The massacre of 11 Jewish congregants at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, while bearing a striking similarity to the anti-Semitic pogroms that Jews have suffered throughout their history in the Diaspora, is uniquely American.
Historically, Gentile members of a community, motivated by a libelous accusation leveled at the local Jews, terrorized their Jewish neighbors, pillaging their property, at times assaulting them, raping them, even killing them. The violence was often state approved and/or organized, but not always. Throughout the centuries, common themes repeated in libels against Jews were accusations of ritual human sacrifice – i.e. blood libel – and claims of allegiance to foreign or international entities, with the goal of subverting the sovereignty of the country in which those Jews were living.
Robert Bowers’ murderous rampage in Pittsburgh last Saturday embodies integral elements of a pogrom. In declaring his intent to attack on the right-wing social media site Gab, Bowers cited a theory common in that dark corner of the Internet that HIAS, a Jewish organization committed to helping both Jewish and Gentile refugees gain asylum and residence in the United States, was promoting a large-scale migration of Central Americans to the US with the goal of undermining America’s national character. This idea has both a strong anti-Semitic as well as a more generally racist tone, and is among others that Bowers was exposed to online that radicalized him over time. His belief in this particular falsehood was Bowers’ self-declared last straw, galvanizing him to launch a spur-of-the-moment act of terror against his local Jewish community and, with his numerous legally-owned firearms, kill a large number of Jews in the synagogue where they congregated to worship.
This instance of terrorism is notably dissimilar from many historical pogroms in that it lacked any form of overt approval from the state; in fact it should be pointed out that members of the local police force risked their lives to apprehend Bowers, and these brave first-responders were wounded in preventing an even larger death toll among synagogue congregants. Still, one could argue that a culture of incitement exists in America today because of the President’s incendiary nativist rhetoric that is being amplified by right-wing media outlets, both in the mainstream and on the fringes; for now at least, the state categorically opposes and works to prevent civilian hate crimes. Bowers even took issue with President Trump, alleging that Jews control his political actions.
Furthermore, historical pogroms often included looting and physical assault more often than they resulted in murder. Bowers, however, took no interest in destroying the property or religious paraphernalia of his Jewish neighbors, nor did he care about inflicting non-fatal bodily harm. He went into that synagogue with a sole objective: “To kill Jews.”
This most recent attack, however, differs from other historical outbursts of anti-Semitic terror in a distinctly American way: it was made possible and more deadly by Bowers’ easy access to a supply of guns and ammunition. Unlike the pogroms that were inflicted upon our ancestors, this modern American pogrom did not require a hate-filled and inflamed mob; it was carried out by one man only. While it was acceptance of a libelous theory that motivated this attack, no other local Gentiles were needed to carry out this pogrom.
Historical pogroms required mass hysteria and widespread local hostility to Jews for an effective attack on a Jewish community, as the weapons required for a high-casualty event like that in Pittsburgh were often not available to individual civilians. Previously, only more manpower, which in previous centuries meant villagers, city residents, or sometimes soldiers, could have inflicted a comparable death toll. With easy access to arms, in America in 2018, lone gunman Robert Bowers carried the deadly power of an angry mob by himself.
The most pressing issue regarding the evolution of pogroms, however, is the ability of spontaneous outbursts of violence to have particular destructive impact. Bowers owned his guns before his decision to attack; they were not purchased with the purpose of conducting this attack, or any attack for that matter. He was triggered by a libelous claim against HIAS, leading him to take the weapons legally in his house, and attack local Jews. Any gun owner can become an instigator of their own personal pogrom in America today against any group that they choose, be it Sikhs in Wisconsin or African-Americans in South Carolina. Or Jews in Pittsburgh. All it takes is a trigger for any disillusioned gun owner to pull the trigger and become a pogromist.
Robert Bowers, radicalized by an anti-Semitic libel, launched a one-man pogrom against his Jewish neighbors, without any help from local Gentiles or from the state itself. Turning his warped thinking into deadly action was made possible by his personal arsenal of guns. Failure to recognize and address this issue will only hasten the next American pogrom.