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In this week’s column, writing about anything but the Pittsburgh massacre feels trivial. For Jewish Americans, and Jews around the world, the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in US history is cause for us to consider the question:
Who was right, Theodor Herzl or Ze’ev Jabotinsky?
The two leading early Zionists offered contrasting perspectives on the relationship between anti-Semitism and Zionism. Herzl believed Zionism would solve the “Jewish Question,” and that having a sovereign state would eliminate anti-Semitism altogether, arguing that “Anti-Semites will become our surest friends.” Zionism would allow for acceptance and an end of the “exile from humanity.” Jabotinsky did not think anti-Semitism would ever vanish, and he believed the goal of Zionism would be to protect the Jewish people from anti-Semitism.
Ultimately, these two perspectives became one of the primary foundational disputes between them. Would Zionism cure the world of anti-Semitism, or would Zionism shield the world from anti-Semitism?
A century after this intellectual debate, and two days removed from the heinous and cowardly anti-Semitic act in Pittsburgh, which left 11 families without their loved ones and millions around the world asking how this could happen in 2018, it pains me to say that in this disagreement, history has proven Jabotinsky right.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik famously distinguishes between fate and destiny. Fate, Rabbi Soloveitchik says, is an existence of compulsion. The fated existence is passive, and humans are treated as objects. Destiny, however, is a life of choice and action; humans are the subjects in this story. The Jewish approach, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, is to transition from a fated life to a destined life. Instead of evil happening to us, our life of destiny asks us what we do with the immense challenges, pain and suffering thrown our way. The question is not Lamah, or Why? but L’mah, What now?
In 1945, this is the question the Jewish people were compelled to solve.
In 1948, we responded by declaring a state of our own, Israel.
Instead of using this tragedy as an opportunity to leverage political perspectives, be extra present for your students this week, and instead of telling them what they should do in response to the Pittsburgh massacre, perhaps ask them what they can do to transfer this from an existential question of “Why?” to a challenge of “What now?”
In 2018, we are still beckoned to respond to the challenge of L’mah.
Here are three brief suggestions for discussing the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting with students:
- Listen: Sometimes, it is more tempting to offer answers in the “why or how” this could happen, but the virtue of remaining silent and leaving the floor open for questions can serve as a powerful tool for coping.
- Sensitivity: Though teenagers and young adults are not always quick to articulate their anxieties and fears, they tend to have a deep desire for security. The exposure to social media is ubiquitous. To the best of your abilities, stay aware of what is being watched, and how you discuss the shooting. Be sensitive with your words and the images you choose to show.
- Prosocial behavior: In the field of psychology, “prosocial behavior” is defined as behavior that benefits society, and it has a tremendously positive impact. Without being opportunistic, use this as an opening for students to focus on Jewish values that are meaningful to them. Send condolences to the families, help raise money for funeral and shiva expenses, focus on bikur cholim (visiting the sick) in your own community or any other Jewish value your students feel was infringed upon due to this shooting. When someone experiences pain and suffering, we often feel helpless, but giving students the opportunities to do something can help relieve them of this gnawing feeling.
When the assailant yelled, “All Jews must die!” he was merely another example of an anti-Semite who was part of the tradition we recite every Passover, “Ela she’bichol dor vador, omdim aleinu lichaloteinu,” “In every generation there are those who attempt to annihilate us [the Jewish people].”
To this, we respond, Am Yisrael Chai.