Just days before this year’s Chanukah celebration begins, we reach the end of the shloshim for the 11 murdered at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha congregation. As the wave of the initial shock subsides, we have not only the opportunity but also the responsibility to remember and reflect.
We know whose lives were taken. Two simple and innocent brothers devoted to congregational life. A loving married couple. A doctor who left his Torah study in a place of safety to offer help. A rabbi and a congregational past president. A research specialist. A great grandmother just three years shy of turning a century old, a dentist with strong interfaith ties, and a grandfather who was an avid baseball fan.
They were the innocent victims of a vicious anti-Semitic attacker. But why that place and that time? What has happened to the American vision of a safe haven, of the goldene medina?
In an article published in the Jewish Standard two weeks ago, Rabbi David Seth Kirschner described the attack as “not your grandfather’s anti-Semitism.” We agree. What happened at Tree of Life was not an anti-Semitism stirred up by religion. This was not a hatred shouted from the pulpit by either priests or imams. It was not the same anti-Semitism that persecuted and marginalized our ancestors and propelled waves of Jewish migration to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
On the contrary, after this vile act, extensive and sincere expressions of support poured in to the Pittsburgh Jewish community from people of faith across America. The hate that left 11 dead at the Tree of Life is more like the anti-Semitism of our grandfathers’ day — the ethno-racial chauvinism the Nazi regime promoted in Europe. It is not exactly the same. This time, unlike Kristallnacht or the pogroms that preceded it, there was no angry mob joining in to spread even more violence. Rather it was a particularly American version, which took Nazi-like race supremacy and anti-Semitic ideas and cast them in an American context.
This red-white-and-blue form of racism is not new. Those ideologies that flourished during the Great Depression, and had seemed to recede during World War II, simply have crawled out from the rock they were hiding under and have blossomed in the fertile ground of social media, fanned by dangerous political opportunism.
When he was arrested that bloody Shabbat morning, Robert Bowers told authorities that he wanted all Jews to die. Reporters researching his background found an online trail that provides the answers to the questions “why now” and “why Tree of Life”?
Bowers, a high-school dropout from a broken home and something of a loner, long had held conservative views; over time, as his loneliness grew into powerlessness, these morphed into white nationalism and its soulless brother, anti-Semitism. Bowers’ evolution was spurred on and directed by online promotion that supports a growing community of hate.
In recent weeks we have learned how mainstream social media became a conduit for fake news and hate messages. Through networks of accounts under false names, platforms such as Facebook became the pipeline and inspiration of hate messaging. Although they were aware of the problem, these popular social media outlets were slow to address or manage these issues, not wanting to impact their bottom-line profitability. While efforts to date have been halting and inadequate, the mainstream social network sites do have policies and procedures about harassment and hate that sometimes are enforced.
In August 2016, a Trump supporter, Andrew Torba, created a site called “Gab”; using the cover of “free speech,” the site was established as a social media forum for people who had been banned from mainstream sites due to hate speech or menacing behavior. Gab quickly became known as “Twitter for racists.” Milo Yiannopoulos — you remember him, he was banned from Twitter due to his campaigns of harassment — signed up for an account, as did Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer, and a neo-Nazi leader, Richard Spencer. We have written about these pure-bred American hatemongers in these pages before.
In January of this year, Bowers joined these fellows on Gab with these words: “Jews are the children of Satan (John 8:44). The Lord Jesus Christ [has] come in the flesh.” The cover picture was a photo with the number 1488. The description is a reference to “Christian Identity,” an anti-Semitic and white supremacist movement that evolved in the U.S. during the 1920 and ‘30s. The number 1488 is an allusion to David Lane, a founder of a violent racist organization called the Order. Lane died in prison after being convicted of crimes he committed as part of the Order, including the murder of Jewish radio talk personality Alan Berg.
The number 88 also is a neo-Nazi shorthand for “Heil Hitler.” (H is the eighth letter in the alphabet — H H = Heil Hitler.) Bowers’ account shared neo-Nazi content and interacted with a group called GabStapo, which describes itself as “aware of the deadly threat Jews pose to our very existence.” Around the time of the Pittsburgh shooting, GabStapo had more than 800 members.
