(October 30, 2018 / JNS) Despite mixed reactions, U.S. President Donald Trump arrived in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Tuesday afternoon in the aftermath of a gunman killing 11 people and injuring six others at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue.
The visit comes as the community buried the first of the victims on Tuesday.
The president was accompanied by his wife, Melania; chief of staff John Kelly; press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders; and White House deputy chief of staff for communications Bill Shine.
Also accompanying the president were his daughter, Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, as well as senior-policy adviser Stephen Miller and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, all of whom are Jewish.
Additionally, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer was on the ground, and greeted the president and his wife.
Democratic and Republican congressional leaders declined to join the visit.
Accompanied by Tree of Life Synagogue’s Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who reportedly received hate mail for saying that he would welcome Trump, the president and first lady spent time at the memorials outside the synagogue and lit a candle inside the building for each of the victims.
The president also visited the hospital where four wounded officers were recovering while trying to stop the suspect, 46-year-old Robert Bowers, during the attack.
‘President Trump, you are not welcome in Pittsburgh’
Shortly before the visit came conflicting views over whether the president should pay his respects.
The left-wing activist group Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, released a scathing open letter in opposition to a Trump visit.
“For the past three years, your words and your policies have emboldened a growing white nationalist movement. You yourself called the murderer evil, but yesterday’s violence is the direct culmination of your influence,” it stated. “President Trump, you are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you fully denounce white nationalism.”
Bend the Arc has been accused by conservative media of fomenting anti-Trump sentiment ahead of the visit.
Pittsburgh native Max Ungar agreed with those who say Trump should not be visiting Squirrel Hill.
“Our president has difficulty meeting even these baseline standards in his reaction,” he told JNS. “His first response is to blame the synagogue for not having armed guards? He can’t immediately acknowledge the impetus behind the shooting?
“Trump makes his values clear by where he places his emphasis: on vilifying refugees and the downtrodden of our society, and praising alt-right conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, who intentionally cause more wanton suffering for communities affected by these tragedies,” continued Ungar. “The president has made it clear that his values severely contradict those of the Pittsburgh community, and he is not welcome here.”
Other Pittsburgh residents responded differently.
“I think whether or not the president comes is a decision that should be made by those closest to the victims and the three congregations attacked,” Joel Mackler, who grew up in Squirrel Hill, told JNS.
Lauren, a Jewish Squirrel Hill native who requested to withhold their last name for privacy reasons, told JNS that whether the president visits is not as big an issue compared to the need to appoint the State Department’s point person on anti-Semitism.
“Squirrel Hill is exemplary of a diverse and true community. Anti-Semitism predated this administration and will continue afterwards,” said Lauren. “President Trump should fill the special envoy role to combat anti-Semitism while he visits in Pittsburgh.”
In September, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill by a vote of 393-2 that would elevate the State Department official who deals with the issue of anti-Semitism from envoy to ambassador. A Senate version of the bill is pending. Were the bill to become law, the president would be required to fill the position within 90 days.
“This would show the victims’ families and the community as a whole that the administration is taking action towards ensuring national policy implementation that will hopefully prevent future attacks and promote diversity in our country once again,” added Lauren.
Yosef, another Jewish resident who also requested to withhold his last name, told JNS: “As long as he is coming to support the community and families, and not for a personal agenda, I have no problem with it.”