By W. David Myers
I arrived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania via El Paso, Texas and Prague, in the Czech Republic.
On October 27, 2018, I was in Prague on a research trip when the shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation occurred. News was sparse, in large part because mass shootings in the United States are so common that international news organizations now present them as part of the daily news. 11 people were murdered, and others injured, during Sabbath prayer services that morning. When I returned to the United States from Europe that November, the midterm elections had occurred, and the Pittsburgh tragedy had already faded from the news and the nation’s awareness. Then, in August 2019, a gunman walked into a Walmart in my hometown of El Paso and opened fire with another assault rifle, specifically targeting Mexicans and Latinos, killing 23 and wounding 23 others. The frantic day of phone calls and texts focused attention narrowly on my community (very Latino), my family (half Latino), my childhood friends (mostly Latino). One month later, in El Paso, I was able to visit and to walk the wall of tributes that sprang up spontaneously, and it was there that I saw this message from the Jewish Community Center—of Pittsburgh.
Suddenly it became clear to me that communities seemingly separated by geography, culture, and ethnicity were in fact closely connected not only by tragedy and compassion, but also alas by hate. Pittsburgh, far from El Paso, now seemed very near indeed, and from there it was only a small journey to Charleston, South Carolina, and the church shootings of June 17, 2015, in which 9 members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were gunned down during a bible study.
Three different cities, three different cultures, even three different religious traditions – same fate, similar cause. The United States has stopped listening to the “better angels of our nature” and is drifting back toward a history of violence based on racial and religious hatred fueled by conspiracy theories about children abducted and then murdered for obscure cultish practices. In this regard, the Pittsburgh attack is particularly instructive. The murderer is an acknowledged white supremacist whose extreme anti-Semitic convictions led him to target the Jewish community specifically. It’s also striking that an explicit motive for his attack was the HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) support for refugees from Central America. He expressed concern about the “migrant caravans” supposedly hurtling northward in an assault on the American border before the midterm elections. El Paso, Texas, one must recall, was and is a major destination for immigrants and more recently refugees. The Jewish community of Pittsburgh came under attack in part for its compassionate response to the very people who would be attacked 1800 miles away and 9 months later. As history shows, any conspiracy theory or hysteria over immigration in the United States will inevitably touch the Jewish community. As William Faulkner famously noted, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” This brings me back to Prague. On the day before the Pittsburgh attack, I was wandering through the amazing Jewish Museum spread throughout the Jewish Quarter, ending up at the old Jewish Cemetery. Of course it was a melancholy and profoundly moving experience—a graveyard, after all, and one of the few Jewish cemeteries in Central Europe to survive the Nazis. Looking about me, I thought of the vibrant but nonetheless embattled community these graves represented. Their existence—and survival—in a turbulent and often-hateful environment are testimony that for this community, these lives mattered and still matter, not just generally, but in their particularity as Jewish lives. My visit to the Pinkas Synagogue – the second oldest surviving synagogue in Prague—only strengthened this sense, because inscribed on its walls are the names of 77,297 Moravian and Bohemian Jews killed in the Holocaust. “Say their names” is no empty slogan but an affirmation of existence and humanity.
That, for me, is one of the takeaways from the Pittsburgh tragedy, and from those other tragedies that have intersected with it. In the United States today, a central cultural and political debate focuses on whose lives matter. For some, the easy fallback is the claim that all lives matter. On the other hand, in Prague the destruction of the cemetery would have meant erasing not just individual lives, but the life of the Jewish community. Only by preserving the particular was it possible to recognize that Jewish lives counted, that they matter. This is why we must say their names. The same is true for Latinos in my hometown, and for Black Americans in Charleston and elsewhere who have to fight for the simple recognition that Black Lives Matter. Only when we finally accept this can we move on to some more universal affirmation.
W. David Myers is Professor of History at Fordham University. He is the author of “Poor, Sinning Folk”: Confession and the Making of Consciences in Counter-Reformation Germany (1996) and Death and a Maiden: Infanticide and the Tragical History of Grethe Schmidt (2012). He is currently the reviews editor of Renaissance Quarterly. Professor Myers is completing a new book, “American Torture and the Experience of the West.”