The deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history began at about 9:45 a.m. this past Shabbos at the Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha temple building on Wilkins Avenue, in Pittsburgh’s historic Squirrel Hill Jewish neighborhood. A 46-year-old white man named Robert Bowers, with no criminal record, had driven to the neighborhood in his car and walked into the building carrying a Colt AR-15 assault rifle, three Glock pistols and plenty of ammunition. Without warning, he opened fire indiscriminately while screaming, “All Jews must die.”
At 9:54 a.m., the Allegheny County 911 emergency center received its first report of an active shooter in the building and dispatched all available police and paramedics to the scene.
By 10:00 a.m., the first officers had arrived and reported that they had come under fire from Bowers as he tried to exit through the front entrance. Two of the cops were lightly wounded. Twelve minutes later, as more police and a SWAT team arrived to set up a perimeter, Bowers retreated into the building.
By 10:30 a.m., the SWAT team had stormed the entrance and found inside what the agent in charge of Pittsburgh’s FBI field office, Robert Jones, later described as “the most horrific crime scene I have seen” during his 22 years with the agency. It included the bodies of 11 mostly elderly Jews whom Bowers had shot and killed, two wounded Jews who were evacuated to a local hospital, and spent ammunition and magazines from four guns.
By 10:47 a.m., SWAT teams had located Bowers’ hiding place. He had barricaded himself in the corner of a room on the third floor. Another gunfight ensued in which two more officers were wounded, one of them seriously. Bowers was wounded multiple times as well. Police then negotiate Bowers’ surrender. As he crawled into their custody at 11:13 a.m., Bowers told police how “all these Jews need to die.”
A PLACE WHERE EVERYONE KNOWS EVERYONE
Pittsburgh authorities did not immediately identify the eight men and three women that Bowers had murdered until the next day, after all of their families had been officially notified. But the close-knit Squirrel Hill Jewish community had already guessed most of their names. Most of the community was deep into morning before Shabbos was over.
During the gun battle, a massive police presence was used to cordon off the area surrounding Tree of Life. Neighborhood residents were ordered to “shelter in place” in the safety of their homes until the crisis was over.
Police quickly contacted Jewish communal leaders throughout Squirrel Hill and urged them to lock down their public buildings and take other security precautions. For many members of Pittsburgh’s Orthodox community, that was their first notice that an attack on a local Jewish institution had taken place.
BRINGING FEAR TO PITTSBURGH’S JEWS
At about 10:00 a.m., Tova Weinberg, who lives just a few blocks from Tree of Life, was davening at the Orthodox Poale Zedeck shul less than a mile away. She heard the police sirens, but like the others in shul, she ignored them until someone ran in to tell the rabbi what had happened. He reacted by ordering several of the able-bodied men in the shul to block the doors.
“We were scared. We didn’t know what to expect. We had friends [at Tree of Life],” Mrs. Weinberg said.
The Young Israel of Pittsburgh is located six blocks away from the Tree of Life building. The rov, Rabbi Shimon Silver, recalled, “I was finishing my drosha when a gentile employee of our shul received a call from a relative about a synagogue shooting, and quoting initial reports, which are often erroneous, indicating that the shooter might be on the loose. We quickly barricaded the doors. Mussaf was davened with seriousness and trepidation. Many were reflecting on the portion of the Akeidah, which we had just completed leining.”
The gentile Young Israel employee tried to get Pittsburgh police to come to guard the building and clarify the security situation, but all available officers were still responding to the attack at Tree of Life. The Young Israel remained in lockdown until davening and the Kiddush were over, by which time it became apparent that the crisis had ended.
PANIC ON THEIR FACES
At a non-Orthodox congregation in Squirrel Hill, about half a mile from the Tree of Life building, 150 congregants started receiving text messages informing them of the fatal attack while it was still in progress. Shai Attias, a former advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu, who runs the Shuva Global pro-Israel advocacy group, was standing at the podium and about to deliver a speech when he heard the cell phones go off.
“The faces of those present said everything. Panic and helplessness were written all over them. We locked ourselves in the interior rooms of the building, and it took the police more than two hours to get to us,” Attias told Ynet. “Only when we knew there was no second shooter could we go back to our homes,” he added.