Sites like Gab and anonymous posting sites like 4chan have become echo chambers for racists and anti-Semites, but mainstream social media like Facebook and Twitter also have been abused to spread lies promoting hate, too often with deadly consequences. This was especially true this year. Trump’s efforts to secure Republican wins in the midterm election campaign was based on racist fears, particularly about Hispanic immigration, as he pushed lies about the nature of a caravan of refugees fleeing Central American gang violence and seeking asylum in the United States.
An article published by USA Today explained how one lie about George Soros and the migrant caravan was the spark that rapidly mushroomed through the internet, beginning with a single post that echoed through racist and anti-Semitic networks, then was picked up and promoted by Republican members of Congress and then metasticizing across the worldwide web.
George Soros? Who is George Soros, and why does he invoke such easily widespread, knee jerk belief in Jewish conspiracies to destroy America?
George Soros (Gyorgy Schwartz), a Hungarian Jew and Holocaust survivor, fled to England in 1947 in the wake of the Soviet occupation. After achieving a master’s degree in philosophy, he began a career in finance in Great Britain and later in the United States. Establishing a series of hedge funds beginning in 1969, he already was a successful investor in 1992, when he made an even larger fortune betting against the Bank of England during the U.K. currency crisis that year.
Having seen the ravages of both Nazism and Stalinism, Soros has dedicated large sums of money to promote democracy in Europe and particularly in the countries of the former Soviet Union. This has made him an enemy to the autocrats of the post-Soviet world. Having known poverty personally, Soros has also donated generously to promote education and to fight poverty. In connection with those ideals, he has supported a number of progressive political causes, including the campaigns of Democratic candidates.
Soros’ pro-democracy and anti-Nazi support made him the target not only of post-communist autocrats but also of neo-fascists and the racist alt-right fringe here in America. Both the post-communists and the neo-fascists have launched campaigns of innuendo about him and his “hidden agenda.”
The attacks on Soros follow classic anti-Semitic templates, grimly recurrent throughout western history, and some of the most powerful geopolitical figures in the world are pushing it. For the far right in America, Soros is the latest Jewish manipulator whose extreme wealth finances puppet groups and publications that exist to drain the prosperity of the master race. He has been called a puppet master, a demon working to create a new world order. Right-wing regimes long have broken down the fabric of political protest by using the anti-Semitic notion of rich Jewish financiers as the puppet masters of social unrest. During the Russian Revolution, the Tsar’s secret police disseminated the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fictional account of a meeting of rich Jews plotting to break down the society of their host countries and rule the world through the promotion of social upheaval. Because of its success, the Protocols has been translated and promoted by right-wing ideologues around the world ever since.
The Protocols and such gave us dog-whistle terms like cosmopolitan, a slur associated with Jews that paints them as untrustworthy, ready to betray the very nations in which they live because they really are in service to an unseen authority. Today, the term has been reminted as globalist. It’s a subtle way to cast an implied message that Jews are a powerful, corrupting influence on otherwise good and pure people, and that Jews are insidious troublemakers with a nefarious agenda at odds with that of the nation’s good, true citizens.
These same slanderous charges since have been promoted by some mainstream Republicans eager to demonize a contributor to Democratic candidates and to political causes that these same Republicans are against. This demonization typically is couched in ways that engage and enrage anti-Semites, describing Soros as secretly masterminding various conspiracies and describing him again as a “globalist.” (Read: Jew.)
Even before the caravan of asylum seekers was used as an election tool for Republicans, President Trump was attacking George Soros as the mastermind behind the Kavanagh hearing debacle. In response to demands that Judge Kavanaugh, who has been accused of sexual assault, be removed from consideration for the Supreme Court, Donald Trump tweeted out: “The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad. Don’t fall for it! Also, look at all of the professionally made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others…”
This was followed quickly by a retweeted anti-Semitic message from Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer and a longtime Republican leader, calling Soros the enemy of Christ: “Follow the money. I think Soros is the anti-Christ! He must go! Freeze his assets & I bet the protests stop.”
That USA Today chronology begins with an October 14, 2018 posting of an article about the caravan linked by a twitter account holder “Lorettatheprole” with a single word comment: “Soros.” The poster, Lorretta Malakie, frequently had posted about “white genocide,” Jews, and the “invading force” to 6,000 followers. Within 20 minutes, this was reposted to six pro-Trump Facebook groups with about 165,000 followers. A Trump supporter then wrote to the Trump Train group: “Here Comes ANOTHER Group of Paid New Demoncratic Voters…The Financier aka ‘Win at All Costs’ ‘Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste’ the Evil George Soros and His 140+ Orgs, Should be Classified as Terrorist and Terrorist Orgs.”
