While it is inappropriate to try to blame mainstream political movements for the tragic shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, there is at least some suggestion that one decidedly non-mainstream and troubling phenomenon—anti-Semitism—was a factor in the attack on Arizona’s first Jewish woman congresswoman. The deranged alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, was apparently a fan of Mein Kampf and belonged to an anti-Semitic group, which may have helped inspire his deadly rampage. For Jewish officials in public life, the shooting raises the important question of how and whether to acknowledge one’s religion in a world where many people, for a variety of personal and political reasons, want to do Jews harm.
I recently wrote an essay for Mishpacha magazine in which I talked about my own experiences as a Jewish senior official in the Bush Administration. I also discussed the prevalence of Jewish elected officials in the U.S. Congress, including the new House majority leader, Eric Cantor. In response, one reader offered a cautionary letter in which he warned against getting excited over having Jewish officials prominently featured in public life. The correspondent cited the Meshech Chochma, written by Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, Latvia, who wrote in the early 20th century that Jews should be wary of getting too comfortable in a country, lest the native population be reminded of the Jewish people’s otherness and expel them, or worse.
Simcha’s words are even more haunting in light of Jewish history. In his lifetime, Germany, not the United States, was seen as the safest place for Jews to live. Germany was a cultured and advanced society in which Jews had existed, mostly peacefully, for a thousand years. During his lifetime, few would have believed Germany would be the driving force behind an atrocity like the Holocaust. Thus, one cannot blithely dismiss Simcha’s views as the equivalent of the mousy sentiment, “shah shtil fur de goyim” —don’t make a fuss about your Judaism in front of the non-Jewish population.
Even today, in a welcoming nation such as the United States, this fearful attitude often governs Jewish attitudes toward public life and public service. The notion is that latent anti-Semitism is only a surface scratch away and that Jews should keep their heads down and make as little noise as possible so as not to attract negative attention from non-Jewish fellow citizens. This attitude is often seen with respect to embarrassing behavior by Jews—the Bernie Madoff scandal is a prime example of such negative behavior. But the principle goes beyond scandal and applies to any publicly noticeable activity, even positive actions, such as the public service in which Giffords was engaged.
The adherence to a “shah shtil” approach is somewhat understandable not only in the shadow of the Giffords affair but also when one considers the prevalence of anti-Semitism both in the United States and around the world. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s 2009 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, there were “1,211 incidents of vandalism, harassment, and physical assaults against Jewish individuals, property, and community institutions across the U.S.” Outside the United States, the problem is even worse, as similar studies have found more than 1,700 anti-Semitic incidents in 2009 in England and France alone, two countries that publicly condemn anti-Semitism and have large and relatively comfortable Jewish communities. While 2010 figures are not yet available, the ADL’s website details 75 different anti-Semitic incidents in more than two dozen countries around the world in 2010.
Beyond all of these statistics are real stories of people traumatized by direct contact with anti-Semitism. In my own time in public life, I was never directly confronted with anti-Semitism in a physical sense, but I was certainly aware it was out there. When I worked as policy director for Sen. John Ashcroft in the 1990s, the senator’s chief of staff received a letter from an anti-Semitic group questioning my fitness for the job. The reason? I had publicly—and jokingly—hoped that a highly anticipated, high-end kosher restaurant in Washington—long since closed, alas—would be “good enough for the goyim,” that is, of sufficiently high quality that one would not be embarrassed to invite non-Jewish colleagues to eat there as well. The complainant felt that I had used a slur to refer to gentiles, whom he described, somewhat oddly, as my “opponents.” I explained the nonsensical nature of the complaint, and the chief of staff dismissed it, but I didn’t forget the incident.
Later, when I served in the White House, I was what the Jewish journalist Ron Kampeas called “one of the highly identified Jews” in the administration. As such, I was regularly listed on anti-Semitic sites—along with many of my Jewish colleagues—as one of the administration’s Jews, punctuated by questions such as: “Ask yourself: Is their first loyalty to America or Israel?” Later, when nominated as deputy secretary of Health and Human Services, I was the subject of a longer write-up on an anti-Semitic site, which breathlessly reported that my last name Troy had been shortened from “Troyansky.”
In recounting these experiences, I do not intend to portray myself as a victim of anti-Semitism. To the contrary. I believe that it is a credit to the United States that I saw so little evidence of anti-Semitism that only aggressive Googling would uncover it. I also recognize that the White House bubble provides some lever of protection for senior officials—not only is the whole campus closely guarded, but direct phone numbers were unpublished, and discerning the email addresses of White House staffers is not intuitive. At the same time, I was also aware that anti-Semitic ugliness was a reality.
It is this reality that gives Jewish officials cause to be concerned and thoughtful about their public profiles, whether in the United States or elsewhere in the world. Yet while Jews should remain cognizant of the dangers of anti-Semitism, the proper response to the Giffords incident should not be a turn inward. In contrast, it is only by resolving to become active citizens and compassionate neighbors that we can identify and confront what is hateful before it gains political force.
Rather than being discouraged by the tragedy, aspiring Jewish officials should be encouraged by the embrace of Giffords as a national hero. They should also recognize that Jews serving in public life may disturb some, but that their service presents opportunities to show devotion to this country, which is a powerful tool against anti-Semitism. In addition, having more Jews in public life gives Jews a platform for fulfilling their historic role of a “light unto the nations.” The best way to fight against the darkness of all forms of bigotry is with the light of Judaism’s key message, as distilled by the great Rabbi Hillel when asked to summarize the whole Torah while standing on one leg: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others.”
Giffords was willing to take the risk of serving in Congress while living quite publicly as a Jew. Today all Americans, Jew and non-Jew alike, are united in praying for her full and speedy recovery. But the attack on her reminds us that those willing to take a public stand against bigotry are heroes who deserve the accolades and admiration of our citizens. At a time such as this, Giffords’ example shows the Jewish people that we must eschew the “shah shtil” principle of cowering in the background. We cannot afford to be silent in the face of anti-Semitism or any other ideology of hate.