Anti-Semitism Is the Problem in Pittsburgh

On January 27, 2017, U.N. secretary-general Antonio Guterres delivered remarks at the International Day of Commemoration at the U.N. in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.  The world, he said, has a duty to remember that the Holocaust was a systematic attempt to eliminate the Jewish people and so many others.  He warned that anti-Semitism was alive and kicking, that irrationality and intolerance are back.

Nothing could better illustrate the warning of Guterres than the murder by the 46-year-old Robert Bowers of eleven Jews and injury of seven others at the Tree of Life, or L'Simcha, synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., on October 27, 2018 during Shabbat services.  It is probably the deadliest such incident in U.S. history.  Its significance is crucial and vital.  As Jeffrey Myers, rabbi of the Tree of Life, remarked in view of heated political differences in U.S. politics, hate does not know religion, race, creed, political party.  It is pure evil.

In spite of those political differences, the message could not have been clearer.  The brutal murderer Bowers proclaimed, "All Jews must die."  Jews, he alleged, are committing "genocide to my people.  I just want to kill Jews."  The brutal murder of middle-aged and elderly pillars of the Jewish community in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh was an echo of the tragedies of the past suffered by Jews, the culmination of millennia of hatred and discrimination.

It should be clear.  One can understand the existing strong political differences on a number of issues between President Donald Trump and opponents.  But the massacre had nothing to do with so-called political rhetoric by President Trump that has supposedly fueled the increasing anti-Semitism in the U.S., as in many parts of Western Europe.  Indeed, it was a national disgrace that the simple ceremony by Trump, paying respects and offering condolences to the victims, the placing according to Jewish ritual of a small stone on the memorials to the eleven victims by the President and his entourage, was not honored as such and that he was regarded by political opponents as not welcome.  Many of those opponents of the president disgraced themselves by signing an open letter, up to 70,000, denouncing his supposed policy of "white nationalism."

Shamefully, the New York Times on October 31, 2018 gave equal prominence to the "solemn marches of protest" as to the honoring of the dead Jews.  The paper emphasized not the carnage, but the visit of Trump, which "laid bare the nation's deep divisions."  As Adam Schiff, the indefatigable searcher for Russian collusion in 2016, remarked, with no apparent relation to Pittsburgh, "the president's modus operandi is to divide us."  He appeared to be less dismayed about the victims than about the political dimensions of the event.

The opponents and disrupters of the event should have remembered a number of pertinent things.  Anti-Semitism has a long history in the U.S. and is still present.  Peter Stuyvesant, governor of New York, New Amsterdam, 1647-64, tried to block Jews from entering the city, stopped a synagogue, prevented Jews from joining the local militia, confiscated Jewish property, and imposed a special tax on Jews.  In December 1862, General Ulysses Grant issued Order No. 11, expelling Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi.  It was revoked by President Lincoln in January 1863.

The list of American anti-Semites over the last century or so is considerable and ugly: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Charles Coughlin, Joseph Kennedy, General George Patton, Louis Farrakhan, Mel Gibson, John Galliano, Roald Dahl, and the list of Holocaust-deniers and advocates of hate crimes.  The current trial at Harvard is a reminder of the 1920s, when the university imposed a quota on Jewish admission.  Present figures show that anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. in 2017, rose 57% from 2016.

Anti-Semitism is well organized.  A significant number of anti-Semitic messages on Twitter, 30%, come from automated accounts, bots.

Jeffrey Myers was in the synagogue when the murders took place, had a phone, and called 911 to get police help.  What is relevant here is that carrying a phone in synagogue is unusual, but he was advised to do so in August 2018 by a security adviser.  There was no relation to current political discourse.

Pittsburgh now is in the general context of murders of Jews: Hyper Cacher, Copenhagen, Toulouse, and the Jewish Museum in Brussels, and in the ongoing anti-Semitism among the members of the British Labor Party and the continuing refusal, unwillingness, or inability by the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to address the issue in forthright fashion.  What is interesting here is that according to a Populus poll, 38% believe that Corbyn is anti-Semitic.  The poll was carried out when the issue of anti-Semitism in the Labor Party was no longer being reported in the press.

A third issue is the impact of hatred and ensuing violence in the world.  The prevalence of anti-Semitic myths and tropes has consequences.  Jews may be hesitant to participate in Jewish traditional gatherings or participate in public sphere as Jews.  Jewish organizations may be spending heavy security costs, leaving less for cultural and educational activities.  In all, they may be obliged to lead a less full communal and individual Jewish life.

Political liberals in the U.S. currently hold nearly all cultural power positions, in universities, art institutions, musical events, and the media.  As the elite, they should make clear the real meaning of Pittsburgh.  Anti-Semitism is here in the U.S. and must be ended, whatever the existing political differences on other issues.

There should be no room for anti-Semitism and murder of Jews in the 21st century.  All political forces should be on the frontline in the battle against this evil, rather than bypassing it as a simple derivative of other more important issues.