Attias commented that, as part of his job, “in recent years, I’ve visited countless Jewish communities in Europe, and the security there is similar to that of an airport. In Pennsylvania, like in other places in the US, the feeling was that something like this cannot happen.”
But Attias said that since the attack, his Pittsburgh-born-and-bred wife has been pleading with him, saying, “Enough is enough! We have to go back home to Israel, as soon as possible, for the sake of our two little girls!”
A COMMUNITY AND CITY UNITED IN GRIEF
The Pittsburgh Jewish community was instantly plunged deep into shock and mourning. Since most of its population, including Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, has lived in the same area for decades, almost every Jew in Pittsburgh seemed to know somebody who was impacted by the attack at Tree of Life.
Local and state officials, representatives of law enforcement agencies and leaders of Pittsburgh’s other religious and ethnic communities were quick to offer their support. A makeshift community command post was set up at a Jewish Community Center a few blocks away from Tree of Life by community volunteers and law enforcement officials to provide information, support, food and grief counseling to those concerned about the fate of a missing friend or loved one. Other members of the community organized impromptu public vigils to enable people to express their feelings about the attack.
A SERIES OF ATTACKS ON AMERICAN HOUSES OF WORSHIP
The attack was the latest in a series of mass casualty shootings at churches, mosques and other houses of worship across America. Since 2012, there have been at least a dozen such deadly shootings. Last year, an Air Force veteran with a history of violence shot and killed 26 people at a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. In 2015, a white supremacist killed nine black people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2012, a gunman opened fire at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, killing six. Security experts consider most American places of worship to be “soft targets” for deranged gunmen who hold grudges against their faith, because their security measures are traditionally lax.
Jews and Jewish institutions appear to be the most frequent targets, and, as in Europe over the past decade, the number of anti-Semitic attacks in the United States has begun to increase rapidly. FBI statistics show that anti-Jewish bias was behind 54% of the 1,538 anti-religious hate crimes that were reported in 2016, second only to the number of incidents of anti-black bias. The ADL says that in 2017 it recorded a 57% increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents over 2016, reaching a total of almost 2,000.
AMERICAN JEWISH COMMUNITIES TAKING PRECAUTIONS
Local, state and federal law enforcement officials have reacted to the increased threat by coordinating with the leaders of every sizable Jewish community in the country to prepare emergency response plans. Tree of Life officials said that when they realized they were under attack, they tried to activate the emergency protocol which they developed under the guidance of a former FBI officer who had been hired more than a year ago by the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh to coordinate community security.
Stephen Weiss, a longtime member of the Tree of Life congregation, was the first to realize that the building was under attack. Afterwards, his son Zachary said his father had told him, “There was a loud sound and a couple of people investigating it heard a couple more loud sounds. That’s when my father and the rabbi discovered it was the sound of gunshots.”
Following the emergency protocol, the two men instructed everyone in the room to seek a safe hiding place. After doing so, Weiss decided to check on those attending the bris in the basement and the group meeting in the rabbi’s office. Fortunately, the elder Weiss never actually saw or was seen by the shooter and survived the attack unhurt, but he did come across some of the shooter’s spent shell casings.
Another survivor of the attack was E. Joseph Charny, 90, who was praying on the second-floor with about half a dozen other congregants when he heard a loud noise downstairs. He then saw a man appear in the doorway and ducked when he heard more gunshots.
“I looked up, and there were all these dead bodies,” Charny said.
Longtime Tree of Life congregant and Holocaust survivor Judah Samet, age 80, was upset when he pulled his car into a handicapped parking spot in front of the entrance to the building because he was four minutes late for the start of services. Mr. Samet told a reporter for The Forward the next day that as he was about to get out of his car, “Somebody knocked on my window. There was this guy. Very calm and respectful. [He] told me, you better back up, there is an active shooting going on in your synagogue.”
It took Samet a moment to digest what he was being told. He only realized what was going on when he saw a policeman on the other side of his car, with his pistol drawn, shooting from behind cover at someone at the entrance to the building who was shooting back with an automatic rifle.
