Jewish Community and Fear in Highland Park

Jewish Community and Fear in Highland Park

Amidst the flurry of news about the Highland Park, Illinois shooting this 4th of July, one video stood out. The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band kept playing, uninterrupted as an increasingly frantic crowd ran the other direction, splitting on both sides of the float the band was nestled in. The klezmerists seemed nonplussed, likely they had not gotten the message about the crisis emerging in front of them. They were still tucked into their sheet music, playing contently, setting the tone with some traditional Jewish flavor. I was immediately reminded of a story an old coworker had told me about the Thurston, Oregon High School shooting in 1998, shortly before Columbine. He had returned to the school at the end of lunch and saw waves of students fleeing for their lives and, assuming this was some prank, laughed alongside them before joining in the fun. A mass shooting strikes like lightning, particularly when it emerges from the roof of a building with a barrel aimed at a holiday parade.

What immediately struck people about the shooting was not just the tragedy of it, we have already seen over 300 mass shootings this year such as the devastating recent assaults in Buffalo and Texas. But what was unique was that Highland Park was a notably Jewish area. As I discussed recently with Mark Oppenheimer, when people say Jewish, they rarely mean all Jews. When they are discussing more secular Jewish topics, they usually mean Reform, Conservative and likewise Jews. But when they say a “Jewish neighborhood” they refer primarily to the Orthodox since they are the remainders who continue to cleave to a tangible, physical Jewish community.

There are a few reasons for this. One is that they have to be able to walk to the shul on shabbat, and likewise have other obligations there. One of the largest breaks between the Conservative movement and Orthodoxy was around the question of driving on shabbat, and while you may find many observant Conservative Jews who don’t, they are by far in the minority. Jews are commanded to stay in close community with each other, to have a certain level of particularity so that you can maintain the mitzvah and traditions and continue the ancestral Jewish lineage. Orthodox also largely remain kosher, attend Jewish day school or yeshivas at higher rates, and need access to mikvahs, among other things. While the larger non-Orthodox Jewish community may look at a neighborhood with these assets as hamish, they rarely value it as much as reasonable property values and shortened work commutes. So the Jewish neighborhood is now, largely, the Orthodox neighborhood. In Portland, Oregon, there is an identifiable Jewish neighborhood, and while there are Conservative and Renewal shuls in the area, as well as the Jewish private school, it is the Orthodox synagogue that binds it together. When my wife and I strolled up to the bar in Multnomah Village for a drink at twilight, seeing a family pass by us, a man with tzitzit and kippah, we have a brief nostalgia for a community we never had the opportunity to be raised in. This is home, a Jewish neighborhood, one we know from stories more than experience. But the Orthodox have ensured the candle still burns.

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Highland Park has a population of about 30,000 people, a third of which are Jewish, making it more of a substantial Jewish population than most “Jewish neighborhoods.” But is also strays from the trend by including mostly non-Orthodox Jews here, just like in places like Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. But to be a visibly Jewish neighborhood with that density of community, the Orthodox are among most important constituencies, often a necessary piece of what makes the public identify as space as “Jewish.” This is part of why the shooting immediately brought questions of motivation: it just seems like too much of a coincidence. The visibly Orthodox are often among the most common targets for violent acts of antisemitism because you can spot them, you can go to a place you know them to live, and you can single them out for their difference. When the rash of attacks on Jews happened around Hanukkah in 2019, it was Orthodox and Haredi Jews that were the targets simply because they are interpreted as the most clear and uncomplicated picture of Jewishness. Highland Park also had an antisemitic incident earlier this year. Antisemitic flyers showed up on Yom Hashoah, the Day of Holocaust Remembrance, forcing the city to issue a statement condeming antisemitism. Now when we see a tragedy like this, six dead (including two Jews, one of which was a synagogue staff member) and 38 injured, it is also mired in an additional layer of suspicion, exactly what the motive could be. Those flyers suggested that "every single aspect of gun control is Jewish,” which makes the gun attack particularly eerie.

On the same day, the Patriot Front, one of the most active white supremacist organizations in the country, staged its own mass protest of a 100 masked members marching in Boston. The Patriot Front is prolific primarily in propaganda, and we responsible for 3,992 incidents of antisemitic flyering and other material distribution in 2021, giving them an 82% share of the total for the year. That, again, feels too close for comfort, there is a good chance that the flyers passed around Highland Park earlier this year had a Patriot Front connection.

