I lived in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood for a few months when I was in grad school. It was a nice, safe, relatively friendly neighborhood.
Now it will be known as the site of the worst mass murder of Jews in US history.
Eleven are dead and numerous others wounded, including four responding police officers. The terrorist, Robert Bowers, as shown by this archive of social media posts, is apparently an obsessed Jew-hater, a Holocaust denier and a Nazi admirer. He appears to have become inflamed by the idea that liberal Jews were supporting uncontrolled immigration into the US (he mentions both Hispanics and Muslims), in particular the “migrant caravan” that is presently making its way through Mexico. Interestingly, Bowers criticized Donald Trump for being “a globalist, not a nationalist,” said that Trump was surrounded by Jews, and that he did not vote for him.
His decision to act seems to have been triggered by an event held in Pittsburgh by the HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), an organization that once brought Jewish refugees out of Europe, but now works to resettle refugees from Syria, Central America, and even Africans in Tel Aviv.
There have been various, mostly predictable, popular responses to this atrocious act. Many, if not most, miss the point. So here is what I think:
This is nothing new. Synagogues and other Jewish institutions around the world and in the US are attacked all the time. Attacks in the US have been carried out by both neo-Nazi and Islamic extremists, and their number has been increasing along with polarization and anger in the country.
Bowers was “ideologically insane.” One common theme among extreme right-wing conspiracy theorists is that Jews, especially George Soros, are trying to destroy the “white race” in America by introducing non-white immigrants. They will then take over (although they are already in charge by means of controlling politicians, even Trump), or they will somehow make a lot of money out of the collapse of the nation. Bowers seems to have believed some version of this. Social media seems to feed this kind of insanity, which often erupts into violence.
It’s not Trump’s fault. Yes, the extreme right is more likely to support Trump than his opponents, and there were anti-Jewish elements involved in Trump’s campaign. That doesn’t mean that Trump encourages or approves of anti-Jewish violence. And there are Jew-haters galore on the other side.
It’s not the liberal Jews’ fault. Yes, liberal and progressive Jews often take positions that infuriate the Right, like favoring increased immigration, especially from Muslim countries. But it’s their prerogative to take whatever positions they like without being murdered.
It is not a problem of generalized “hatred.” It is a very specific kind of hatred; it is the particular hatred of Jews that has existed for thousands of years, that constantly reprises old themes and creates new ones, but which never goes away. Increasing expressions of Jew-hatred in the US are a result of constant anti-Jewish incitement in social media. Rick Jacobs wants to universalize the disaster. He stands in a pool of Jewish blood and talks about anti-black racism and “Islamophobia.” This is pathological. Jews were murdered because they were Jews and he virtue-signals about how he cares for all humanity!
Love is not the answer. Jew-haters are not going to be impressed by posturing that “we don’t need armed guards to pray.” The more that liberal Jews resist security measures on the grounds that they would be “giving the [terrorists, neo-Nazis] what they want,” the softer and more attractive targets they become. Ignoring the threat is not courageous; it is burying your head in the sand, a form of cowardice.
An armed presence is a deterrent. Perhaps one guy sitting in the back of the synagogue with a pistol would not always prevent such a tragedy, but it would greatly increase the odds of doing so. Serious security measures are not, as is sometimes suggested, a sign of fear – rather, as in Israel, a sign that an institution will not accept the “right” of the terrorist to shut it down.
Israel’s experience as the Jew Among Nations shows that a strong, disproportionate response to violent anti-Jewish attacks tends to deter future attacks. When the response is weak – as in today’s response to the provocations from Gaza – the attacks become more frequent and more ambitious.
My recommendations to American Jews and Jewish institutions are these:
Face reality. We live in an increasingly anti-Jewish world. They hate us on the macro and micro levels, from the Right and from the Left. The Golden Age of American Jewry is coming to an end. History teaches us that the condition of Jews in non-Jewish societies is usually precarious. America since 1945 has been an exception.
Take steps to protect yourselves. You can’t walk into a synagogue in Europe without meeting an armed guard and open doors are not left unattended. Unobtrusive security measures are possible, but the visible ones also serve as a deterrent. Don’t expect the authorities to protect you. Yes, you pay taxes and it is their job. No, they are not capable of providing day-in day-out protection. You will have to work with them and supplement what they can provide. This is a lesson the state of Israel learned early: it’s your life – nobody cares as much about it as you do.
Remember who you are. You are members of the Jewish people, not citizens of the world. You have a homeland, the State of Israel. Israel doesn’t need your money, but she needs you to ensure that your nation supports her in international forums and helps maintain military superiority against her enemies. Contrary to what her enemies say, Israel is the temporal center of power of the Jewish people, and her existence deters rather than encourages worldwide acts of Jew-hatred. If Israel should be lost, the Jewish people everywhere will be lost.
The expression “wake-up call” is overused but I think it is appropriate here. This horrific murder should stand as a warning to American Jews, many of whom have felt insulated, safe in a way that Jews have never been safe anywhere prior to the post-WWII period in America. One useful thing that Robert Bowers may have done is send a message to these comfortable Jews: welcome to Jewish history.