Fort Report: The Tree of Life
To understand the power, beauty, and dignity of what America means, one only has to look at the picture of the ordered white crosses nestled along the cliffside of Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. It is solemn. It is noble. And it reflects the idea that one has no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. Nestled within the gentle rolling hills of white crosses are also headstones with Jewish Stars of David on them.
On Saturday, October 27, at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in the Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Robert Bowers opened fire during a baby-naming ceremony, shouting anti-Semitic slurs as he carried out his diabolical rampage. Twenty minutes later, eleven people were dead and nine were injured, including four police officers. It was the deadliest attack on a Jewish community in the history of the United States, and a multi-generational rending of our communal fabric.
The pilgrims who settled in early 17th century New England were refugees from religious persecution in Europe. These “Puritans” viewed their emigration from England as a re-enactment of the Jewish exodus: England was Egypt; the British monarch was Pharaoh; the Atlantic Ocean was the Red Sea; America was the Land of Israel. The Puritans saw themselves like the New Israelites, entering a whole new covenant with God in a brand new Promised Land. They imagined that Thanksgiving ― first celebrated in 1621, a year after the Mayflower landed ― would parallel Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement: A time of prayer, fasting, and introspection.
Over 170 years later, in a 340-word Letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island, President George Washington wrote that the Jewish communities of America would find more than mere “tolerance” in the New World. “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it were by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights,” Washington wrote. “For, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support,” he continued.
Perhaps this moment of pain for the Jewish community and all of America will cause us to reflect on a new healthier covenant for and with America. A healthy America does not manufacture bogeymen towards which violence can be justified, nor does it subvert the principles of decency, civility, and order that allow us to be friends. A new healthy America invites the wide array of Americans into this renewed covenant, which is rooted in respect for human dignity and the unifying principles presented at our nation’s founding.
The various conflicts that the Jewish people have endured through the ages now have tragically manifested themselves again in this horrific trauma in Pittsburgh. When I learned of the tragedy, my mind went to a piece of art I have in my own home called “The Tree of Life.” General Washington concluded his letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, by writing, “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” The Tree of Life.