“He was shooting towards the cop, who was about four feet away from me. I saw smoking coming out of his muzzle [and realized] I was in the line of fire.”
Samet tried to back his car away from the building but was blocked by other cars in the parking lot trying to do the same thing. Fortunately, Bowers wasn’t aiming at him. “None of the bullets hit me or hit my car,” Samet adding, “Thank G-d, my story doesn’t end.”
Many Orthodox rabbis and shul presidents in Chicago, the Greater New York City area and elsewhere across the country first learned about the Pittsburgh attack from local police officials who came to their homes and knocked on their doors before Shabbos was over, to urge them to put their plans into effect.
A GROWING AMERICAN ANTI-SEMITISM PROBLEM
Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of ADL, called Bowers’ shooting spree “the single most lethal and violent attack on the Jewish community in the history of the country. We’ve never had an attack of such depravity where so many people were killed.”
According to the ADL, before last Shabbos, the deadliest attack aimed specifically at American Jews took place in 1985, when a man killed a family of four in Seattle in the mistaken belief that they were Jewish. In 2014, a white supremacist opened fire and killed three people outside a Jewish community center in a suburb of Kansas City.
On April 28, 2000, the greater Pittsburgh Jewish community was the primary target attacked by Richard Buamhammers, the deranged son of immigrants from Latvia. He shot and killed Jews and members of other minorities indiscriminately, beginning with his Jewish next-door neighbor, Anita “Nicki” Gordon, and then set fire to her house. Baumhammers then drove to the Beth El Congregation, where Gordon had been a member, shot out some of its windows, and spray-painted two red swastikas on the building.
Before leaving the area, he shot to death an Indian immigrant at a nearby grocery store and wounded the store manager, leaving him permanently paralyzed. Baumhammers then drove to his next Jewish target, Ahavath Achim Congregation, where he shot out some more windows. By the time his shooting spree ended, he had shot and killed three more people, including the Chinese manager and Vietnamese cook at a Chinese restaurant, and an adult black student at a karate school.
Baumhammers was arrested later that day and was tried for murder after his insanity plea was rejected. In 2001, a jury found him guilty on 19 criminal charges and decided unanimously to give him the death penalty. After exhausting his legal appeals, Baumhammers has been sitting on “death row,” awaiting execution in a Pennsylvania state prison since 2010.
THE HISTORY OF SQUIRREL HILL
Squirrel Hill was first settled by prosperous German Jews seeking to escape the smog-choked streets of downtown Pittsburgh during the first half of the 20th century. In recent years, the neighborhood has become more ethnically and religiously diverse, but it is still the main population center for Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, and boasts a large concentration of congregations and yeshivos, as well as kosher food and other businesses catering to a Jewish clientele. According to Barbara Burstin, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh has “one of the only Jewish communities in the country that has stayed within the city,” rather than disbursing into the surrounding suburbs.
Unlike other large, urban Jewish communities across the country which have been disbursed to the suburbs, 57 percent of Pittsburgh’s Jewish households still live in or adjacent to the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, but its religious profile has changed. While Pittsburgh’s Orthodox community has grown stronger and more vibrant, its non-Orthodox congregations have dwindled in size and their membership has aged.
The Tree of Life Congregation was founded in 1864 as an Orthodox synagogue in downtown Pittsburgh. The current building was erected in Squirrel Hill as a Conservative synagogue in 1952. But as its membership gradually shrank, the congregation could no longer afford to maintain the building. To keep its doors open, it rented its basement to another aging conservative congregation in the neighborhood, Or L’Simcha, and gave a Reconstructionist prayer group, known as Dor Hadash, permission to meet in the rabbi’s study.
At the start of services on a typical Shabbos morning, with all three programs in operation, the former rabbi of Tree of Life estimated that there would be no more than about 30 Jews in the building, with more members arriving later. Last Shabbos, the Or L’Simcha congregation, meeting in the basement, was conducting a bris milah “baby naming ceremony,” but fortunately, no children were injured by Bowers’ during his shooting spree.
