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Steinberg: United in grief, we are one nation

People gather in Mel Lastman Square in Toronto on Oct. 29, to mourn the victims of the Pittsburgh massacre. (Courtesy of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto)

There are no words to adequately describe the mass murder at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Israelis, like Jews the world over, shared the pain and numbing horror of yet another inhuman outrage inflicted on Jews, simply because they were Jews. The stories of the victims, interviews with the community members and images of the funerals filled Israeli media, while officials across the political spectrum expressed solidarity.

The Pittsburgh attack came immediately after the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) met in Tel Aviv. Many of the discussions, held under the worrisome headline of “We need to talk,” reflected the differences in perspectives and priorities between Diaspora and Israeli Jews. We are increasingly divided by language, culture, religious practices and our understanding of the world. “What do we still share and what unites us as one people?” many asked, without getting satisfying answers. Next year’s JFNA theme should be “We need to listen.”

But when the news broke of the Shabbat morning massacre, the emotional links were instant. The victims were our brothers, sisters, cousins. The vast distances of geography, life experience and politics between Israel and North America notwithstanding, the family ties remain strong. Our successes are their successes; their pain is our pain.

Israelis, having been the grateful recipients of aid and sympathy when war and terror attacks were aimed at us, are now in a position to be the comforters and to provide aid – particularly in the realm of security. We cannot fix America’s unhinged gun culture or the current wave of madness that has again empowered anti-Semites from all sides, but perhaps we can offer practical suggestions from our own experiences in dealing with terror, including for families of the victims. These families must never feel that their loved ones have been forgotten.

At the same time, everyone, Israelis and Americans alike, should be careful not to use this terrible tragedy to promote more friction, or add to the pain. A few Jewish commentators who sought to link the crazed anti-Semitism of the murderer to the co-operation between the American president and the Israeli government, citing the example of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, were more than misguided, and should apologize.

Similarly, I can understand why some American Jewish leaders did not want Israeli politicians to lecture them about aliyah, or encourage them to move their lives and families to Israel. The timing was insensitive, at best – such discussions should at least wait until after the period of mourning. Others insisted that running away, even to Israel, was not the answer. Instead, as centuries of experience has taught us, anti-Semitism must be confronted wherever it rears its ugly head. But from a Zionist perspective, the concept of aliyah as the solution to anti-Semitism is deeply ingrained, and the response is almost automatic.


After the mourning ends and we resume our day-to-day conversations, perhaps Israeli and American Jews can be more open to recognizing our differences, on the one hand, and the deep connections that unite us, on the other. After 70 years of independence, as well as numerous wars and terror attacks, Israeli Jews see the nature of their Jewishness and their relationship with the outside world in ways that are decidedly unlike those of our North American counterparts. Our life experiences, including dealing with war and terror, and the years we spend in the army, give Israelis a harder edge. Our religious practices seem foreign (with the partial exception of the Orthodox community), our attitudes on intermarriage and assimilation contrast sharply and our politics are not the same, to understate the case.

These divisions notwithstanding, in moments of great tragedy and success, we unite as a family, sharing the same fate. Despite the differences, we are one people who celebrate together in good times and come to each other’s aid in bad. The Pittsburgh tragedy reminded us that in addition to our differences, Jews have much more in common.

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