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Synagogue massacre trial: A dark chapter in U.S. history

The surge in recent years of anti-Jewish attacks is attributable to various factors, including proliferation of extremist ideologies online, rise of far-right movements and polarization of American society.

A makeshift shrine to the victims of the mass shooting at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Credit: Brendt A. Petersen.
A makeshift shrine to the victims of the mass shooting at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Credit: Brendt A. Petersen.

“All Jews had to die.”— Synagogue terrorist’s comment to a police officer at the scene

The Tree of Life Synagogue massacre—the deadliest attack against Jews in the United States—stands as one of the darkest moments in recent American history. The shooting shocked the nation, bringing to light the ongoing struggle against religious intolerance and violence. The terrorist killed 11 Jews and forcefully shook the American Jewish community. He was found guilty of 63 federal charges.

On the same day that the jury delivered its verdict, FBI agents arrested a Michigan man accused of planning a mass killing at a synagogue in East Lansing, Mich. The would-be terrorist discussed the attack on social media, where he frequently posted remarks about hating Jews. Law enforcement discovered numerous firearms and a Nazi flag in his home.

Andrea Wedner and her 97-year-old mother, Rose Mallinger, laid head to head on the ground in an attempt to escape death. Andrea testified in court how “we were filled with terror; it’s indescribable, we thought we were going to die.” Both women were shot. Andrea “saw my right arm get blown open in two places.” She felt a faint pulse in her mom’s wrist and knew the end was near; Rose didn’t survive.

Survivor Daniel Leger remembered hearing gunfire echoing within the synagogue and thought, “This can’t be gunfire. It must be the furnace blowing up.” Realizing that it was, in fact, rapid-fire bullets, Daniel, a nurse, instinctively ran towards the gunfire to help treat any wounded worshippers. He was shot in the abdomen and feared he was dying. Daniel started praying, and later stated, “I was ready to go.”

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman first heard shattering glass followed by gunfire. He instructed three worshippers, “We’re in danger, and I want you to follow me. We’re going to hide in this storage closet.” Rabbi Perlman led the three congregants to safety. Unfortunately, when Melvin Wax peered out of the closet, he was fatally shot.

Police officers bravely risked their lives to end the shooting spree. Pittsburgh SWAT Officer Timothy Matson was shot seven times, including in the head: “The bullet fractured my skull and my jaw.” He has endured 25 surgeries to repair the damage, but testified that he would go through the synagogue’s door again to save lives.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette printed the first five words of the Jewish mourner’s prayer (Kaddish) in Hebrew as the front-page headline spread on the Friday following the attack. The newspaper’s editor, David Shribman, wanted to “bring our readers to the heart of the incident” following “the modern-day shots heard ‘round the world.”

The terrorist, Robert Bowers, a then-46-year-old truck driver with a history of expressing anti-Jewish views online, repeatedly attacked Jews on social media and praised the Holocaust before massacring Jews. The shooter called Jews “public enemy No. 1” and ranted that “Jews are the children of Satan.” The white supremacist calmly explained to responding police officers that “the Jews are killing our women and children so I had to do this.”

Bowers spread many conspiracy theories on social media. He hated immigrants and refugees, a popular belief that is heavily promoted in extremist movements. He became fixated on HIAS—formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society—a provider of services to immigrants and refugees worldwide. He railed against HIAS’s National Refugee Shabbat program in his online posts. A Jewish congregation that rented space at the Tree of Life Synagogue participated in the HIAS program. This was a significant reason for why he targeted Jews for murder at this synagogue.

During Shabbat morning services on Oct. 27, 2018, in Pittsburgh, the terrorist entered the synagogue armed with multiple firearms. The attack lasted 20 minutes. In the days following the massacre, vigils, memorials and interfaith gatherings were organized to honor the victims and provide support to the affected families.

The surge in recent years of anti-Jewish attacks is attributable to various factors, including the proliferation of extremist ideologies online, the rise of far-right movements and the polarization of American society. Jews have historically been targeted for their beliefs, becoming scapegoats for societal problems and resulting in the creation of conspiracy theories. Deep-seated prejudice and belief in conspiracy theories often culminate in attacks against Jews, most notably in the Holocaust.

Remembering the victims:

Joyce Fienberg • Richard Gottfried • Rose Mallinger • Jerry Rabinowitz • Cecil Rosenthal • David Rosenthal • Bernice Simon • Sylvan Simon • Daniel Stein • Melvin Wax • Irving Younger

Points to consider:

  1. Deadly threats against Jews continue.

Neo-Nazis continue to pose an alarming threat to the U.S. Jewish community. The arrest of a Michigan man on the day the jury delivered its guilty verdict is a harsh reminder of the continuing dangers facing American Jews. Both men are white supremacists who ranted on social media about their hatred of Jews and owned numerous weapons to turn their threats into reality. White supremacist propaganda—anti-Jewish fliers in neighborhoods across the country and even neo-Nazi flags outside Disney World—soared to an all-time high in 2022. The recent trial verdict and arrest serve as powerful reminders that Jews are still marked for targeted killings.

  • Anti-Jewish conspiracy theories lead to the murder of Jews.

Baseless and harmful narratives, often rooted in age-old prejudices and stereotypes, fuel hatred and sow the seeds of violence. Conspiracy theories have historically been used to scapegoat and dehumanize Jews. Tragically, these dangerous beliefs have inspired acts of terrorism, such as the Tree of Life Synagogue; Chabad of Poway, Calif.; and Jersey City kosher supermarket shootings. It is essential to recognize the corrosive nature of these conspiracy theories and combat them through education, dialogue and the promotion of interfaith understanding. By addressing the root causes of anti-Jewish hatred and debunking these unfounded theories, we can strive to create a world where everyone can live in safety.

  • Social-media hatred fuels real-world attacks.

The ease of communication and anonymity provided by social-media platforms have enabled the rapid spread of extremist ideologies and amplified the voices of hate. Online forums are echo chambers that allow individuals with malicious intent to find validation, connect with like-minded individuals and plan acts of violence. The consequences are devastating, and not just for Jews—the 2019 El Paso, Texas shooting targeting Latinos killed 23; and the 2022 Buffalo shooting targeting African-Americans killed 10. The deadly attacks against Jews and other minorities prove that the dangers of hate speech, disinformation and extremist content on social media too often lead to violence.

  • Standing with other maligned Americans unites communities.

The synagogue massacre stands as a reminder that we must continue to strive for a society where diversity is embraced. Deadly threats from neo-Nazi white supremacists continue to alarm minority communities. Despite efforts to combat hate and intolerance, extremist ideologies persist, fueled by prejudice, ignorance and a desire to sow fear and division. More than ever, communities must engage with allies through education, dialogue and solidarity. Recently, the National Black Empowerment Council launched an initiative to rekindle the Black-Jewish alliance. By eradicating the poisonous roots of antisemitism, racism and other forms of bigotry, we can jointly build a future where all individuals are free from the fear of violence and discrimination.

  • Remember the victims so we never forget.

The Tree of Life Synagogue shooting left an indelible mark on the lives of those who lost loved ones. We must honor and remember the 11 victims, and celebrate their lives and the contributions they made to their communities. Each victim had a unique story and a deep connection to the synagogue, emphasizing the devastating loss. By keeping the names and stories of the victims alive, we ensure that their voices echo through time. We owe it to them, their families and future generations to work tirelessly towards a world where such senseless violence becomes a distant memory.

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