THE DARKEST DAY IN PITTSBURGH’S HISTORY
At a televised news conference the morning after the attack, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto called that Shabbos the “darkest day of Pittsburgh’s history.” Emotionally devastated Jewish communal leaders praised the police for their quick and effective response in confronting the killer, and the courage of the four cops who were wounded in the gun battle. Jeffrey Finkelstein, the chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told the news conference, “I see this room a lot of times on TV [during local emergencies] but I never thought I’d be at this podium.”
Just after the press conference, city officials publicly announced, for the first time, the names of the 11 Jews who were killed. They include (in alphabetical order):
- Joyce Fienberg, age 75, retired a decade ago from her job as a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center.
- Richard Gottfried, age 65, was one of the lay leaders of the Or L’Simcha congregation.
- Rose Mallinger, age 97, was the oldest of those killed. She would attend Shabbos services with her daughter every week.
- Jerry Rabinowitz, age 66, was a trusted physician who was highly respected by his many patients in the community and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He had served as a past president of the Reconstructionist Dor Hadash group.
- Cecil Rosenthal, age 59, and David Rosenthal, age 54, were brothers who had been living for the past 25 years at a nearby kosher group residence, run by the Achieva organization (formerly known as Community Endeavors), for people with intellectual disabilities.
- Bernice Simon, age 84, and Sylvan Simon, age 86, were a couple who got married at the Tree of Life building in 1956, and who were known by their friends for their devotion to one another.
- Daniel Stein, 71, a retired plumbing supply salesman, was a former president of the Or L’Simcha congregation. He is survived by his wife, two children and a grandchild.
- Melvin Wax, age 88, was a retired accountant known for his easy-going nature. He was leading the services for the Or L’Simcha congregation when the gunman attacked.
- Irving Younger, age 69, a grandfather and Little League baseball coach, served as the door greeter for the Tree of Life congregation. He was likely the first person to be shot that day.
Another victim who was seriously wounded in the torso was Daniel Legar, age 70. He works as nurse and chaplain at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He opened the Tree of Life building that morning. According to his brother, doctors at that hospital are optimistic that he will recover. A second victim wounded during the Tree of Life attack was an unnamed 51-year-old woman. She suffered what the same doctors described as soft tissue wounds from which she is expected to recover.
POLICE COOPERATING WITH THE CHEVRA KADISHA
Rabbis Daniel Wasserman and Elazar Admon, members of Pittsburgh’s Orthodox Chevra Kadisha, say they received good cooperation from the FBI and local police in their efforts to make sure that the bodies of the victims are treated with respect, in accordance with halacha and the wishes of their families.
Rabbi Wasserman, the rov of the Orthodox Shaare Torah Congregation on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill, said, “Rabbi Admon and I were at the scene and honestly, it was a courtesy from the FBI and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police,” who let them walk through the crime scene and look at the victims.
Rabbi Admon told a reporter for the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, “We discussed all the details regarding people who may want to fly the bodies to Israel, and how the Israeli government can help us. I am in touch with everyone.”
The New York-based Misaskim and Chesed Shel Emes organizations also offered their assistance to the families of the victims.
Despite his previous experience with the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Israel as a Zaka volunteer, Rabbi Admon admitted that he was emotionally unprepared for what he found in the Tree of Life building.
“It was terrible. I came home and started crying,” he said. “There were people with a tallis. People. . . sitting [in a congregation] and praying who got killed. . . It’s terrible to imagine how a person could be so evil and just run after people just to make sure they die.
“To think in our safe space, you go. . . to connect with G-d, and in the middle of that you have a person who comes to kill you because you are a Jew. It’s terrible to think about it.”
Rabbis Wasserman and Admon described the next steps they will take to make sure that the bodies are treated properly to show honor to the deceased. This includes the cleaning of the crime scene, whenever the FBI allows it, to preserve all blood and body tissue for proper burial.
DEALING WITH THE AUTOPSY CHALLENGE
Members of the Pittsburgh Chevra Kadisha were working with family members of the victims in an effort to assure that the bodies are not desecrated by an autopsy, which is routinely performed as part of the criminal investigation into someone’s death, unless the family raises objections. Even then, local authorities will often insist on a post-mortem examination.
