Terra Incognita: A massacre in Pittsburgh

The mass murder in Pittsburgh, the deadliest attack on Jews in US history, comes from a swamp of hatred that percolated online.

ZAKA Search and Rescue USA volunteers at the scene of the shooting attackin Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018 (photo credit: ZAKA RESCUE AND RECOVERY ORGANIZATION)
ZAKA Search and Rescue USA volunteers at the scene of the shooting attackin Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018
In 2012, someone spray-painted swastikas and other graffiti on two synagogues in Bangor, Maine, not far from where I was born. In 2013, someone drew swastikas on a Cape Cod synagogue in Hyannis, not far from where my mom lives. When I was in high school, there used to be a middle-aged man in Prescott, Arizona, who would hold a sign downtown blaming “the Jews” for a variety of crimes: global banking conspiracies, 9/11, the USS Liberty, etc.
I always thought these things aren’t really a threat. He’s a crazy guy with a sign, I thought. Yes, he hates the Jews, but he’s just ranting. Yes, there is some graffiti here and there. But the larger picture is that according to the FBI antisemitic incidents accounted for half of religious hate crimes in the US and 11% of all hate crimes in 2016.
The mass murder in Pittsburgh, the deadliest attack on Jews in US history, comes from this milieu. It came from a swamp of hatred that percolated online. We know this because the murderer, named as Robert Bowers by authorities, left behind a large trail of hatred on social media. The last target of his hatred was HIAS, which helps refugees. He was outraged that HIAS supported a “national refugee Shabbat.”
A post he made targeted ZOG, the “Zionist occupied government” as controlling America. The perpetrator also mocked “Christian conservatives” for liking Jewish people, claiming that Jews only care about themselves. He thought US President Donald Trump was “controlled” by Jews and being used to “control Whites.”
Bowers expressed a worldview, parts of which we’ve all become familiar with in the last few years which alleges that “globalists” are taking over America. Globalists is a stand-in for “Jews” often, a code word or “dog whistle.”
But Bowers believed that Trump was a globalist. Those he reposted wrote things like, “Stop the kikes, then worry about the Muslims.” They also hated Israel. “Refugees welcome to every nation, except Israel.” They were accusing Jews of bringing in refugees, while claiming Jews protect Israel from the same refugees. One article the perpetrator reposted noted “we gave them Jerusalem, they gave us ISIS,” with other references to America having recognized Israel, only for Jews to “give us anti-Christianity.” The racist posted photoshopped images of Auschwitz with the sign reading, “Lies make money” over the gate.
When we look at this worldview, what is striking is how it turns up in other forms, among other antisemites.
“Today’s Israelites are not real Jews,” one post says. Yes, we’ve seen that in other forms where Jews are called “fake Jews.” A Washington lawmaker was called a “fake Jew” in April at a rally. Bowers referred to a “kike infestation,” and it turns out Louis Farrakhan has claimed he’s not just “anti-semite” but “anti-termite.” Same terminology.
There is a city councilman in Washington, DC, who claimed the Rothschilds control the weather, which is the same kind of “dog whistle.” Recently, we also learned that some of those connected to an ostensibly “left-wing” pro-Palestine group in the UK mocked the Holocaust as the “muh Holocaust,” and noted that it was a “hoax.” The online milieu in which the Pittsburgh massacre was committed is a web that unites anti-Jewish racists.
Mocking the Holocaust is not just confined to some extreme right and extreme left beliefs, some of those close to the mainstream have shamefully tiptoed around it. Robert Faurisson, an academic turned Holocaust denier who died last week, was criticized in the 1970s for his views. Instead of condemning him, a long list of intellectuals signed a petition defending his right to free speech. They called him a “respected professor” and claimed he was a victim of a “vicious campaign of harassment, intimidation and slander.” The “victim” was the academic who had written a book calling Anne Frank’s diary a “forgery.” Faurisson should never have received the imprimatur of “free speech” activist, but he was given that platform.
THE BACKGROUND of the perpetrator is becoming well known. In most of these cases, the background of perpetrators is both well known and also opaque, in the sense that we can’t know what separates their decision to commit mass murder from 10,000 other people with the same views who don’t do anything but shout online or on street corners.
I recently watched the film, 22 July, about the 2011 massacre in Norway carried out by Anders Behring Breivik. He murdered 77 people. But his path to the mass murder, clearly formed from a worldview like that of Bowers, of defending a mythical white civilization from foreigners, went unchallenged.
