[TW: This piece contains discussion of violence and death.]
I was in Pittsburgh this past Saturday on Oct. 27 attending a conference, when, only two miles away, a neo-Nazi named Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life Synagogue yelling, “All Jews must die,” and proceeded to gun down 11 congregants in the deadliest anti-Semitic assault in American history.
There was nothing exceptional separating the Tree of Life Congregation from the synagogue my family attends in Dallas, TX, and Pittsburgh is not any more anti-Semitic or gun-obsessed than other parts of the country. That could well have been my family murdered during Shabbat morning services.
Despite my anguish at the murder of my fellow Jews and the injury of the brave first responders who came to their defense, I was not surprised that the massacre took place. As the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, I was raised knowing that there were people out there who had never met me before—who knew nothing of my character or aspirations but longed to see me and everyone I loved wiped from the face of the earth. The Nazis who herded my great-grandmother into the gas chambers at Belzec and cracked whips against my grandfather and great-grandfather’s backs in the concentration camps lost the war, but their ideas remain.
This terrible fact echoed within the Vassar community this month when a neo-Nazi affiliated with The Daily Stormer distributed flyers with the words, “Every time some Anti-White, Anti-American, Anti-Freedom event takes place, you look at it, and it’s Jews behind it,” and the faces of prominent Jewish figures like George Soros, Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein hovering menacingly over a defiant Brett Kavanaugh.
The Pittsburgh shooter’s beliefs are indistinguishable from those of that Poughkeepsie neo-Nazi white supremacist. The difference is that the shooter took his beliefs to their logical conclusion: Bowers believes that Soros, who has replaced the Rothschilds in the fascist imagination as the symbol for purported Jewish global domination, is orchestrating the migrant caravan of Hondurans traveling to the U.S. border to seek asylum. One reason he targeted the Tree of Life Synagogue was because of its involvement with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a Jewish nonprofit devoted to assisting refugees of all faiths in the U.S, one for which I hold a particular affinity, as they helped resettle my grandfather and great-grandfather in Cuba after World War II and then helped resettle them again, together with my grandmother and father, in the U.S. in 1960.
Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Soros and refugees are not confined to obscure corners of the Internet. Popular outlets like Fox News and Breitbart News have spread this misinformation across the country, retaining the attention of President Trump and his supporters. President Trump condemned the shooting as a “wicked act” of anti-Semitism, but it has become extremely difficult to take his concern for Jews seriously after he defended neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville as “fine people” (USA Today, “Trump condemns ‘all types of racism’ on Charlottesville anniversary; critics slam wording,” 10.11.2018). Whatever Trump’s personal feelings about Jews, it is undeniable that the upsurge in anti-Semitic and racist acts of violence, such as the shooting of two African-American senior citizens in Louisville, KY, on Oct. 25, is inseparable from the wave of nativism and white supremacy on which he rode to power.
Politicizing the deaths of so many innocent people may appear to some like dirty opportunism, but the only way to prevent further murders is through political action. Jews must organize with our allies in defense of marginalized groups and combat the emboldened strains of fascism, Nazism and white supremacy that hold sway in our society.
To withdraw into a closed-off and fearful version of communal life would be to sacrifice our most beloved values in pursuit of temporary respite. The Tree of Life Synagogue was attacked for defiantly embodying the noblest aspects of the Jewish tradition: hospitality toward the stranger and the recognition that all peoples have a right to security, freedom and dignity. We can only push back the forces of nativist bigotry through openness and active solidarity.
As I sat in a University of Pittsburgh auditorium, grief-stricken and half-listening to a panel of scholars, I snapped back into focus when a professor mentioned through tears that she grew up attending the Tree of Life Synagogue and stated, “We will not let this get in our way.” These words echo in my head as I sit writing back at Vassar. The Jewish people must grieve their fallen siblings in Pittsburgh—and the victims of white supremacist hatred in Louisville—but we cannot let these incidents stop us from pursuing our callings as individuals and as a community.
May the memory of those cherished souls that were taken from us bless us and guide us in the struggles to come.