One year after Tree of Life shooting, U.S. Jews fear rising anti-Semitism

A memorial outside the Pittsburgh synagogue honoring some of the victims.

One year ago, a white supremacist gunman shot and killed 11 worshipers in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in the deadliest single attack on Jewish Americans. The U.S. Jewish community is still feeling the effects of that tragedy in multiple ways, through both anxiety and actual attacks.

The Pittsburgh mass shooting occurred during Saturday morning Shabbat services at the synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where three congregations shared the same building. The shooter, Robert Bowers, had a history of posting anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiments on extreme right-wing websites. Shortly before the attack, he posted on the right-wing website Gab, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Bowers kept shooting for 20 minutes, armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic assault-style rifle and three semi-automatic pistols, all of which he used to shoot at worshipers at services in the basement and in an upstairs chapel. At one point in the shooting, according to police, Bowers shouted, “All Jews must die!” He wounded three police officers as they exchanged fire before he finally surrendered. In all, Bowers was charged with 63 federal crimes, including hate crimes, and 36 state crimes. He pleaded not guilty and is now asking for a plea deal in exchange for a life sentence.

On the six-month anniversary of the Tree of Life mass shooting, a white supremacist gunman opened fire at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, California, on the last day of Passover, killing one worshipper and wounding several others. That shooter, John T. Earnest, was armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic assault-style rife. After the attack, he called 911 and told the operator that “Jewish people are trying to destroy all white people.” Earnest was charged with murder, attempted murder, and hate crimes. He pleaded not guilty and faces trial.

Since the Pittsburgh attack, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League, at least 12 white supremacists have been arrested for alleged roles in terrorist plots, attacks, or threats against the U.S. Jewish community. But that’s just the beginning.

According to the ADL report:

Since October 27, 2018, white supremacists have targeted Jewish institutions’ property on at least 50 occasions. From the Poway synagogue attack to a religious service interrupted by shouts of “Heil Hitler,” white supremacists have presented very real threats to Jews across the country. This includes 12 instances of vandalism using white supremacist symbols and 35 distributions of white supremacist propaganda, according to ADL Center on Extremism research. Four days after the Tree of Life attack, a synagogue in California was defaced with obscene anti-Semitic slurs. In November 2018, a New York synagogue was vandalized with the phrase “Jews Better Be Ready,” and references to Hitler.

White supremacists have also demonstrated outside AIPAC offices and Israeli consulates, and even disrupted a Holocaust remembrance event in Arkansas by waving swastika flags, holding anti-Semitic posters and shouting anti-Semitic slurs and phrases, including, “Six million more.”

The American Jewish Committee conducted a survey that examines how American Jews perceive anti-Semitism a year after the Tree of Life massacre. The survey showed that 84 percent of Jews think that anti-Semitism has risen in the last five years. Some details from the survey, according to a story in The Washington Post:

  • One in five American Jews said they had been the target of anti-Semitic remarks online in the past five years.
  • 23% said they had been targeted by anti-Semitic comments in person or through mail or phone.
  • 25% said they avoid certain places, events, or situations out of concern for their “safety or comfort as a Jew.”
  • One-third said they are affiliated with a Jewish institution that has been the target of vandalism, threats, or attacks.
  • 2% said they had been the victim of physical attacks because they are Jewish.

And one in three Jews avoids wearing clothing or jewelry, such as a yarmulke or Star of David necklace, that would identify them as Jewish and thus leave them vulnerable to attack, the study added.

“It’s been a rough year, and it’s been an eye-opening and awakening year,” said David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee. “Perhaps there was a time when some Jewish institutions … felt somehow more or less insulated from [anti-Semitic attacks]. The fact that the attacks took place in Pittsburgh and Poway triggered a feeling that we’re all at risk everywhere, equally — it can happen anywhere.”

One area of the country where those fears have come true is in New York City. The city’s police department says that more than half of the hate crimes reported in New York so far in 2019 are anti-Semitic. According to a story on CNN:

The incidents reported are mostly acts of vandalism, with graffiti or swastikas being scrawled on places that include synagogues, according to New York City Chief of Detective Dermot Shea. …

As a whole, anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York City are up 63% this year as compared with last year, officials said.

But it’s not just New York City, and it’s not just acts of vandalism. Preliminary data from the report from the ADL Center on Extremism shows that a total of 780 anti-Semitic incidents were recorded in the first six months of 2019.

Social media also poses a way to spread anti-Semitism. The right-wing sites that are home to white supremacy serve as a breeding ground for more hate crimes. The Poway synagogue shooter said he was inspired by both the Pittsburgh attack and the mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a gunman killed 51 people in March.

It’s not just far-right websites that offer platforms for hate. Other ADL data show that 4.2 million anti-Semitic tweets were posted and retweeted on Twitter during a one-year period from 2017 to 2018.

Synagogues have been forced to take extra steps for safety. As The Washington Post story reported:

The Secure Community Network, which helps synagogues protect their buildings and members, said in a statement that it received about 500 requests for assistance from Jewish groups in the year before the Pittsburgh shooting. This year, it has received about 2,000 requests.

Most of the Tree of Life Synagogue victims were elderly. They went to their regular Saturday morning Shabbat service and had no idea it would be their last.

One regular worshipper was four minutes late — four minutes that saved his life. Judah Samet, a Hungarian-born 81-year-old and a longtime member of the synagogue, lived for 10 months in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II “and was just a stopped train ride away from Auschwitz,” according to a story in USA Today. When he realized what was happening, he stayed in his car, and he saw the shooter “with a large, black gun.”

The first thing that came to Samet’s mind after the shooting: his time at a concentration camp. “It never ends. That was my thought.”

No one should have to live through that kind of horror twice.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Oct. 27, 2019.

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