Saturday, March 06, 2021

A little more than two years ago, in the wake of the Tree of Life Shooting, Columbia University came under withering and justified criticism from many of its Jewish alumni. In condemning the shooting in an official statement, Columbia had spoken out against hate, but failed to once mention anti-Semitism—the motivation for the attack. As many in our community have correctly highlighted in the past, the first step in defeating evil is having the honesty to call it out by name.

In the wake of last week’s attack on the Capitol, when reading through the statements of institutions and leaders within our community on the local and national level, it is striking that almost all universally omit two words “Donald Trump.” This is simply outrageous. It would be like in the wake of arson writing an article condemning the act without mentioning the arsonist. The only debatable point of this analogy is whether the president spread the gas or lit the match. Yet, incomprehensibly, support for the president continues unabated among many in our community.

In Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy) there is the unusual halacha of the Eglah Arufah, a sacrifice brought by communal elders when the body of a murder victim is found outside their city. As part of the sacrifice, the elders declare that “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.”

The Mishna in Sota raises the question: Would we seriously believe that the elders might have committed the murders? The Mishna responds that “It is not the case that he came to us and we dismissed him, or that we saw him and let him go.” The critical question is whether “he” means the murderer or the victim.

The Bavli interprets “he” as a reference to the victim. The Yerushalmi holds that it refers to the murderer. The Gemera interprets the declaration of the elders to mean, “We did not have him in custody [for a prior murder] and let him go without capital punishment.” Or “We were not aware of him [as a criminal] and failed to prosecute him.” After this week, it is impossible to claim that anyone is unaware of the potential harm the president can continue to cause.

I call upon our communal leaders to reflect on the Eglah Arufah in the context of the events of the last week and their actions in responding to the president’s rhetoric and actions over the last four years. Until now, the excuse that has been given is the desire to keep our institutions “politics-free.” The good news is that opposing incitement to violence is not a political statement. It is fundamental to Judaism, not to mention any civil society. The inciter must be called out by name.

I am under no delusions that the words of our leaders would impact the actions of any of the rioters that attacked the Capitol. But political and financial support from our community clearly formed, and forms, an important part of the president’s base.

The threat of additional violence is very much with us. If, God forbid, there are additional casualties, our leaders should be asking themselves if they have done all they could so that they can credibly declare, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.”

Eventually, Columbia University corrected its error and issued a second statement properly acknowledging anti-Semitism as the direct cause of the Tree of Life massacre. It is not too late for our leaders to identify by name and speak out against the arsonist currently attacking American democracy.

Dror Futter