WASHINGTON – Every few weeks, after each latest, worst mass shooting in the United States, pundits and politicians here ask the same series of questions: How could this happen and who is to blame?
Whether the targets are children in high school or daycare, the elderly in a retirement home, gays at a nightclub, straights on the Las Vegas Strip or blacks, Sikhs and Christians in prayer, discussion on cable news typically nationalizes the shooter’s twisted grievances.
Circumstances then dictate whether the conversation revolves around America’s struggle with discrimination against gay people, brown people or religious people, or whether the country has a unique crisis of mental health.
Familiar battle lines emerge on whether the unrivaled proliferation of guns in America has any connection to its unrivaled rate of gun deaths. As heated as the debate might flare, the battlefront barely moves an inch and the cease-fire ultimately resumes.
BUT THERE were signs of change in the aftermath of last Saturday’s massacre of Jews
in a synagogue in the Squirrel Hill suburb of Pittsburgh. While spiking antisemitism became a robust national discussion for the first time in years, and while Democrats and Republicans pointed fingers at one another in reductive blame, those directly affected made their voices heard as well.
The Jewish residents of tiny Squirrel Hill – until now known as the home of Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fame – took to the streets and protested policies of US President Donald Trump. Those are the same policies that had been espoused by the shooter, Robert Bowers, 46, in the lead-up to the shooting, including his hatred of refugees and those seeking their protection. The marchers called on Trump to unequivocally condemn white nationalism and those who claim to support its causes in his name.
Their protests could be heard by the president himself as he visited the Tree of Life Synagogue, where the shooting took place, on Tuesday, lighting candles and laying rocks on Star of David monuments erected in honor of the 11 dead. “President Hate, get out of our state,” they chanted.
And so Trump responded on Wednesday, making his visit – intended to pay respect to the victims – about respect for Trump.
“The Office of the President was shown great respect on a very sad & solemn day. We were treated so warmly. Small protest was not seen by us, staged far away,” he wrote on Twitter, alongside a video of him at the scene of the brutal crime.
Pittsburghers are not the first to raise their voices after massacre. In the wake of mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and Parkland, Florida, both targeting schools, families and students that fell victim to gun violence became prominent national advocates for gun safety reform.
But Pittsburgh’s Jews are focusing on a different concern: the president’s divisiveness. They believe the shooting that shattered Squirrel Hill’s tranquility cannot be separated from a national environment, stoked by the president, of increased racial and ethnic hatred.
“I don’t think we can avoid thinking about the shooter – it’s part of the whole picture, and it’s part of what’s happening in this country,” said Toby Neufeld, a teacher at Tree of Life for over 30 years who had several friends killed in the shooting.
Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett told Pittsburghers it was unfair to blame Trump for a rise in antisemitism in the US. But American Jews overwhelmingly disagree. A poll released earlier this month by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that 70% of the nationwide community disapproves of his handling of the issue.
And so, while both parties were quick to politicize the event, so, too, were those in the line of fire who believe the president’s policies carry life-or-death consequences.
YET TRUMP’S response to this tragedy differed from his refusal one year ago to condemn white nationalists and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia – an event that led to the death of one counterprotester and sent his Republican Party reeling into an identity crisis. This time, three Orthodox Jews who have known him for decades – Ivanka Trump, his daughter; Jared Kushner, his son-in-law; and Jason Greenblatt, his longtime lawyer and senior adviser– ushered him through his public response.
“Antisemitism and the widespread persecution of Jews represents one of the ugliest and darkest features of human history,” Trump said in the wake of the shooting at an event in Indianapolis. “The vile, hate-filled poison of antisemitism must be condemned and confronted everywhere and anywhere it appears. There must be no tolerance for antisemitism in America or for any form of religious or racial hatred or prejudice. You know that. You know that very well.
“Today, with one unified voice, we condemn the historic evil of antisemitism and every other form of evil,” Trump continued. “And unfortunately, evil comes in many forms. And we come together as one American people.”
And Trump’s aides were quick to defend him from charges that his rhetoric provides cover for bigots and antisemites to translate their hatreds into violence.
“The president has denounced racism, hatred and bigotry in all forms, on a number of occasions. We’ll continue to do that. I’m doing it here today,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters.
She, and the president, then both turned the equation on its head, blaming the media for cultivating a hostile political environment in which the president is merely a defendant.
“You guys have a huge responsibility to play in the divisive nature of this country, when 90% of the coverage of everything this president does is negative, despite the fact that the country is doing extremely well, despite the fact that the president is delivering on exactly what he said he was going to do if elected,” Sanders charged.
“He’s delivered on the promises he’s made,” she continued, “and I think it would be nice if, every once and a while, we could focus on a few of the positive things the president has done, instead of just attacking him.”
THE PITTSBURGH massacre came mere days ahead of the first US election in modern history in which gun control advocates outspent absolutists in campaign dollars. The National Rifle Association responded, in kind, with a barely veiled antisemitic attack on Wednesday of the sort that was roundly criticized in the wake of the killings.
“Notorious anti-gunner George Soros joins anti-gun billionaires Steyer and Bloomberg,” reads an NRA tweet published just five days after the Squirrel Hill shooting. All three are Jewish. “There is no end to how much they’ll pay to push their elitist agenda on Americans.”
As a result of Pittsburgh, gun control may become a priority voter issue for American Jews, who in consistent polling over recent cycles rank issues of welfare and pluralism at the top of their concerns. In the wake of a shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, talk of a wave of LGBT activism around gun control slowly faded. But the Jewish community, proud of its long memory, could react differently.
What is sure is that the Jews of Pittsburgh, and those nationwide who stood in solidarity with them this week, will not consider Saturday’s massacre an event untethered from a deteriorating environment they squarely blame on the president. They have raised their voices and expressed their views that there is causation here. And that could well reflect in their votes next week, in swing districts and states that will determine the control of Congress.