SWAT police officers respond after a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 27, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JOHN ALTDORFER)
WASHINGTON – A man opened fire on a Jewish community congregated for Shabbat services on Saturday morning in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, committing the deadliest antisemitic crime in modern American history.
The shooter killed at least 11 people, including one of the police officers who rushed to the scene, and injured several others. He began his attack shortly after the beginning of services at the Tree of Life Synagogue. As a family gathered there for a brit milah, the man began shooting people throughout the first floor and basement of the facility, until he surrendered to the police after a shootout, declaring to them that “all these Jews need to die.”
Early reporting on Robert Bowers, 46, quickly discovered an active life on alt-right and antisemitic social media platforms, where he frequently engaged in Jewish conspiracy theories and trolled Jewish groups.
But in a rare case for American mass shooters, Bowers survived the event. He shot three police officers before being taken into custody alive.
The Tree of Life Synagogue sits at the heart of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill, a large Jewish community east of the city center. More than 50,000 Jewish Americans reside in the greater area.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf called the event an “absolute tragedy,” and pledged the state’s full resources to assist local law enforcement. US President Donald Trump said that he heard the scene was one of the most horrific law enforcement had ever witnessed.Trump responded
to the shooting as the crisis was still active, writing on Twitter that locals should “beware” and “remain sheltered.” And after the perpetrator was apprehended, Trump told reporters that armed guards in synagogues would prevent similar attacks.
He also said the attack appeared to be motivated by antisemitism on its face.
“It looks definitely like it’s an antisemitic crime,” Trump told reporters in Indianapolis, where he considered canceling a rally scheduled later that afternoon. “That is something you wouldn’t believe could still be going on.”
The US Department of Homeland Security already offers significant grants to security for synagogues and an armed police presence is the norm outside of Jewish temples across Europe.
The president also suggested the perpetrator deserved the death penalty and should “pay the ultimate price” for the massacre.
White House officials said his first calls were to Pittsburgh officials, as well as Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, his daughter and son-in-law who are practicing Orthodox Jews.
Ivanka Trump responded on Twitter with strong words.
“America is stronger than the acts of a depraved bigot and antisemite,” she said. “All good Americans stand with the Jewish people to oppose acts of terror and share the horror, disgust and outrage over the massacre in Pittsburgh.”
“We must unite against hatred and evil,” she added.
The shooting sparked national media coverage on the current state of discrimination in the US and resurfaced a common American discussion on gun violence. Several television pundits linked the event to Trump’s rhetoric throughout his 2016 campaign and much of his presidency, which critics and civil rights organizations long-warned would give cover and motivation to those seeking to attack minorities.
At the scene, Jeff Finkelstein, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told reporters he was saddened and despondent at the news.
“This should not be happening, period. It should not be happening in a synagogue,” Finkelstein said. “It should not be happening in our neighborhood.”
And Steven Werber, a resident of Squirrel Hill, although not a regular attendee at the Tree of Life synagogue, told The Jerusalem Post that one of the victims of the attack had been shot directly in front of Werber’s father, who was present at the service when the shooting happened.
Werber said his father was “terribly shaken up” and was being interviewed by the FBI. He said he believed the individual shot in front of his father had died.
Werber said he lived just three blocks away from the synagogue and had heard sirens from the numerous emergency vehicles that arrived on the scene.
He deplored the instant reactions of many people on the left and right of the political spectrum for seeking to blame each other for the attack, saying that both sides should focus on the actual perpetrator and his beliefs.
“In this day and age, you’d think we can all agree to hate Nazis. In five minutes the left is blaming the right, and the right is blaming the left, but it isn’t about that,” he said.
“We still have Nazis among us and it’s breaking my heart that instead of blaming Nazis they were putting the blame on each other.”
Ben Mayer, another resident of Squirrel Hill, although also not a member of the Tree of Life synagogue, said he knew people in the congregation and that his daughter goes to a daycare center in another synagogue nearby.
“This is a guns and hate issue,” said Mayer. “Guns are too easy to get and hate is being stoked in my country from the top-down. There is only one way to stop or prevent this. That is getting the people out of office that are fanning the flames of hate and making sure guns stay available.”
The Tree of Life congregation was formerly part of the Conservative movement, but is no longer formally affiliated with it. There are currently two other congregations sharing the building, New Light, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement and Dor Hadash, which is a Reconstructionist congregation.
The news put Jewish communities nationwide on edge. Police departments in Los Angeles and New York deployed extra resources around Jewish houses of worship and community centers.
The shooting comes amid a steady rise in antisemitic rhetoric tracked in recent years by the Anti-Defamation League, which, in a statement characterized the attack as the deadliest of its kind against Jews known in US history.
Calling on law enforcement to investigate the shooting as a hate crime – a separate category in the federal penal code – the organization noted that the event “occurs at time when ADL has reported a historic increase in both antisemitic incidents and antisemitic online harassment.”
Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.
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