Rabbi Wasserman said, “In this situation, if there are going to be autopsies, it’s complicated and we’ll figure it out, to whatever degree the families want.” He added that a lot will depend upon each family’s preferences, because they will make the decision on which funeral home to use and the role that the Chevra Kadisha will play.
Karl Williams, the chief medical examiner of Allegheny County, confirmed that his agency is trying to balance the needs of the investigation with the religious customs of the victims’ families. “We are doing everything in our power to complete the process in a way that honors both civil and religious law,” Dr. Williams said.
AN ISRAELI RESPONSE
News of the Pittsburgh attack brought a quick response from Prime Minister Netanyahu. He said that he was “heartbroken and appalled” and that the “the entire people of Israel grieve with the families of the dead.” He also started the weekly Israeli cabinet meeting the next morning with a moment of silence in memory of the Pittsburgh victims.
The Pittsburgh attack made headlines in Israel and was followed closely by the Israeli media, at the same time that it was covering a new flurry of border demonstrations and missile attacks by terrorists in Gaza.
As soon as Shabbos was over, Naftali Bennett who holds the posts of Education Minister and Diaspora Affairs Minister, boarded the next plane to the United States in order to bring a message of condolence and support to the Pittsburgh Jewish community. On Sunday night, Bennett addressed an interfaith ceremony at Pittsburgh’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in which he likened the killer to terrorists who fire missiles at Israel.
“The hand that fires missiles is the same hand that shoots worshipers,” he said at. “We shall fight anti-Semitism wherever it raises its head and we shall prevail.”
He also emphasized that the particular affiliation of the Jews who were killed in Pittsburgh last Shabbos does not matter. “The murderer’s bullet does not stop to ask: Are you Conservative or Reform, are you Orthodox? Are you right wing or left wing? It has one goal, and that is to kill innocent people. Innocent Jews.”
Referring to the name of the building where the Jews were the shooting took place, Bennett added, “I saw Etz Chaim, the Tree of Life, which will never be uprooted by hate.”
Bennett then flew to the United States to do interviews, meet with the Conference of Presidents, the Jewish Federation and the ADL to discuss the “worrying trends” illustrated by the attack in Pittsburgh, “long term strategies” to deal with the growing threat of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and “ways in which Israel can help.”
Another interesting foreign comment on the Pittsburgh attack came from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She offered her condolences to the Pittsburgh Jewish community and declared that “all of us must confront anti-Semitism with determination—everywhere.”
JEWISH DOCTOR CARES FOR THE KILLER
After his surrender, Bowers was taken by police to Allegheny General Hospital whose president, Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, noted that “the first three people who took care of him were Jewish.”
Dr. Cohen lives in the Squirrel Hill community and is a member of the Tree of Life congregation. He was able to hear the gunfire from his house.
Cohen told ABC News that he later looked in on Bowers at the hospital “to ask him how he was doing. Was he in pain? He said, ‘No. He was fine,’”
When Bowers then asked Cohen who he was, he replied, “’I’m Dr. Cohen, president of the hospital.’ Then I turned around and left,” as the FBI agent guarding Bowers watched in amazement.
The agent then said, “I don’t know if I could have done that.” Dr. Cohen quickly replied, “If you were in my shoes, I’m sure you could.”
On Monday, after being discharged from the hospital, Bowers appeared in a wheelchair in federal court for a brief hearing, speaking only to answer questions from the judge. He wore a blue shirt and handcuffs, which US marshals removed so he could sign paperwork.
Two public defenders appeared with Bowers in court Monday, but the counsel who will handle his case going forward has yet to be appointed. He is being held without bond, and is expected back in court for a preliminary hearing Thursday morning.
DEATH PENALTY IS POSSIBLE
On Monday, Bowers was charged with 29 federal hate crimes and civil rights violations which, according to a statement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, could expose him to the death penalty.
“Hatred and violence on the basis of religion can have no place in our society,” Sessions said. “Every American has the right to attend their house of worship in safety.”
President Trump also called for the death penalty and said the nation should strengthen its laws surrounding capital punishment, adding that those deserving of it shouldn’t have to wait “years and years” to be executed.
