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Chairman Noah Arbit Shares Reflections on Antisemitism on Anniversary of Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting

Growing up in West Bloomfield, Michigan, in a community where every resource to live a full and engaged Jewish life was at my fingertips, I never took antisemitism seriously as a threat. I worried it was indulgent for American Jews like myself or my family to lodge complaints about antisemitism, which did not seem to meaningfully hamper our ability to live proud and public Jewish lives in America.

What right did we have to complain about problematic rhetoric, indecent political cartoons, or fringe demagogues like David Duke, when the systemic racism against African-Americans and Latinos continued unabated with devastating economic, health, and quality-of-life implications?

How wrong I was.

First came the disturbing election campaign of 2016, the first time I confronted heinous, antisemitic vitriol aimed at me, personally — a Clinton-supporting Jew — by Trump supporters. I observed in horror as once-dismissed neo-Nazis and white nationalists suddenly emerged en masse like termites from a rotting wood pile, feasting on the open wounds of our democracy — all in support of the man a minority of Americans would elect to be our president. I considered that growing public expression of antisemitism was an early-warning sign for a graver sickness of the body politic. Sadly, I was proven correct on November 9, 2016.

Charlottesville came and went, as the 2017 equivalent of hoards of men in pointy white hoods shouted “Jews will not replace us.” It still felt fringe — until the U.S. President stepped in to defend them.

And then it happened. It was Saturday, October 27, 2018, in the middle of a divisive midterm election campaign and an unnerving news cycle surrounding the discovery of improvised explosives sent in the mail to the residences of prominent Democratic politicians, mainstream media headquarters, and several Jewish figures across the country. I received a news alert on my iPhone: reports of another mass shooting, in Pittsburgh. I groaned. A second news alert. The shooting was at a synagogue. My heart started pounding. Alone in a tiny residential corner of Washington DC, I crumpled onto my bed, and began to cry.

As the picture became clearer of what exactly had transpired at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that morning, I felt as I had on the morning after the 2016 election - as if walking through a fog, the tangible world around me suspended by the sheer weight of my shock and grief. Time seemed to stand still as I tried to grasp the magnitude of what had occurred on this ordinary Shabbat.

Of course, I was not among the eleven Jews murdered on that day. I did not sit in their wooden pews. I did not feel the rapid-fire bullets that ended eleven lives whizzing over my head. My ears did not ring for hours following the explosive sound of gunfire. I did not smell the stench of blood, debris, and ammunition combining into a toxic mess. I was not there as a house of prayer and its holy kehila were torn asunder by the forces of darkness, conspiracy, and ancient hatred.

But I could have been. My existence violated the murderer’s worldview in the same way as the congregants at Tree of Life.

Noah Arbit, MDJC Founder and Chair, speaks in front of the historic Temple Jacob in Hancock, MI, following an antisemitic attack on the Upper Peninsula synagogue in September 2019.

This was the education Pittsburgh left me. Coming to terms with the unbelievable notion that there are people who hate you, want you dead merely because of who you are - immutable characteristics due entirely to your birth - was immensely difficult.

Of course, Black Americans, LGBTQ Americans face this daily. But I had never in my life felt so alone, afraid, or vulnerable — as a Jew in America. I, like many in the Jewish community, underwent a profound change as a result of the Pittsburgh shooting. I came more alive to the hardships and threats faced by Jewry, not just in the United States, but around the world. I educated myself on the particulars of antisemitism, and vowed to be among those on the frontlines fighting it.

As we honor the memory of the eleven martyrs who lost their lives in Pittsburgh one year ago today, I reflect on all that has changed since that fateful day, which revealed the true insecurity of American Jews in this era.

I also reflect on founding the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus; I could not stand idly by after the haunting insecurity I felt after Pittsburgh. Combating antisemitism is the heart and soul of our political program, because I am committed to leaving a Democratic Party, a Michigan, and an America better than they were on October 27, 2018.

We must never feel that fighting for a world in which Jewish people are free of discrimination, hatred, and violence is “indulgent.” On the contrary, it is vital, and it is necessary. And I will fight for that world every day of my life if I have to.

I hope you will join me.

Noah Arbit

Founder and Chair, Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus


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