columnU.S. News

Five years after Pittsburgh, mass murder has a new meaning

Fueled by support for Hamas terror and hatred for Israel, a surge of antisemitism presents challenges that are not so easily understood as the Tree of Life shooting.

A makeshift shrine to the victims of the mass shooting on Oct. 27 at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 30, 2018. Credit: Brendt A. Petersen/Shutterstock.
A makeshift shrine to the victims of the mass shooting on Oct. 27 at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 30, 2018. Credit: Brendt A. Petersen/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

On Oct. 27, 2018, American Jews experienced the worst incident of violence against them in U.S. history. The mass shooting at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh left 11 worshippers, most of them elderly, dead as they prayed during Shabbat-morning services. It was every American Jew’s worst nightmare come to life, but it was also a threat they thought they understood and could place in proper perspective.

But five years later, as American Jews are facing a massive surge of antisemitic activity in the wake of the Hamas terror attacks in Israel on Oct. 7 that left more than 1,400 dead, the challenge is one that many in the community are finding it harder to cope with or to comprehend. The threats and acts of intimidation, as well as the open display of hatred towards Jews on the streets of the nation’s largest cities and on the campuses of universities, have not yet led to a crime of the magnitude of the Pittsburgh shooting.

The shock and the sense of betrayal felt by many Jews now are in some ways harder to absorb than the grief felt five years ago. Whereas in 2018, they were reassured by universal support from other ethnicities, faiths and nations, as well as politicians from across the spectrum, right now they are feeling far more isolated and at risk.

As the title of Dara Horn’s collection of essays on antisemitism goes, Everyone Loves Dead Jews. But if there is a lesson to be learned by an increasingly embattled Jewish world, it is that as popular as dead Jews may be, the identity of their killers goes a long way towards determining just how much solidarity Jews should expect after a terrible crime is committed against them.

If the assailant is a right-wing extremist who can be linked—whether or not it is completely unfair—to a politician that liberal Jews and their political allies detest, the attack can generate enormous sympathy and support for Jewish communities. But if the people brutally assaulting Jews claim to be intersectional victims of white privilege and their supporters, then don’t be surprised that those thought to be “allies” suddenly become either silent or join the ranks of those vilifying the Jewish victims and actually supporting the murderers.

As terrible as it was, the Tree of Life massacre was a tragedy that was embraced by the overwhelming majority of Americans. Members of other faiths and their spiritual leaders joined in interfaith services with their Jewish neighbors as the nation—the world even—came together in mourning. There was genuine anxiety about other mad gunmen turning up at Jewish and other institutions—a fear that was justified when another shooting took place exactly six months later at a Chabad synagogue in Poway, Calif.

Blaming Pittsburgh on Trump

The shooters in both cases—lone gunmen motivated by a mixture of extremist right-wing ideas—were exactly the sort of people most members of the Jewish community recognized as their natural enemy. And many Jewish organizations and their leaders knew just what to do about it. They blamed the terrible crime on someone most American Jews already despised: President Donald Trump. He was, after all, the man who had said there were “good people on both sides” at the neo-Nazi “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017. If America no longer felt like a safe place, then many, if not most, Jews were sure it was his coarse rhetorical style and social-media posts, as well as stances on issues like illegal immigration, which had made it so.

For all of Trump’s faults, that was an injustice. He hadn’t actually characterized the Nazis as “good people” or anything like that. And the Pittsburgh shooter’s crazed writings made it clear that he despised Trump as much as the Jews because of the president’s historic support for Israel.

True or not, putting the blame on him and political conservatives was the sort of thing that allowed many Jews—whose politics and historical memory make them inclined to think that all antisemitism comes from the right—to view Pittsburgh as something that made sense rather than the random act of a lunatic.

And it was that sense of solidarity with fellow liberals and minority communities that sent many Jews into the streets in the summer of 2020 after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis created a moral panic about American racism. The Black Lives Matter movement and the rest of the intersectional left may have been linked to antisemitism and hatred for Israel. But liberal Jews had no doubt which side of that argument they should be on, and what happened in 2018 played a significant role in that way of thinking.

Sympathizing for the murderers

Five years later, many of the same Jews who were most determined to stay in sync with their minority allies are now realizing that solidarity is a one-way street. In an America where critical race theory teachings declare Jews to be guilty of “white privilege” and Israel to be a white state oppressing Palestinian people of color, the Oct. 7 atrocities could not be viewed in the same way as the Pittsburgh shooting.

What happened along the border with Gaza was the worst mass slaughter since the Holocaust. The toll of more than 1,400 dead men, women and children—with thousands left wounded and more than 200 kidnapped by Hamas terrorists—along with acts of rape, torture and desecration of bodies was a crime of an order of magnitude that made it impossible to compare to the synagogue shooting.

Yet instead of generating an even greater wave of sympathy for Jews than was expressed in 2018, what followed was something that shocked even the most cynical observers. Many of the “allies” that liberal Jews counted on the most were silent. Celebrities, including Jewish ones, had nothing to say about that many dead Jews.

Worse than the silence, however, was the open support that Hamas generated on the political left. Instead of sympathizing with the Jewish victims, Muslims and their leftist supporters cheered the killers. That led to acts of intimidation on the streets and on campuses as Jews were bullied and/or assaulted.

In New York, the spectacle of crowds bellowing hate for Jews in Times Square was hard to ignore. The same was true this week when Jewish students barricaded themselves in the library at Cooper Union College as pro-Hamas demonstrators taunted them. And with the prospect of a mass pro-Hamas rally at the Brooklyn Museum on Oct. 28—not far from the center of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Crown Heights, a neighborhood that has seen a pogrom before—Jews were being warned to stay home and not take Shabbat walks near the expected mob of supporters of Jewish slaughter. Even in the city with the largest Jewish population in the country, they aren’t safe.

This appalling situation doesn’t lessen our sense of mourning for the Pittsburgh victims or our concern about right-wing extremism where it exists. But it does require the Jewish community to rethink the post-Pittsburgh obsession for seeing violent antisemitism as purely a right-wing problem.

No one should be under laboring any illusions about the support for the Palestinians after Oct. 7 being a function of humanitarian sentiments or worries about the plight of those who live in Hamas-ruled Gaza as the war against the terrorists continues. The hatred expressed in the rallies against Israel should make it clear to even those most determined to ignore the problem that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. The terrorists want to kill as many Jews as possible and those Americans supporting them aren’t shy about showing us that more dead Jews is exactly what they want.

Instead of being able to ascribe those threatening us to a political bogeyman, American Jews must instead acknowledge that they are the targets of an international antisemitic movement that is supported by supposedly liberal opinion and rooted in the same intersectional politics that created the Black Lives Matter protests.

Dealing with this threat requires more than heightened security measures and indulging prejudices against traditional political foes. It requires American Jewry to accept that they are, like Israelis, locked in a battle with an enemy that cannot be reasoned or compromised with. As sad and as dangerous as the Pittsburgh shooting was, five years later, the threat Jews now face is far more insidious. And they are confronting it without the help of the traditional friends who have abandoned them.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin

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