Tree of Life Tragedy & Horrors of October 7th, What Have We Learned?

By David Cohen

On October 27th, we marked the 5 year anniversary of the Tree of Life tragedy in Pittsburgh.  The antisemitism and anti-Israel bias that motivated that tragedy and that has been on the rise ever since – sits with us even more so these five years later as we still mourn those murdered and taken hostage in Israel just weeks ago. 

While I fear we have yet to fully grasp the meaning of October 7th, one certainty did stand out for me.  Our community will never have closure for either horrific event – only loved one’s lost, senses of security shattered, and some lessons learned - maybe.  I ask that the memories of all those lost in Pittsburgh and in Israel be for a blessing.  In their honor, we will continue to fight antisemitism wherever it may arise and however hard it may be to face.

But beyond those simple understandings and memorials – I think many of us are still at a loss for what to do next and what to say.  In the articles and posts I have read recently - and in the conversations I have been having - one repeated idea does seem to stand out more than the others.  One that does seem to connect to both tragedies in a meaningful way.  In this most recent tragedy in Israel, we have not been given a chance to mourn.  We tried.  And in those initial moments we had the world’s arms around us.  But very shortly thereafter – as we began to fight back – our world changed from one where we received empathy to one where we had to defend our actions at every step.

It occurred to me that after the Tree of Life tragedy, we did have that space.  Seemingly, this was easier for the world to handle.  Jews were attacked.  A brave Rabbi, trained to be ready for such attacks (sad in its own right that he had to be) acted swiftly and decisively and in doing so saved more lives.  I wonder today in 2023 what would have happened had the brave Rabbi attacked the attacker.  Would he have been seen as a villain?  I don’t think so.  Had the police felt the need to shoot the attacker, would they have been seen as villains?  I don’t think so. 

I fully realize the events in Israel over the past weeks carry more complexity, but when you boil it down – do they really? 

I do want to also acknowledge – if it is any help – that so many of us knew that protests over Israel were going to happen regardless of the way in which Israel responded.  That was the only solace I could give people. That in the same way one cannot really argue or convince someone who is vehemently anti-Israel that our cause is just – that these are those people.  These are not our partners in our communities who DO support us.  These are not the legislators who are passing resolutions supporting us.  And these are not even the people within our own community who will continue to question the government of Israel and her policies.  These are people who will never see October 7th as the paradigm-shifting event it was.  These are people who will always believe the reports of a hospital being bombed by Israel are true.  These people foster the largest D in the three D’s of antisemitism.  The Demonization of Israel and the Jewish people.

In reality, those anti-Israel voices on campus were there before October 7th and nothing that happened that day changed most of their views.  As much as that makes our stomachs turn, we have to embrace and remember the idea that most people in our own communities who were by our side before October 7th are still by our side.

It is just that we ourselves have not yet come to grips with the impact that day had on our psyche and on our emotional state.  We are angry, we are vulnerable, and we are fearful that any sense of security in either the US or in Israel will never return.  And that is ok.  But it will.  I assure you.  Not today.  Not tomorrow.  Maybe not for months or years.  But just like the Holocaust and just like the Tree of Life.  What once made us shake will make us stronger.  The threats we once put behind us so we could move forward – will inform the way we continue to build vibrant and strong Jewish life both here and in Israel.  And we will do that because it will always be our best weapon against those who hate us.  And we will do that because it will always be how we invite our friends and allies to understand us, stand with us, and join us in building a robust community, welcoming of all our friends and neighbors.