Within a week, two temples precious to me — and millions of others — were desecrated. As everyone knows, on Wednesday, January 6, “Fake-triots” (unpatriotic patriots) invaded America’s fabled Capitol building, spewing hatred while taking selfies in front of iconic statues and paintings. Less well known is that one week later, my Montreal synagogue, Westmount’s historic Shaar Hashomayim, was graffitied. A 28-year-old Jew-hater, carrying a gasoline canister, tried entering the building to burn it down. Instead, he spray-painted four swastikas, one on each of the congregations’ double-doors at its main entrance.
It’s been fascinating to watch an increasingly secular America use such powerful religious language to describe the traumatic events that resulted in President Donald Trump’s second impeachment. Words like “desecrated” and “defiled,” as well as phrases like “the temple of democracy,” reveal the fervor with which genuine American patriots revere their governmental system, its institutions and its symbols.
As meaning-making creatures, humans are addicted to symbols. We convey emotions, stories and values through all kinds of inanimate objects. Our ability to turn things into props that help us stretch to the stars is a particularly human ability that animals lack. Similarly, our ability to turn government office buildings into props symbolizing our faith in representative institutions is a particularly democratic phenomenon, which dictatorships lack.
The power we impute to our synagogues, to our parliament buildings, lures haters, too. One mob of hundreds traumatized democracy-lovers worldwide by violating Capitol Hill. And one little broken person unsettled Jews — and all haters of bigotry — worldwide by putting the hated Nazi symbol on eight synagogue doors.
One of the most unnerving things about the Capitol attack was that it was unprecedented. Never before had so many Americans done such damage with such venom to their Congressional headquarters. The offense was compounded by the fact that the rioters attempted to disrupt an electoral process that has proceeded smoothly, with remarkably little violence, for two-and-a-half centuries.
Another unsettling thing about the synagogue attack was just how familiar it was. For millennia, the weak and the strong, the far left and the far right, believers and pagans, capitalists and Marxists, have targeted Jews — and their places of worship. That is why such an admittedly minor incident (the doors can easily be cleaned or replaced) generated such upset and outrage.
For millennia, the weak and the strong, the far left and the far right, believers and pagans, capitalists and Marxists, have targeted Jews — and their places of worship.
Although these incidents highlight our emotional vulnerability to the bullies in our midst, they also demonstrate our two democracies’ resilience. The Capitol Hill rioters failed. In fact, their efforts backfired. America’s institutions functioned, as the American people showed their instinctive decency. The constitutional process of certifying Joe Biden’s election continued that night — after an unwelcome interruption. The marauders are being hunted down by police and shunned by neighbors. The demagogue-in-chief, Donald Trump, has been impeached.
Similarly, the vandalism in Montreal infuriated Canadians from coast to coast, resulting in bursts of Jew-loving instead of waves of Jew-hatred. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau led the chorus of condemnation, tweeting: “We must always denounce anti-Semitic hate, no matter when or where it arises.”
Jews know not to take such a protective, popular backlash and such moral leadership for granted. Traditionally, the Jew-haters reflected the mainstream and were often riled-up by their leaders, while many non-Jews who didn’t hate Jews cowered silently.
Moreover, on the third Wednesday of 2021, January 20, America had what the Maccabees of yore had — a Chanukkah HaBayit, a rededication. True, Washington was in lockdown, and 25,000 troops ringed the restored Capitol. But there was a powerful, transcendent, tear-inducing, lump-in-the-throat creating bipartisan display of support for the peaceful transition of power that no mob, no demagogue, no two-and-a-half month temper tantrum over losing could derail. President Joe Biden’s call for “unity” and his promise “to fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did” offered a tikkun — a healing, a cleansing, after five years of division and demagoguery — which, intentionally or not, unleashed the Jew-haters among us.
Even more profound, however, were the words of Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who flirted with Trump and even with the election-doubters. Nevertheless, Blunt helped preside over the ceremony magnificently, saying, “The assault at our Capitol, at this very place just two weeks ago, reminds us that a government designed to balance and check itself is both fragile and resilient.”
Our temples, be they religious or patriotic, must be “fragilient.” The fragility comes because they rest on a foundation of quicksand — words, ideas, values. But both the Jewish people and the American people have shown tremendous resilience historically because words matter, ideas count and good values can defeat the greatest of villains.
Here, then, is the real test every society constantly faces: Humans are flawed. There will always be victimizers, victims and those who can stand by. While victims should fight back, bystanders should “do right” back. Victims often have no choice when they are targeted; bystanders have the choice to get involved or not. Their involvement is constructively contagious. The more bystanders stand up, the less likely it is for anyone to be targeted in the future. That is why the legendary Holocaust historian, Hebrew University’s Yehuda Bauer, proposes Three New Commandments: “Thou shall not be a perpetrator, thou shall not be a victim, and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.”
Just as psychologists teach us not to judge ourselves — or one another — by the worst things we ever did, historians know better than to judge any society by the worst things the worst people in that society ever did. Every act of violence, especially public acts targeting highly symbolic spaces, poses a moral test, even when they don’t pose mortal threats. I am proud — but not at all surprised — that so many Americans and Canadians proved that we judge a society by its delicious fragilience, not its occasional violence, by the mainstream majority, not the malignant minority and by those who remember that the opposite of bystander is not a victim… it’s a citizen.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American History and three books on Zionism. His book, “Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People,” co-authored with Natan Sharansky, was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.