“When people do this, they should get the death penalty,” he said. “Anybody that does a thing like this to innocent people that are in temple or in church … they should be suffering the ultimate price, they should pay the ultimate price.”
In addition, Bowers faces at least 23 state criminal charges, including 11 counts of murder.
Aside from his anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant diatribes on social media, little was initially known about Bowers’ personal background, family history, or what motivated his hatred of Jews. He boasted on social media about his collection of 21 guns that he had purchased legally and which were registered in his name.
MIXING ANTI-SEMITISM WITH HATRED OF IMMIGRANTS
Bowers vented his hatred on social media not only against Jews, but also immigrants. He connected the two by accusing HIAS, the secular Jewish humanitarian organization for aiding refugees worldwide, for organizing the caravan of 7,000 undocumented migrants from Central America now traveling through Mexico to demand entry at the US border. He called HIAS’s overall efforts to help refugees “sugar-coated evil.”
Bowers’ last social media posting came just a few minutes before he walked into the building and opened fire. It reflected the claims in his previous posts that Jews were conspiring against white Americans. He wrote, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. [I don’t care about] your optics, I’m going in!” Immediately after he surrendered, Bowers told a member of the SWAT team that arrested him that “they [Jews] were committing genocide against my people.”
Initially, it was not clear why Bowers singled out that building for attack, or what kind of connection he might have thought it had with HIAS.
SHOOTER’S MOTIVATIONS REMAIN A MYSTERY
Police searched Bowers’ apartment and sought information from anyone who had come into contact with him. They were trying to understand his motivation and were looking for any evidence that he carried out the attack with the knowledge or help of another person. Initial indications were that he had acted alone and had been living a very solitary life. Jim Brinsky, a childhood friend, said he lost track of Bowers after their years at a local high school, where the shooter was already known as a loner.
Bowers apparently never married. He lived with his maternal grandfather until he died in 2014. For the past year and a half, Bowers lived alone in a modest, one-bedroom apartment in the middle-class Pittsburgh neighborhood of Baldwin, about a 25-minute drive from Squirrel Hill. He had no visitors and very little interaction with his next-door neighbor, who said she was barely aware that he was there.
Bowers holds a commercial driving license and told people, including his landlord, that he worked in the trucking industry. His only police record is a 2015 traffic citation.
A LIFE IN THE DARK SHADOWS OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Until last Shabbos, the most important part of the life Robert Bowers led was online, through his social media account. In January, Bowers opened a new account on Gab, an alternative social network which caters to extremists whose posts have been banned from the mainstream Facebook and Twitter networks because of their provocative content. The site is a haven for white nationalists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, and deliberately served as an uncritical public forum for Bowers’ twisted ideas and racist, anti-Semitic rants.
In one of his posts, Bowers declared that, “Jews are the children of Satan.” Another post read, “Open your eyes! It’s the filthy evil Jews bringing the filthy evil Muslims into the country!”
Bower’s posts included anti-Semitic images. One was a doctored photo of the front gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp in which the notoriously misleading original slogan, “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes you free”) was replaced with “Lies Make Money.” Another photo depicted President Trump in conversation with a man wearing a yarmulke.
In one of his posts, Bowers claimed that he did not vote for Trump in 2016 because he was too close to Jews. A few days before his attack, Bowers declared on his social media page, “Trump is a globalist, not a nationalist. There is no MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) as long as there is a[n] infestation [of Jews in this country].”
BOWERS’ SOCIAL MEDIA SITE IS IN TROUBLE
As soon as the attack took place, the Gab social media site took down Bowers’ account, after archiving its contents for use by law enforcement officials, with whom it claimed to be cooperating. It also issued a statement declaring that “Gab unequivocally disavows and condemns all acts of terrorism and violence.” But it came too late.
In response to complaints that Facebook and Twitter have been applying an anti-conservative bias to politically censor posts on their popular social media platforms, there has been a heightened sensitivity in the online community on the use of social media by clearly unbalanced individuals, such as Bowers, to promote their disruptive or dangerous ideas. Within a day of the Pittsburgh attack, Gab’s host threatened to remove its access to the internet, and the service which had been processing payments by the service’s paid members canceled its account.
