn’t to start looking for excuses and insult the victims.

    The rather unhinged fearful responses by both yourself and Parker yesterday about the “refugee caravan”, shows how much your average conservative has a lot in common with the unreasoning fear and hatred of Robert Bowers.

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