On October 27, 2018, gunman Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania armed with multiple firearms, including a semi-automatic rifle. He moved from floor to floor of the building, shooting as he went.
Bowers killed 11 worshipers and critically injured two. Four police officers were also injured.
Bowers had committed the worst anti-Semitic massacre in the history of the United States.
Why did he do it?
During the attack Bowers declared that “all Jews must die.” His social media accounts were full of anti-Semitic accusations. The trigger for the massacre was his belief that “the Jews” were facilitating the entry of dangerous foreigners into this county. He named the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a charity that began over a hundred years ago to help resettle European Jews in the US and later helped non-Jewish refugees. On social media he complained that “Jewish invaders” were “killing our people.”
It’s All His Fault
Every time a mass shooting has occurred in recent times, media pundits and politicians express outrage that some have used the tragedy to promote their partisan policy agendas. And yet this political use of tragedy persists.
So for example, amidst the many statements of condolence that pepper the media after these events, there are urgent calls for gun control.
Others use the tragedy of a mass shooting to condemn politicians or commentators whose language or positions they dislike. Without evidence, many of these accusers claim or imply that the politician they dislike caused the violence.
Among the e-mails that went around my local Jewish community after the Pittsburgh massacre, was this one:
I can’t help but think of Trump’s boasting that he could shoot someone on the streets of NY and still be elected………. I’m more shocked that our president used this opportunity to promote guns and make the victims seemed responsible for this tragedy! I hope our country comes together and this doesn’t add more fuel to the fire!!
Apparently it never occurred to this writer that his own comment might add fuel to the fire.
Even conservative Wall Street op-ed writer Bret Stephens opined, “Yes, the president bears blame for the terror from the right.”
But no one can be sure that anyone’s statements caused another person to act. Would the shooter have acted even if President Trump had never made partisan or inflammatory statements?
What about Hillary Clinton’s accusation, during her presidential campaign, that voters on the right were “deplorables”? Or Maxine Waters’ screaming speech to supporters, “You get a crowd together and you push back.” She urged her supporters to accost elected leaders wherever they are….at home, shopping, and anywhere in public. Did these statements by left-leaning politicians create a climate that led to the Pittsburgh massacre? No one can say for sure.
None of these accusers can prove the connection between what public figures have said and the actions of a mass killer. Making that connection is at best, not helpful, and at worst, harmful.
In 2017, David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, posted a blog about anti-Semitism. Harris argued that, to confront anti-Semitism, Jews needed trifocal lenses. What he meant is that anti-Semitism comes from three sources: the far right, the far left and Islamic Jew-hatred.
The problem is that too many ascribe racially motivated hate and violence to only one group. An example of this is one of the best funded civil rights groups in the US: the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). They do a great job of investigating and litigating against far right groups—neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Their aggressive fundraising efforts focus exclusively on the dangers of such groups as the Ku Klux Klan. But shockingly, the SPLC turns a blind eye to hate and violence coming from far left and Islamic groups.
Even worse, SPLC has gone after brave liberal reformers who speak out against the intolerance, anti-Semitism and misogyny of radical Islam. One such reformer is Maajid Nawaz, a former radical Muslim who renounced his former views and created a foundation that “de-radicalizes” Muslim youth in Great Britain and works to reform Islam to a humanitarian set of values.
The SPLC impeded Nawaz’ work by including him in a list of anti-Muslim extremists. Nawaz sued SPLC and won a $3.4 million damage award and a public apology by the center.
The SPLC has also gone against others who have encouraged reform of Islam, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ali was also included on the center’s list of anti-Muslim extremists. SPLC made the outrageous claim that Ali was a “propagandist far outside the political mainstream” and warned journalists to avoid her “damaging information.” In fact, she is a moderate who encourages Muslims to adopt liberal values such as freedom of expression and gender rights. Ali correctly pointed out that SPLC has never published a list of Muslim extremists to accompany their list of anti-Muslim extremists.
On its website, the SPLC listed the noted researcher and conservative intellectual, Charles Murray, as a “white nationalist.” Later, students at Middlebury College, citing this listing, physically attacked Murray during a speech on campus. Although Murray escaped the angry mob of students unharmed, the professor who invited him was not so lucky. She ended up injured and hospitalized.
