Stand against anti-Semitism with learning and community
This past Saturday, October 27th, a man opened fire in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, killing eleven congregants and wounding six others. It is believed to be the deadliest attack on the Jewish community ever in the United States. YW Boston is mourning with the victims, survivors, and families of everyone impacted by this act of violence.
The Tree of Life Synagogue was founded in 1864 and serves over 530 families in the Squirrel Hill area of Pittsburgh. Those killed on Saturday were all over 50, with most in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. Among them were loving parents and grandparents, a committed couple, two close brothers, multiple dedicated health professionals, all practicing their Jewish faith together for Saturday Shabbat. Their names were Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Joyce Feinberg, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger.
The gunman, white 46-year-old Robert Bowers, was arrested and charged with 29 counts of federal hate crimes. While in custody, Bowers allegedly told SWAT officers that Jewish people “were committing genocide to his people.” He has a history of using social media to profess anti-Semitic beliefs. Most notably, he has expressed hatred of the refugee organization HIAS, which was founded to resettle Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, but has grown to serve refugees from all faiths and parts of the world. He despised their work to resettle Muslim refugees. He also believed that HIAS was aiding the caravan of migrant people walking north from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Bowers published anti-Semitic posts on the site Gab, including posting “Screw the optics, I’m going in” shortly before entering the Synagogue.
Anti-Semitic views have surged over the past year, and as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports, “In 2017, anti-Semitic incidents surged nearly 60 percent,” which was “the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since ADL started tracking such data in 1979.” While Bowers’s attack was more extreme than those before it, he is far from the only dangerous aggressor. The ADL reports that for the first time, a majority of Jewish Americans are concerned about violence directed at their community. The most visible attack before Saturday was the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year, during which marchers threw Nazi salutes and held swastika flags, and which ended with the murder of a counter-protester.
Many people believe that anti-Semitism is part of the past, put to bed with the end of World War II. For instance, President Trump’s response to the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, was “That is something you wouldn’t believe could still be going on.” Jeffrey Herf of The Washington Post stated in an article, “Trump doesn’t actually understand the nature of anti-Semitism at all.” Jeffrey Herf explains that while he finds the President’s blindness to anti-Semitism confounding, many Americans do not recognize the growing hatred of Jews in the United States. By assuming that anti-Semitism has been stomped out, Americans do little to prevent homegrown hatred and attacks.
Although the federal government provides little respite to those mourning the eleven dead, we have seen people cross differences in displays of solidarity. There are multi-faith vigils being held across the country, including one in Pittsburgh soon after the attack which has raised “more than $123,000 in a crowdfunding campaign for survivors and relatives of those who died.”
Just as people are coming together across faiths, many members of Jewish communities in the United States are connecting with one another to convert their grief and anger into power and change. Katie Kelly-Hankin, a friend of YW Boston’s who grew up in the affected congregation and whose family has been impacted by the shooting, has called on her white Jewish friends to reflect on Saturday’s attack as a sign that everyone needs to fight for justice. As she states, “As white Jews of European descent, we must stop seeing our struggle against anti-semitism as being in any way separate from these other struggles for justice and human dignity.” She calls for Jewish Americans to view the struggle against anti-Semitism as linked to racial justice, noting that “the differential survival rates of white supremacist murderers at active crime scenes, versus the significantly poorer survival rate of unarmed black people who have chance encounters with police officers in the course of their daily lives—that too is an example of white supremacy in action.” The same white supremacism that fuels anti-Black racism props up white people, Jewish and non-Jewish, every day. As she notes, “Not all Jews are white and straight. There are Jews of white European descent, yes. There are also Black Jews, Arab Jews, Latinx Jews, Asian and mixed-race Jews. There are Queer Jews and Trans Jews and Jews who belong to indigenous nations of North America,” all of whom deserve to be free from the white supremacy fueling acts of violence large and small.
One of the vigils held this past weekend was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Shemira: Safeguarding Space for Jewish Community and Allies. Danny Kaplan, a social work student, spoke at the event, saying “To our allies in the crowd, I want you to know how important your presence is in showing us that we don’t have to be afraid of you, that we can trust in a strategy of protection premised in mutual investment in dismantling our respective oppressions.” He encouraged those at the event to give to organizations such as HIAS which work with with people of all faiths, including Muslims. He echoed the sentiments above, asking attendees “to do better in learning about and disrupting antisemitism. Like all other forms of oppression, antisemitism is so much more than a hateful person acting in isolation. It is an insidious structural force that threatens not only Jews, but the entirety of solidarity work.”
Similar to other forms of oppression – racism, sexism, ableism and more, anti-Semitism can be frightening to unpack and understand. However, as Herf stated in his article, “The time is long past to end American cluelessness about the history, nature and contemporary danger of anti-Semitism.” In order to prevent anti-Semitism, we must dissect the ways it pervades our history. Seek out resources on anti-Semitism and contemporary Jewish history, such as this one from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
We know that this act of terror does not stand alone. The attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue occurred one day after a man was arrested for mailing pipe bombs to those who have criticized President Trump – people the bomber thought of as his enemies. It also came just days after a white man killed two black seniors at a grocery store parking lot in Kentucky after failing to enter a nearby black church. After murdering Maurice Stallard, 69, and Vickie Jones, 67, the suspect, Gregory A. Bush, told a frightened white bystander that “whites don’t shoot whites.”
These events serve to reinforce why YW Boston’s mission of eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all is as important as ever. The shooter who entered the Tree of Life Synagogue sought to terrorize those who help others and to drive people apart from one another. We must make connections across difference to educate and empower ourselves and others to make lasting change.