In Mourning Pittsburg, Let’s Not Forget Systemic Racism and Violence
By Sean Gelles (November 1, 2018)
Hopefully it’s not too soon to address some of the reactions I’ve been seeing to the tragic racist attack in Pittsburgh on October 27th. I’ve been seeing a lot of ideas expressed which are the result not of conscious reflection but of sheer panic and dread. Perhaps right now is not the time to begin to problematize this affective response but, as a Jewish person in the U.S. committed to justice and equality, I feel it incumbent upon me to do so and sooner rather than later because rampant emotionality is very easily exploited. Just remember the Dreyfus affair which gave birth to the Zionist movement that has resulted in catastrophe for the Palestinian people.
Every day in this country Black, Latinx, Asian, and indigenous peoples, especially LGBTQ people within these communities, are forced to live in fear of police and paramilitary violence. For centuries they have had to survive slavery, genocide, deportation, fascism (a/k/a “Jim Crow,” lynching, and the Ku Klux Klan), police violence, etc. Every year dozens of Black people are murdered by police, dozens of indigenous women are raped and murdered with impunity by white men, and dozens of Latinx people are murdered along the southern border. These tragedies do not make the headlines, the names of the victims are not disseminated in the news media, and I would bet that very few of us in the U.S. Jewish community had panic attacks after their lives were extinguished.
Some of the posts I have seen across social media have mentioned the idea of obtaining firearms while others have talked about leaving the U.S. with no idea whatsoever of the destination. Wasn’t that the same response that the Zionists came up with after World War II? I wonder how many of us in the U.S. Jewish community similarly pondered such ideas after the Charleston church shooting in 2015?
Why don’t we feel the same panic when Palestinians are maimed, crippled, and murdered in Gaza and the West Bank, when Yemenis are slaughtered, or Asian Americans are beaten, killed, or detained? Can we admit that some of the emotional response we’ve been feeling stems from a certain degree of privilege? According to the FBI’s latest statistics (2016), 11% of hate crime incidents were against Jews. What does it mean when we reserve our sense of alarm for only that 11%?
In the current era, the murder of Jews is often publicized as cause not only for grief, but for outrage, and that outrage is always directed at people of color. Do not be surprised if this tragedy is deployed to garner support for more violence against Palestinians or war with Iran. Just watch your favorite cable news network. It’s already happening.
On Sunday after the attack, former President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tweeted, “Terrorizing defenseless people is done by cowardly and selfish individuals. Terrorism is always condemned in any shape or form. #UnitedStatesTerrorAttack.” Ahmadinejad was communicating two main points with that Tweet. First, he was implicitly expressing solidarity with the victims. Second, he was making it clear that by any objective definition, this was a terrorist attack. It’s critical to note that the mainstream U.S. news media are not framing this attack, as Ahmadinejad does, as terrorism. The reason is obvious: the perpetrator was a white man. Had he been an Asian man, or probably even if he had been a Black man, the attack would be construed as terrorism and would be framed as an issue of national security. Ahmadinejad was using the occasion to express solidarity with the victims and highlight how systemic U.S. racism is as implicated in the tragedy as antisemitism.
Immediately after the Tweet was posted, Shane Bauer, Senior Reporter from Mother Jones responded, “Dude you don’t even believe the Holocaust happened.” Mr. Bauer has been active in Western Asia for a very long time. He was famously detained by Iranian authorities from 2009-11 for “hiking” along the Iran-Iraq border. It’s unlikely that he does not know enough Farsi to know that Ahmadinejad has never denied that the Holocaust happened. Bauer attempts to accomplish two important tasks with his response. First, he aims to reject any expression of solidarity from Ahmadinejad (something he, as an uber-goy, has no right to do). Second, by mentioning the Holocaust, he re-orients the event away from an interrogation of systemic U.S. racism and back onto the victimization of Jews.
If you watch cable news, something I try not to do but can’t avoid, you’ll see the talking heads paralleling Bauer in their effort to make this all about the Jews. What they won’t mention is the fact that police officers across the U.S. won’t hesitate to kill an unarmed Black while a white man armed with an AR-15 can waltz into a synagogue and open fire on the whole congregation without being gunned down by police (he’s already out of the hospital despite being shot several times – an indication the officers were not shooting to kill). Additionally, they won’t talk about how a white Christian man committing mass murder is framed as the act of a “lone nutcase” while an Asian Muslim man committing any crime is construed as a matter of national security as well as grounds for rounding-up all Asian Muslim men and excluding them from entering the country.
In conclusion, while we mourn the eleven men and women who lost their lives on Saturday, we should also remember those peoples whose murders were not counted, whose deaths were not even recognized as murders, and whose disappearances went unnoticed, and unmourned. While the names of the eleven victims are widely disseminated, and the on-air talent of the U.S. media industrial complex express righteous indignation over the mass murder, it’s up to us as Jews who care about justice and equality to demand that those in power address the murders of those peoples with no citizenship documents, no national ambassadors to express outrage over their murders, no marked graves, no tombstones, no epitaphs, in short, nothing left to tell their stories, to tell the world that they were people who lived and died. Let’s not panic and recoil into a reformulated Jewish nationalism, not even a more inclusive, softer and gentler Zionism, which I’ve seen proposed by some on the Jewish left in response to the attack. Instead, let’s take our outrage and use it to demand recognition for those thousands of peoples whose murders aren’t counted as criminal, racist, antisemitic, or terrorist, and whose deaths never make the headlines.