A jury decided today, August 2, 2023, that the shooter in the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania should be put to death. I recall the enormous international outcry when the shooting happened in 2018, and a reaction I’d heard: “What’s the big deal? There was a worse mass shooting where I live.” It was not the first time I’d heard a “what about” sentiment about a hate crime. And it can come from both the right and left.
We need to be reminded what hate crimes are, and affected communities need to stand together. As the planet heats up, tempers are rising. And with it, prejudice and intolerance are increasing. Hatred of the other manifests. Social tensions are being exacerbated, sometimes deliberately, and racism is now a popular ploy for votes.
In 2010 a developmentally disabled 22-year-old Navajo man was assaulted in Farmington, New Mexico, USA, and branded with a swastika. The victim finally escaped to a convenience store, where police were summoned. The Farmington police, who’d been trained to recognize hate crimes by the Anti-Defamation League, contacted the FBI. It was the first federally prosecuted case under President Obama’s new Shepard/Byrd hate crime law; the principal offender was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in federal prison.
I’d reported on the trial for the Navajo Times. It was also tried at the state level, and when I interviewed a district court official in Aztec, New Mexico, he said, “What’s the big deal? Navajo people are always beating each other up and worse.”
It was fortunate that the Farmington Police had the awareness to report this to the FBI as a hate crime.
In 2018, an avowed white supremacist and antisemite entered the Tree of Life Synagogue during prayer services and shot and killed 11 Jewish congregants. It is the worst antisemitic act of violence against Jews in the United States.
In July, the jury determined that the shooter was guilty on all counts, including hate crimes, and was capable of forming intent to commit the crime, making him eligible for the death penalty. The jury heard testimony from survivors and family members, and also from relatives of the shooter and a psychiatrist for the defense. The jury decided to recommend the death sentence rather than life in prison. The governor of Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro, announced 6 months ago as the trial got underway that he would not issue any execution warrants during his term.
When the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting received international attention, I wrote for the New Mexico Jewish Link about how religious leaders here came together in condemnation of this act. A friend in Europe, whose country had experienced a terrible mass shooting some years earlier perpetrated by a political extremist, wrote me, at some level annoyed by the attention this shooting received, saying essentially, “What’s the big deal?” There is an important difference between a political act and a hate crime.
A hate crime is motivated by bias against race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability, and it is felt widely by the group that the victim may be perceived to be a member of.
After 9/11/2001, members of the Sikh religion, who wear distinctive turbans, were targeted in many cities with acts of violence, including murder. After COVID began, following a tweet by the former president calling it the “Chinese virus,” there was a surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Historically, Native Americans, African Americans, and other people of color have been the target of hate crimes. Hatred of Jews is a hate crime called antisemitism.
An anti-vaxxer running for president in the US, whose father was a notable Kennedy, just made the racist and antisemitic claim that COVID was genetically engineered to target Caucasians and Blacks, but not to affect Asians and Jews. That is untrue.
One to one and a half million Chinese citizens died from COVID as reported in “How Deadly Was China’s Covid Wave?” (New York Times, 2/15/23). Their graph showed that internationally, the U.S. was number one, and Israel was seventh in death rates. Speaking personally as a Jew, I and other relatives of mine got COVID.
False accusations are particularly egregious to Jews, who for centuries have been massacred over inane accusations scapegoating them. In the 14th century they were accused of spreading the Black Plague, because they were not dying as much as their Christian neighbors. Jews put fresh straw in their bedding every Friday to honor the Sabbath, inadvertently removing flea-carrying rats, the real source of the Plague.
We must all must find common cause against the rise of hatred in all its forms.