The conservative Family Research Council (FRC), a Christian group that opposes gay marriage and abortion, ended up on the SPLC’s “hate map.” Two years later a gunman appeared at FRC headquarters with intentions to kill. He said he had identified the FRC on the SPLC’s website.
What do all the Southern Poverty Law Center’s targets have in common? They all espouse points of view opposed by the left in this country. The Center’s mission against hate is fatally flawed by its liberal bias.
The Kumbaya Moment
When there is a tragic loss of life, we are shocked. For Jews, the Tree of Life massacre hit home. Many of our lives revolve around a synagogue, so we are overwhelmed with the thought that it could happen to us in our own community. It is only natural that we turn to prescriptions that advocate unity, healing, love, compassion, and forgiveness. We urge each other to confront our intolerance and prejudices.
None of this is bad.
But when a community absorbs blow after blow—-one violent assault after another—these prescriptions take on a pathetic quality. Before we speak to our higher emotions, we should focus on self-defense.
Yesterday, as a representative of a Jewish organization in my town, I attended a Security Meeting sponsored by our local Jewish Community Center. Also in attendance were the city’s sheriff and a number of representatives of local law enforcement. The sheriff spoke first. I was surprised to hear what he said: “Your congregations should consider arming yourselves—-either with members of your own group or with hired security.”
Not long ago law enforcement officials routinely advised citizens to do the opposite. In those safer days, law enforcers told citizens to avoid weapons, and to rely instead on the police. But, as the sheriff explained, the first few moments of a mass shooting are critical. Even with a short police response time, the shooter can kill many victims before help arrives. The terrible truth is that we have to rely on ourselves. We have to arm ourselves.
So before we begin to speak about our higher selves, we should obtain appropriate weapons and learn how to use them.
The motives of the Pittsburgh shooter mirror those of the many anti-Semites who preceded him and who will follow him. He blamed the Jews for society’s ills.
It is a universal human tendency to want to blame others for the ills of society, and by extension, for our own failures. It is far easier to do this than to own up to our personal flaws and culpability. Blaming others also allows us to discharge our anger on “those who have wronged us.” It is an ancient human need and the motive behind a long history of aggression between people and groups.
But why do Jews so often—-more often than others—play the role of society’s scapegoat? I don’t know the answer. But I suspect it lies in the long tenure of Jews as a people.
Jews have been a people for a period of time greater than almost any other group. This long tenure has allowed the resentments of non-Jews to accumulate over the years. In modern societies, where Jews have excelled socially and economically, resentments have arisen among non-Jews who covet the obvious success of the “Jew.”
As Jews, we have weathered terrible losses. We should be experts in mourning. And yet, when loved ones die, especially in tragic circumstances, we often don’t know what to do or say. Friends and family members of the grieving want to help. But too often their comments do more harm than good. This is an appropriate time to remember that easy prescriptions don’t help. These include advice such as, “Your loved one is with God now,” or “You are strong enough to survive this.”
Shortly before the terrible shooting in Pittsburgh I happened into a conversation with a friend, a psychiatrist experienced in grief counseling. Perhaps a higher power placed this woman in my path to help me come to terms with the terrible loss of life that was about to happen in Pittsburgh.
According to my friend, the first step in the mourning process is to accept that the loss of a loved one never heals. Don’t expect it to. Then my friend shared a metaphor that I find comforting.
When a loved one dies, it leaves a deep and wide hole inside the soul of the aggrieved. It is painful. At first, the hole crowds out everything the aggrieved feels and experiences, leaving no room for life.
The hole never stops hurting, but over time it grows smaller. In the measure that the hole shrinks, life reenters. Life gets bigger as the hole gets smaller. The aggrieved is better able to focus on other things—-self-care, other loved ones, ambitions, joys, even worries and fears.
The hardest part is that just as the hole gets smaller, suddenly without warning it opens up again. This happens when the aggrieved encounters a memory of the loved one or an experience he would have wanted to share with the deceased. But with time the hole gets smaller again, once more allowing life to enter.
And the process is repeated for the rest of our lives.