Just two days later, on October 16, social media accounts mentioning Soros and the caravan numbered 2 million. But the big jump happened the following day, when Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tweeted a video link with the words: “BREAKING: Footage in Honduras giving cash 2 women and children 2 join the caravan & storm the US border @ election time. Soros? US backed NGOs? Time to investigate the source.”
This was rapidly retweeted by Donald Trump Jr., ultra-right commentator Ann Coulter, and Sarah Carter, a frequent Fox News guest. Jack Posobiec, a correspondent for the conservative cable show One America News and a proponent of the false Pizzagate conspiracy allegation, augmented the lie, implying that Soros was renting RVs for the migrants.
On Twitter alone, at least 43,000 accounts with a combined 127 million followers carried a message linking Soros to the caravan between October 16 and October 18.
Then another Republican congressman, Louie Gohmert of Texas, said in a Fox News interview, “Democrats, perhaps Soros and others, may be funding this thinking it will help them.”
By this time, pipe bombs had been mailed to the home of George Soros and to prominent Democrats. Authorities arrested Cesar Sayoc, 56, a former pizza deliveryman, strip-club worker, and virulently partisan Trump supporter.
It was during this time, October 19-20, that HIAS sponsored the National Refugee Shabbat to raise awareness of the suffering of millions of refugees around the globe. HIAS (originally known as the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society) was formed in 1881 to help Jewish immigrants arriving in New York. Today it serves immigrant populations generally. Over its history, it has helped millions of people seeking refuge from war and persecution. It would be impossible to imagine just how many readers of this article have had family members directly helped by HIAS.
Hundreds of synagogues participated in the National Refugee Shabbat program. Or Hadash, the Pittsburgh Reconstructionist community sharing the Tree of Life building, was one of them.
In the hyped, fevered, and intensely racist online universe Bowers lived in, fed by lies and exaggerations, the migrant caravan was an imminent threat. Two days before the shooting he posted: “There is no #MAGA as long as there is a kike infestation.” Bowers already had written how he appreciated the list of synagogues HIAS posted, showing congregations participating in National Refugee Shabbat.
When the caravan was likened to an invasion, Bowers wrote of his approval of the term. “I have noticed a change in people saying ‘illegals’ that now say ‘invaders’,” he wrote less than a week before his killing spree. “I like this.” Just before leaving for the Tree of Life on his murder mission, Bowers posted on Gab: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Bowers’ selection of the Tree of Life synagogue was not random. His timing was not an accident. Primed by caravan hype and lies that fueled his own racism, Bowers set out to kill Jews who had participated in a HIAS-sponsored program that built consciousness about the plight of refugees.
“The problem here is hate,” HIAS CEO Mark Hetfield said. “The problem is, there is a growing space in this country for hate speech. And hate speech always turns into hate actions. And that’s what we are seeing again and again this week.”
Mr. Hetfield has identified the problem correctly. It is not only anti-Semitism. It is hate. The hate that caused Dylann Roof to kill nine black churchgoers in Charleston in 2015; the hate that caused Gregory Bush, the same week as the Pittsburgh shootings, to murder two black shoppers at a Kroger parking lot after failing to enter a locked black church a short distance away. We must see the deaths at Tree of Life as part of this broader miasma of racism.
If hate speech leads to hate action, how do we limit hate speech in a free society? The first step is to hold those people who promote and facilitate the lies and racism accountable. Hate speech is not simply like yelling “fire” in a movie theater. Hate speech is providing the matches and the gasoline to those more than ready to light that fire.
For a brief period, Gab was closed by its online host company. But it has found a new home and has reopened. Those who control Gab should be held accountable for the consequences of the hate their site promoted. We must encourage an outpouring of protest against such unabashed hatred within our society. Let us encourage the support that was palpable in Pittsburgh to grow into a force that will not allow such anti-American racist hatred room to breathe. Sadly, instead of protests in the street calling for a return to civility, we live in a time where lies and innuendo are being promoted by mainstream Republican representatives for partisan political purposes. At minimum, Congress should censure them. Certainly, if there are no consequences to this behavior, it will continue and expand.
Finally, mainstream media sources must be encouraged to be more rapid and more active in calling out the racist and anti-Semitic lies and the liars who promote them.