Alina Bricman

Three years on, Seeds of hope at the Tree of Life 

One of the drawing on the fence of the Tree of Life synagogue, sent by schools across the country to Pittsburgh

Earlier this month, I visited Pittsburgh ahead of the anniversary of the Tree of Life tragedy. 

Three years earlier, on October 27, 2018, a far-right extremist committed the deadliest attack against Jews in the history of the United States – killing 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger of blessed memory were beloved members of three different congregations. Other worshipers, as well as law enforcement officers and first responders, were seriously wounded. So too, the sense of safety of American Jewry.  

The threat of antisemitic attacks is part of the day-to-day of Jewish life in Europe. Metal detectors and security guards are ubiquitous at all Jewish venues. A kippah is worn both with pride and with trepidation, as the numbers of recorded antisemitic incidents have steadily risen in recent years. 

But the heart wrenching attack in Pittsburgh’s Squirrell Hill neighborhood – the same community Mr. Rogers’ spoke about – surfaced an unlikely question: Can Jews feel safe in the United States?   

What I felt being in Pittsburgh was a reverberating communal “yes”.  

U.S. statistics about Jews’ sense of safety mirror those in Europe. A large majority of Jews feel antisemitism is a real and present danger, a reflection of the staggering rise in violent incidents. 

The resounding, collective “yes” from the Jewish community and its many allies in Pittsburgh is not ignorant to this reality – on the contrary – it is determined to overcome it: not just survive, but thrive – openly and without fear. 

A community of solidarity 

The outpouring of love and solidarity following the attack three years ago was experienced not only in Pittsburgh, but around the world. I was truly inspired. Yet in hindsight, I didn’t fully understand the nearly-universal show of support until I was there in person. 

It’s been three years, but Squirrell Hill houses on every block still boast signs: Stronger Than Hate. The city symbol, the Steelmark – continues to lend one of its four-pointed starlike figures to a Star of David. At the Tree of Life Synagogue, a long fence surrounding the building is covered in drawings sent in from schools across the country, turning security into solidarity and inspiration. 

I had the chance to see once again a full-page newspaper ad in memory of two victims, Cecil and David Rosenthal. It read: “The entire Rosenthal Family wishes to extend our sincerest thanks and gratitude to the Pittsburgh community and around the world for your outpouring of support and kindness. Your thoughts, prayers and kind gestures have given us strength to get through this difficult time.” 

In the town of the Steelers – #PittsburghStrong has a new meaning, and it has nothing to do with metal. It’s a collective commitment to beat back hate.  

 The Eradicate Hate Global Summit 

One of the ways in which this commitment materialized was the inaugural edition of the Eradicate Hate Global Summit, which took place just last week in Pittsburgh. This was an unprecedented effort to convene leading researchers, practitioners, journalists, lawmakers and tech companies to develop collaborative and multidisciplinary responses to hate. Among speakers were UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide; Alice Wairimu Nderitu, Judge Theodor Meron, President and Judge, International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals; U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, heads of policy for major tech companies, and, most importantly, the family members of the Tree of Life victims, who were the driving force and beating heart of the event.  

Panels explored novel civil and criminal law remedies to hate, the role of tech and the ability of the  justice system to address extremism, the role of COVID-19 in accelerating hate, community preparedness, free speech protections, the role of art, and many more and diverse themes.  

During the Summit, I had the opportunity to share insights from Europe as part of a panel reflecting on global government responses: the state of antisemitism, but also what’s being done, what works, what can be modeled elsewhere. I spoke about the new European Union (EU) Strategy on Combating Antisemitism and Fostering Jewish Life, the collaborative approach between policy-makers and civil society, the significant advancements by EU legislators in placing liability on platforms through new reporting and due diligence obligations, important data collection commitments, and the Strategy’s cross-cutting approach, mainstreaming the topic across policy areas.  

Antisemitism serves as a foundation for most conspiracy ideologies. It cuts across the political spectrum, is fueled by polarization, accelerated by algorithmic augmentation, and rests on Holocaust denial, distortion and trivialization. In that, antisemitism is ultimately the epitome of hate. Ensuring that experts in diverse fields understand it in its complexity is essential not only to providing a sense of safety and security for the global Jewish community, but to maintaining an open and democratic society all together – a premise that the Summit built on. 

Now back home, taking stock, a key take away stands out beyond all others – the solidarity and kindness still emanating in Pittsburgh can serve as a motivating force for all of us.  

About the Author
Alina Bricman is the Director of EU Affairs of the Jewish advocacy and service organization B’nai B’rith International. She formerly served as President of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS). She's writing in her personal capacity.
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