Mohammed Mera, the murderer of four Jews at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, France in 2012, also seems to have been able to develop his hateful views unchallenged. We tend to hear after these killings that there is nothing that can be done to stop them. So we suffice with “thoughts and prayers.”
Unlike the massacres in Norway or Toulouse, or the attack on the kosher deli in Paris and other attacks that have similar backgrounds or are carried out in a similar manner, the massacre in Pittsburgh is being seen through a particularly American lens.
This lens is not one that seems to want to challenge the hatred in America that led to this, it’s more about assigning blame to others besides the killer and those on his social media forum.
I was shocked by how quickly the mass murder in Pittsburgh, even before the number of victims was known, had latched onto several themes of blame. First among them was to turn the massacre into a discussion about “security.” The US president said that lack of an armed guard was a problem, as if people should have to pray behind security and fences, under siege from hatred.
But we shouldn’t have to pray like that. I’ve been to synagogues all over Europe and too many of them are like a fortress. It is a basic human right to pray without security, having walls of security tells us that we are unsafe and unwanted and threatened. In a normal society security is unnecessary. Armed guards everywhere tells us that government has failed in its duty to protect.
Foremost among the reactions were those alleging that Trump was responsible. Journalist Mehdi Hasan noted that “whoever turns out to have done this shooting in a synagogue and for whatever notice, the fact that the president right now regularly traffics in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.” A lot of anger was directed at what a number of people called “Jewish enablers,” or “Jews who enable Trump.” Hatred was directed at Jewish members of the Trump administration, or American Jews in general and Israel. “And to my fellow American Jews: This president makes this possible. Here. Where you live. I hope the embassy move over there, where you don’t live was worth it,” wrote author Julia Ioffe.
That was shocking. We didn’t know the names of the dead on October 27, and people were saying that American Jews were responsible. I thought of my dad in Maine, going about his normal day. What did we do? What did the embassy move have to do with this? The insinuation was that somehow Jews in America were linked to this attack and that Israel was the problem.
Jenny Tonge, a member of the House of Lords in the UK, responded to the mass murder by writing “absolutely appalling and criminal act, but does it ever occur to Bibi and the present Israeli government that it’s [sic] actions against Palestinians may be re-igniting anti-Semitism?” So in the UK, a member of the aristocracy was linking the attack to Israel. In America, a well-known journalist was linking it to the embassy move.
I posted a tweet about Jeffrey Finkelstein, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and someone named Mira Bar-Hillel replied, “if he’s just back from Israel, he’ll be familiar with racist shootings of Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza. More killed every week than in the synagogue’s entire history.”
This was the response to the worst massacre of Jews in US history. Blame Israel. Blame Jews. Blame Trump. These responses often came from those on the “left.” Chandra Prescod-Weinstein, a researcher at the University of Washington, used the attack to make it about “white” Jews.
“I hope white Jews who are feeling especially unsafe today realize that Black people feel vulnerable like this all the time,” Prescod-Weinstein said. “We are born into it. Allow your grief to teach you empathy and move you to pursue justice and an end to the violence that is whiteness.” This was the response that Prescod-Weinstein, who looks indistinguishable to almost any average Israeli, had. To single out “white Jews” and lecture those with grief to have “empathy.”
October 27, a day of massacre and mass murder, the worst mass murder of Jews in US history, was systematically hijacked to make it about everything other than the victims. We’ve seen this again and again. I don’t remember after Toulouse being able to mourn the victims either, because we had to pretend that the perpetrators was motivated by something other than Islamist-inspired antisemitism. We had to pretend that the poor victims in the Paris kosher deli were just “random people.”
They weren’t random. Just like graffiti on synagogues in Maine and Cape Cod are not random. And it’s not about being “white” or about the embassy, or about the “enablers.” There’s no quick fix to antisemitism except to confront it in all its forms, online and on sidewalks. Those like Tonge, who always want to make excuses and make the massacre in America about Israel, should be protested again and again and again, to send the message that October 27 will not be just another day that can be manipulated into an anti-Israel post.
And if you want evidence that hatred of Israel and the mass murder of Jews is connected, in fact directly linked, just look online to the responses to the massacre in Pittsburgh. Every person who saw mass murder in Pittsburgh and thought “Israel,” is an antisemite. And if you excused it because of the embassy move, you have no shame. A lot of people had no shame on October 27. They couldn’t show decency and respect and they exploited the mass murder.
Can we learn from the massacre? Can we learn to confront antisemitism online? Can we learn to mourn and show compassion? Can we end the toxic, hateful, use of social media to inflame and incite? I’d like to believe we can, but what we’ve seen so far does not seem to have been a learning experience.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman