(photo by Alan Katowitz)
Hundreds of Vancouverites came together Sunday night, driven by the need for community after the news that 11 congregants were murdered during services at a Pittsburgh synagogue a day earlier.
The attack – the deadliest terror act against a Jewish community in North American history – devastated the Pennsylvania Jewish community and elicited grief, alarm and solidarity among Jews across the continent and beyond. As some commentators have said, shock may not have been a foremost response. The very fact that we in Vancouver and Jews almost everywhere else pass by security personnel and infrastructure every time we enter a Jewish facility conditions us to expect that something like this might happen.
The assembly at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, convened by the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver, drew hundreds of people, mostly Jews but also members and clergy of other faith communities, as well as elected officials and other individuals. The words from the speakers – mostly rabbis – were powerful and thoughtful, though perhaps the words were less significant than the simple sense of commonality of emotion among those assembled.
In the hours and days since the incident, so many of us have tried to somehow assimilate the meaning and implications of the violence.
Extremism has been growing worldwide. Antisemitism, racial supremacism, nativism and other dangerous tendencies have infiltrated societies throughout the Western world. We have seen political successes for once-fringe parties in Europe and, most recently, in South America. In the online and general discourses in North America, extremist commentary has become so commonplace that it approaches the mainstream, if that is not an oxymoron. Words have consequences. All actions, good and evil, begin as ideas, move into language and ultimately manifest in behaviours.
This raises the matter of free expression. While some seek to smother the expression of hateful and other repugnant ideas, the events of last weekend present an argument for more, not less, discussion. Open dialogue of all ideas, including appalling ones, is not just a theoretical value. It allows us to monitor antisocial ideas, rather than pushing them under rocks. The perpetrator’s long record of deranged rants about Jews did not prevent this tragedy. But knowledge of such ideas and those who hold them represent our best chance for preventing repetition of such terror acts. (This sort of knowledge is critical to intelligence-gathering services. In Israel, recent reports indicate, 10 potential attacks are thwarted for every one that is successfully executed.)
Americans’ access to guns is also raised as an issue when things like this happen. We have little optimism of seeing this matter resolved in our lifetimes. It is notable, though, that, in what should be a moment of national mourning, the U.S. president has aimed to score political points by advancing the idea that the synagogue should have been, essentially, an armed defensive encampment. This idea is not a solution. It is a capitulation to a dystopic reality. A better president would have had words of national unity and consolation.
While we seek healing as a community, welcome condolences from so many allies, and wish blessings on the murdered and comfort for the survivors, we also now enter unfamiliar realms. In many mass murder incidents, the perpetrator does not survive the attack. In this case, he has. We will watch as the victims’ families confront this terrible act through the justice system, hoping for something approaching closure. Some people are already calling for vengeance, and the death penalty is a possible punishment for the perpetrator, which raises additional quandaries for those among us for whom state-sanctioned killing is an evil unto itself.
The larger issue facing us in the coming weeks is that true justice, in a practical sense, must convey to all people that this is a society that rejects and condemns not only the act that took place Saturday, but the ideas that inspired it and other heinous hate crimes. The mantra of Simon Wiesenthal’s life, which was devoted to as proper a response as possible to the greatest crime perpetrated against the Jewish people, was “justice, not vengeance.” This was in keeping with the ancient obligation of Judaism – justice, justice, you shall pursue.
We grieve, we mourn, we console. But, through these processes and after, we continue what our tradition has demanded for millennia, the ultimate bulwark to this and every other wrong: we seek justice.