The small but vibrant neighborhood of Squirrel Hill on the East Side of Pittsburgh welcomed Shabbat on Oct. 27 just like they would any other Saturday. As Jews across the United States entered their places of worship that same morning, a radicalized right-wing anti-Semite hellbent on committing a hate crime against Jews put his demented plan into motion.
By the end of his massacre, 11 members of the Squirrel Hill Jewish community had been murdered. Their lives had been horrifically cut short allegedly by one man, Robert Bowers. While he alone is being accused of this heinous hate crime, his path to radicalization was aided and abetted (wittingly or unwittingly) by many.
A brief inspection of his online social media activity on the far-right platform Gab.com revealed Bowers harbored intensely anti-Semitic views and routinely shared extremist conspiracy theories about Jews, immigrants, and Donald Trump himself. Questions remain unanswered, and may remain unanswered for some time: Why now? Why Squirrel Hill? What can we do to prevent something like this from ever happening again?
Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh isn’t so dissimilar from other neighborhoods in the United States. Its universal appeal is perhaps best embodied by the fact that it was where Fred Rogers chose to raise his family, literally making it “Mister Rogers’ neighborhood.”
According to 2010 census data, Squirrel Hill is approximately 80 percent white, 15 percent Asian, and 5 percent other minorities. In a predominantly white neighborhood, a radical right-wing white nationalist took it upon himself to commit the worst anti-Semitic hate crime in American history. The Jews of Squirrel Hill were targets. Not because of anything they had done, but simply because of who they are. And the painful truth of the matter is this—if it can happen in Squirrel Hill, it can happen anywhere.
In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security released an in-depth report on the increasing dangers of right-wing extremism within the United States. The Obama administration faced immediate backlash as a narrative began to circulate that President Barack Obama was “targeting conservatives.” The report was quickly pulled, and the analyst was quietly reassigned.
Since then, hate crimes within the United States have only risen, and the dangers of right-wing extremism have only intensified (with less and less scrutiny). The Center for Study of Hate and Extremism at University of California at San Bernardino released a report earlier in 2018, and in it they found hate crimes have increased 12 percent year over year in the 10 largest cities in the United States.
All of this to say, it’s a dangerous time to be black in America. It’s a dangerous time to be LGBTQ+ in America. It’s a dangerous time to be Hispanic in America. It’s a dangerous time to be Muslim in America. And it’s a dangerous time to be Jewish in America.
As members of an increasingly marginalized and targeted community, we must consciously seek out and form coalitions with other marginalized groups. Not only is it the politically expedient thing to do (in order for us to keep ourselves safe), but it is the morally right thing to do in these uncertain times.
During the 1960s civil rights movement, Jewish activists and rabbis were fighting side by side with the African-American community to expand voting rights, demand an end to segregation, and see equality of opportunity provided for all Americans. American Jews saw themselves in the struggle for equality, and for many, their desire to see progressive change persisted. Over time, however, political preferences began to shift.
Over the last 30 years, American Jewry’s politics have become increasingly intertwined with that of the State of Israel and its place in the Middle East. This has led some American Jews to experience a feeling of alienation from the growing body on the left who are often supportive of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
On college campuses across the United States, simply being known as a Jew can be met with open hostility, outright harassment, and in one case, prohibition of assuming a club leadership position. American Jews who recognize the need for greater social and racial justice here at home struggle to reconcile a Democratic Party and progressive left that has increasingly become critical of Israel, with the rhetoric too often blurring the lines between legitimate criticism and anti-Semitic hate speech.
Even so, American Jewry must find ways to build inroads with these minority communities on the progressive left. By being proactive and showing our solidarity during their struggles, and by protesting the policies and actions that negatively affect them, we can strengthen our collective bonds among our groups. By humanizing the issues for all communities, we may not reach agreement or align perfectly on each and every issue, but it will help us better understand each other and the strong bonds we cultivate will provide much needed support to rely on when we inevitably face challenges of our own.
There is perhaps no better example than this heartwarming gesture from CelebrateMercy, a Muslim-American group near Squirrel Hill, where they set up a GoFundMe and quickly raised over $120,000 for the victims of the shooting. Their intention was to meet hate with love, and they succeeded. We need more of these interfaith and intercommunity acts of solidarity.
In an era where the current iteration of the Republican Party is comfortable peddling anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, some of which might have motivated Robert Bowers to act, American Jewry must realize the clear and present danger the right wing of the American political spectrum poses.
The anti-Semitic rhetoric on the right runs the gamut from grassroots to establishment; with Corey Stewart, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Virginia, Congressman Matt Gaetz, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and President Trump all sharing dangerous lies about billionaire philanthropist George Soros. President Trump continued his conspiracy peddling about the migrant caravan and George Soros, even after the Pittsburgh shooting.
Then there is Congressman Steve King who recently visited Auschwitz on a trip funded by a Holocaust memorial group, only to meet with a far-right Austrian political party with historical ties to the Nazi party. When asked about his meeting, Congressman King said, “If those far-right groups in Europe [with ties to Nazis] were pushing their policies here in America, they would be Republicans.” On top of this, Congressman Dana Rohrbacher proudly defended a Holocaust denier running for local office.
The embracing of hate at all levels of the Republican Party should jolt American Jews out of complacency and into a deep state of reflection. In 1958, one day after the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple was bombed in Atlanta, Pulitzer Prize winner Ralph McGill wrote, “When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe.” His words still ring true today.
Trump recently declared for all to hear that he refers to himself as a nationalist, and he wants his followers to do so as well. In that same breath, he railed against immigrants, the media, and “globalists,” a term often used as code for Jews. The unfortunate reality is that anyone who is mentioned at a Donald Trump rally has an imminent target on their backs. To paraphrase Florida Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum, I’m not saying Donald Trump inspires domestic terrorism, but domestic terrorists are saying Donald Trump inspires domestic terrorism (in a court filing, nonetheless).
As American Jews wake up in a post-Pittsburgh era, having witnessed the worst attack on American Jewry in the history of the United States, we must remain on high alert with our fellow marginalized communities.
Jewish-Americans, African-Americans, Muslim-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, LGBTQ+ Americans, and all those in between, must come together to actively resist and push back on this rising tidal wave of hate. For the sum will always be greater than our individual parts, and in this dangerous political climate, we will always be stronger together.
To read more Tablet coverage of the Pittsburgh massacre, click here.