TRUMP’S SENSITIVE REACTION TO A JEWISH TRAGEDY
President Trump was quick to react to the shooting. His initial tweet expressed the fear that the losses due to the attack were “far more devastating than originally thought,” and pledged that “the Federal government has been, and will be, with them [local and state officials] all the way.” He also issued an order for the American flag to be flown at half-mast through Wednesday in memory of the victims.
Speaking at a political rally on Saturday night, Trump was unequivocal in condemning the attack as “an assault on humanity” that “will require all of us working together to extract the hateful poison of anti-Semitism from our world This was an anti-Semitic attack at its worst.” He also suggested that the gunman should get the death penalty.
On Sunday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Bowers “a coward who hated President Trump because (he) is such an unapologetic defender of the Jewish community and Israel.”
GOING TO “GRIEVE” WITH THE PITTSBURGH COMMUNITY
On Monday, Sanders announced that President Trump and his wife would travel to Pittsburgh on Tuesday to “grieve” with the community. Sanders added that Trump “adores Jewish Americans as part of his own family. The president is the grandfather of several Jewish grandchildren [who are also] Jewish descendants of Holocaust survivors.”
In a Fox News interview, Trump said, “I’m just going to pay my respects. I’m also going to the hospital to see the officers and some of the people that were so badly hurt.” Trump added that he agreed with a comment from the spiritual leader of one of the congregations which was attacked that the way to the address the problem is for all politicians “to stop the hate.”
The White House rejected a statement issued by the Pittsburgh chapter of a left-wing group called “Bend the Arc: which is headed by the son of George Soros. It claimed that Trump would not be welcome in Pittsburgh until he more explicitly denounces the white nationalism which his liberal opponents accuse him of fomenting with his political rhetoric.
WHAT DOES “NATIONALIST” MEAN?
The Soros group has no significant following in the Jewish community, but the statement was seized upon by the anti-Trump political media who attacked him for using the politically incorrect but nonetheless accurate phrase “nationalist” to describe his political approach of putting American interests first, as opposed to “globalists” such as former president Obama.
Trump’s liberal critics insist that he is using of the term as “code” implying that he supports “white nationalism,” which he strongly denies.
Other liberal Jewish figures were quick to join in the criticism of Trump’s rhetoric and to blame it for the current upsurge in anti-Semitism.
Deborah E. Lipstadt, professor of Holocaust history at Emory University, said, “I’m not a Chicken Little who’s always yelling, ‘It’s worse than it’s ever been!’ But now I think it’s worse than it’s ever been.”
Nadine Epstein, editor-in-chief of Moment, said in an email to the New York Times that as recently as 2014, the rise in anti-Semitism was a European problem and “it wasn’t really an issue in the US.
“Four plus years later, we live in a very different world where nationalism, and with it anti-Semitism, is on the rise, stirred up by the rhetoric of one candidate in the 2016 presidential campaign. It’s been building ever since, and now that we are in the run-up to the midterms, the first national election since, we are seeing the consequences of such dangerous rhetoric.”
Other Jewish leaders took a much more welcoming view of Trump’s desire to visit Pittsburgh to demonstrate support for its Jewish community. Jeffrey Myers, spiritual leader of one of the congregations which use the Tree of Life building, told CNN that, “the President of the United States is always welcome. I’m a citizen. He’s my President. He is certainly welcome.”
Dennis Prager wrote that “The mainstream left-wing media, along with left-wing Jewish organizations and media, told us every day for months after Trump’s election that anti-Semitism had greatly increased. They cited the great number of Jewish Community Centers that received bomb threats. It turned out, however, that about 90 percent of those threats were called in by a mentally disturbed American Jewish teenager living in Israel, and the other 10 percent were made by a black radical seeking to frame his ex-girlfriend. So, the claim eventually vanished from the news — with not one Jewish or non-Jewish organization or media outlet apologizing for crying anti-Semitic ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.”
He continues that, “The dishonest now have the Pittsburgh massacre to blame on Trump. But that’s as big a falsehood as blaming Trump for the bomb threats. In reality, the Pittsburgh murderer criticized Trump for his close connections to Jews and Israel.”