The potential antisemitic intention of the shooter has not just been seen by those stunned with teh horror of it all. Across white nationalist channels, particularly those with affection to “accelerationist” terrorism on places like 4Chan and Telegram, connections were immediately made. One picture of the alleged shooter on 4Chan, with him wearing a Pepe the Frog shirt (a popular alt-right mascot) came with the caption “based white man punishing kikes.” The Jewishness of the neighborhood, the history of antisemitism, all speaks to their violent fantasies, and so they, just as immediately as everyone else, assumed that Jew hatred could be the operative impulse to the murders. “Probably half the people who live in Highland Park are Jewish,” said Jeff Leon, a Jewish Lawyer who had to duck away from bullets at the parade. “And that just can’t be a coincidence.” Chabad of Highland is about a half a mile from the site of the shooting, and Chabad rabbi Yosef Schanowitz quickly drove to Highland Hospital to act as a chaplain. Chabad youth had been on sight as part of their outreach campaign to get less observant Jews involved in various mitzvot, and as such were teaching men how to lay tefillin when the shooting started. Chabad has also been included in the parade itself, building a giant menorah placed atop a float. The alleged shooter has now been identified by a Chabad rabbi as the stranger who entered their synagogue in April amidst Passover celebrations, who was then asked to leave since he did not seem to be a member of the community. There are a lot of strands here, so many of them tied to a sense of Jewishness in Highland, and Orthodox visibility a central piece of this at the parade and nearby it.

This is part of the way that antisemitism lingers in our minds, it casts a tint over our read of experiences, a low grade fever of perpetual fear. The mass shooting is a repeating part of the experience of antisemitism in the United States. Obviously the largest of these was the Tree of Life shooting in 2018, but there were three killed in Poway, California in the same year. We also experienced the 2014 shootings at the Jewish Community Center of Great Kansas City, the 2009 shooting at the Washington Holocaust Museum, the 2006 shooting at the Jewish Federation in Seattle, the killing of radio show host Alan Berg by white supremacists in The Order, and the list goes on. On March 11th of this year there was a security guard from Columbus Torah Academy who posted on social media that he was "at a Jewish school and about to make it everyone's problem" along with a photo of a gun. On December 10th of 2019 David Anderson and Francine Graham opened fire on a kosher grocery store in the Greenville neighborhood of Jersey City, itself a Jewish and Orthodox area, leaving antisemitic comments online to point to their intentions. The Buffalo Shooting itself was directed at Black shoppers, yet the manifesto itself used antisemitic conspiracy theories to build up the racist ideology. When a mass act of racist violence takes place, antisemitism is often a leading factor.

So it's not a stretch to believe that the Highland Park shooting could have one particular audience in mind, even while there are yet to be clearcut signs as to the alleged shooter’s underlying philosophy. His actual social media footprint seemed less focused on Jewish cabals than it was on destroying the world, but those have, historically, sometimes come hand in hand. While people should show restraint and avoid erroneously declaring the ideologies of the shooter before evidence is available, it's easy to sympathize with those jumping to conclusions. There’s a reason they hop there first.

There is a curious element of antisemitism in that it can inspire some of the most profound and blood thirsty rage, the kind that leads to explosive acts of nihilist violence. Jews are seen not just as enemies in the midst, but of the orchestrators of decline. You cannot simply stop them at the border, and you often can’t see them because they have been so impolite as to appear white (and therefore do not announce their alienness). The role of antisemitism in many of these ideologies is what Talia Lavin calls a “linchpin”: it holds the ideology together. As Eric Ward has written, antisemitism is what makes white nationalism a cohesive ideology, without it their falsehoods would simply unravel. Jews are said to be so pernicious that they are often unreformable to white nationalists. Separation is not enough because their entire function is to undermine white self-interest. For some, extermination is the only solution.

There have certainly been evolutions in the white nationalist movement, and as the alt-right became more brazen they tried to sugar coat their more extreme antisemitic ideas. But the spread of their conspiracy theories has led to a spike in far-right antisemitism, the expression of which amongst the dispossessed is explosive acts of violence. Rage is crystalized, leaded, fired at the end of the gun. You cannot defeat the Jews, but you can take a few of them down on your way out.

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Orthodox neighborhoods are still where we often see the most public expressions of our Jewish tradition, for even non-Orthodox Jews, and because of that can act as a place of shared memory. It is the expressive nature of Jewish tradition, its persistence and particularity, which causes some of my envy. Day by day, they carry a tradition I find nearly impossible to maintain with any measure of consistency. But they also carry another burden, that of visibility, in a way that most of us simply don’t. When violence strikes in their midst I can easily jump to conclusions because I’ve been waiting for so long. I look at the Orthodox with a mix of admonishment (for its conservatism), admiration, and an underlying anxiety. The explosive violence of their antisemitism is one they carry atop themselves because their particularity is, quite literally, worn on their sleeve. When I leave a synagogue, which is itself usually covered by armed security, I leave behind my ability to be identified and therefore my experience as an easy target of Jewishness. They don’t leave that behind, bearing a burden so many of us have forgotten. But in Highland Park, we share it together, a place where the Orthodox and non-Orthodox still have a shared community, and where the violence was experienced together rather than fragmented by denomination. Chabad may be the most marked example of Jewish visibility, but they are also known for, in their own way, trying to break down barriers between Jews and to build one, cohesive Jewish people. When we experience a tragedy like this it can serve as a reminder that our shared history is a moment of strength, and it is those bonds that are hamish, not just the kosher buildings we inhabit.