When Scholars are Political, Human, and Shattered

By Rachel Kranson

This piece is part of the second installment of Speaking Justice to Power: Local Pittsburgh Scholars Respond to the Tree of Life Shooting, a series edited by Heath Cabot and Michal Rose Friedman. 

The Kriah, Brian Cohen.jpeg
The Kriah. Photo by Brian Cohen.

As both a professor of Jewish history and a local organizer with Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, I had long felt myself well-positioned as a politically-engaged scholar. Before October 27th, I never had cause to doubt that my scholarship would always complement my quiet activism, seamlessly and without conflict. As a historian, I would meticulously create books and articles that revealed Jews to be, above all, deeply human. And as an activist, I would take the lessons of Jewish history and – with careful precision honed through my intellectual training — harness them for impactful social change.

Responding to this crisis, however, highlighted the ways in which my training as a scholar did not prepare me for the rawness, or the inevitable messiness, of front-line activist work.

Like so many others in the city of Pittsburgh, Squirrel Hill, and the local Jewish community, the Tree of Life shooting left me reeling. I was devastated by the anguish of friends who lost friends, by the suffering of a wounded neighbor, by my inability to reassure my children that they could feel safe in their school and synagogue. Most overpowering was my unrelenting sense that every person I cared about was in imminent danger. Just one week before the attack my son and I attended a bat mitzvah celebration in the Tree of Life building. In the days following the shooting, I repeatedly visualized us in that space, running from a murderer.

Together with the crushing fear and sorrow, I nurtured my fury. Even before the attack, I knew that President Trump’s support for white nationalism endangered Jews (of all racial and ethnic backgrounds) along with all people of color, refugees, Muslims, and so many other Americans. Combined with our government’s utter failure to regulate access to firearms, the United States had been courting just this sort of calamity. Both in my academic and my political work, I spend a lot of time thinking about the conditions that produce Jewish vulnerability. While I could never have predicted that this attack would happen so close to home, it also did not feel entirely unexpected.

And yet, when disaster struck, I found myself unable to draw on my intellectual training. Scholarship – even public-facing scholarship – demands the kind of sustained concentration and clear, systematic thinking that I simply could not muster during a moment of trauma.

So, during the brief period in which the world turned its fickle attention to the Jews of Pittsburgh, I relied on my fellow Bend the Arc activists to shape my response to the tragedy. Alone, we were breaking down. But together, supporting one another, we crafted an open letter holding President Trump responsible for the hateful rhetoric that fueled this attack. When he had the temerity to visit Squirrel hill without denouncing the murderer’s white nationalist ideology, we organized a march in protest. We led thousands of Pittsburghers in the ancient Jewish mourning ritual of Kriah, viscerally expressing our pain through rending fabric. We drew the city – and the nation — into the grief of a community ravaged by cynical, irresponsible leadership.

The activist imperative to respond quickly to a fleeting news cycle – especially during a time of trauma – made it inevitable that we would make mistakes and that we would make them publicly. At one point, we didn’t articulate that antisemitism was a core feature of white nationalism. At other moments, we let reporters bait us and veer us away from the talking points. Still, we trusted that the most crucial aspects of our message would reach the many people who needed to hear it.

This mode of engagement runs counter to academic frameworks which provide us with layers of protection against being raw, emotional, imprecise, and unpolished. As scholars, we never expose those messy first drafts to public view; we revise them multiple times, seek comments from trusted colleagues, and then participate in peer review. While we may complain about clueless, grumpy, reviewer #2, there is security in the process. It may not be nimble, but the resulting work tends to be well-insulated from gross missteps and infelicities. Our mistakes – and the feedback of our colleagues and that crabby second reviewer — are carefully hidden away in the recesses of our hard drive. We are left with a public record of published, scholarly work carefully engineered to hide the fact that we are fallible, in need of support, and as entirely human as the people we write about.

In the days after October 27th, I never felt more fallible, in need of support, and entirely human. Along with my fellow activists I made the choice to free-fall into a moment of political crisis, without the protections of revision or peer review. I wouldn’t, couldn’t, have done it differently.

Now, with a bit of distance, I’ve regained my capacity to think about Tree of Life systematically, but I refuse to write about it dispassionately. Once, I anticipated using my academic training to increase my precision as an activist. Now, I look for models of scholarship that could incorporate the raw, messy, vulnerable humanity that animated my activism in the wake of this tragedy.

I don’t quite know what venues might publish a study of Tree of Life that intersperses raw personal experience with historical analysis. I don’t know how such work would be received in the field, or whether it would count towards eventual promotion. Still, I intend to bring to it everything I carry: the intellectual rigor, the political engagement, and the trauma.

KransonRachel Kranson is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where she specializes in the history of American Jews and the history of gender and sexuality. She is the author of Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America (University of North Carolina Press, 2017) and a co-editor of A Jewish Feminine Mystique?: Jewish Women in Postwar America (Rutgers University Press, 2010).

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