He says, “For Jews to blame the most pro-Israel president since Harry Truman — the only president with a Jewish child and Jewish grandchildren, moreover — for increasing anti-Semitism is another example of a truism this Jew has known all his life: Unlike Jewish liberals, who get most of their values from Judaism, Jewish leftists are ethnically Jewish but get their values from leftism.”
Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto offered a more practical objection to the timing of Trump’s visit. He noted that it would serve as a distraction to the first funerals for the victims which took place the same day. White House officials conceded that the timing was less than ideal, but noted that it would be difficult for Trump to reschedule his visit because his travel plans for the rest of the week were already fully committed.
At her Monday press conference, White House spokeswoman Sanders pointed out that, “the very first action that the president did [in response to the recent incidents of terrorism] was condemn these acts. The very first thing that the media did was condemn the president and go after and try to place blame, not just [on] the president but everyone in this administration. That is outrageous that anybody other than the individual who carried out the crime would hold that responsibility.”
RAISING THE GUN RIGHTS ISSUE
Trump has also suggested that the best way to alleviate the danger of future attacks on American synagogues would be for them to start beefing up their security by hiring armed security guards. As he was boarding Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, Trump said, “It’s a terrible, terrible thing what’s going on with hate in our country and frankly all over the world, and something has to be done. The results are very devastating,” he said, and speculated that if the temple in Pittsburgh “had some kind of protection” then “it could have been a much different situation.”
Trump has made similar suggestions before, in the wake of other mass shootings at schools and public venues. He has argued that a terrorist would think twice before opening fire if he knew that his targets could shoot back. Trump’s comments have sparked outrage from liberal opponents of the right granted to all American citizens by the Second Amendment to own guns in order to protect themselves. They include Pennsylvania’s Democrat governor, Tom Wolf, who is running for re-election next week. His position is that “dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm’s way.”
At the news conference Sunday morning, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto took a different, much less partisan approach, by putting the primary blame for the attack on the increase in hatred and intolerance across American society.
“We will not try to rationalize irrational behavior,” the Pittsburgh mayor said. “We will work to eradicate it. We will work to eradicate it from our city, and our nation, and our world. Hatred will not have a place anywhere.”
ARE AMERICAN JEWS SAFE?
Most American Jews do not want communal institutions, kosher food stores and restaurants to be turned into locked and guarded fortresses, which has become the norm in many European Jewish communities. They prefer to look at the attack in Pittsburgh and the upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents in American society today as historic anomalies during a troubled period of American history.
They take comfort in the strong response of law enforcement officials in Pittsburgh as well as the prompt arrest of the person believed to be responsible for the crude pipe bombs sent to many prominent American liberals last week.
Most American Jews are still confident that it is safe for their families to continue living here, albeit with a heightened sense of situational awareness and some common-sense precautions, such as the creation of a visible police presence outside of Jewish houses of worship on major Jewish holidays.
American Jews have faith that Hakadosh Boruch Hu will continue protecting His people and causing them to find favor in the eyes of their fellow countrymen. We pray that the Shomer Yisroel will be shomer shearis Yisroel.
RESOLVING CONFLICTING FREEDOMS
On an ideological level, the Pittsburgh attack reminds of the conflict between two underlying American freedoms. There are the sovereign rights of the sane, law-abiding individual, as guaranteed under the Constitution. These include the right to freedom of speech, freedom of belief, and the right to bear arms.
But there is also the need to protect society and its citizens from dangerously deranged individuals like pipe bomb maker Cesar Sayoc, who slipped through the cracks of the criminal justice and mental health systems, as well as obsessed, bigoted loners flying under the radar, like Pittsburgh gunman Robert Bowers. In recent weeks, they abused constitutional freedoms to inflict tremendous damage on innocent citizens and terrorize the American public before we even knew who they were and the magnitude of the threat they posed to our way of life.
The lesson to be learned from the tragedy in Pittsburgh is that finding a reasonable balance between those competing rights, rather than fighting over which side is correct in an endless partisan political argument, is the most urgent challenge facing the American people today.