Synagogue slaughter, mail bombs stun the U.S.
The nation this week mourned the victims of the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history, with many questioning whether a toxic political environment had made the massacre more likely. Eleven worshipers were killed and six others wounded when a gunman armed with a legally purchased AR-15–style assault rifle stormed into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue shouting, “Kill all Jews.” The 46-year-old gunman, Robert Bowers, had a history of making virulently anti-Semitic online posts. Bowers complained online that President Trump was being controlled by “globalists” and Jewish interests, and that a caravan of Central American migrants headed to the United States was funded by Jews. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” Bowers wrote shortly before the killings. “Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
The attack came the same week as Cesar Sayoc, a 56-year-old Florida man and enthusiastic Trump supporter, was arrested on charges of mailing more than a dozen homemade bombs to Democratic politicians and media organizations criticized by the president. (See Controversy.) A white man in Kentucky also shot two black people to death in a Kroger grocery store, after he tried and failed to enter a nearby black church. The shooter, Gregory A. Bush, a white 51-year-old, reportedly told a bystander that “whites don’t shoot whites.”
President Trump was greeted by protests while visiting Pittsburgh in the aftermath of the attacks, after he rebuffed the Democratic mayor’s request for him to stay away until after the funerals. Demonstrators carried signs saying “Words matter” and “President Hate is not welcome in our state.” Trump pushed back against criticism that he encouraged the recent wave of violence with his rhetoric, blaming “the Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People” for stoking anger.
What the editorials said
“A real leader would try to bring the country together after a tragedy,” said The Boston Globe. Instead, President Trump is blaming everyone but himself for a hateful political climate that has emboldened violent extremists. Trump has openly endorsed violence against his critics, praising a congressman who body-slammed a reporter and encouraging fans at his rallies to “knock the crap” out of protesters. And when white nationalists and neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Va., last year chanting “Jews will not replace us,” Trump infamously said they included “some very fine people.” From there, it’s easy “to connect the dots” between “the bully in chief” and Pittsburgh.
“It is no secret that anti-Semites and white supremacists have felt emboldened in recent years,” said The National Review. But the idea that Trump is somehow responsible for these crimes “is facile and toxic.” Overheated rhetoric is par for the course in American politics. “Those culpable for acts of violence are the individuals who perpetrate them.” The rush to blame Trump for the synagogue massacre is especially sickening. Bowers, a hardened anti-Semite, thought the president was a closet “globalist” being manipulated by the worldwide Jewish conspiracy. This attack was committed in “service of a distinct, ancient evil.” The proper response is mourning in solidarity with the Jewish community. “There are more enduring and important things than tribal political infighting.”
What the columnists said
“If you think Trump should bring down the temperature, you have a point,” said David Harsanyi in TheFederalist.com. But let’s not forget Democrats routinely accuse Republicans “of wanting to kill the poor and young, of trying to destroy the planet, of being ‘terrorists’ after every school shooting.” So, if you tell Trump to cool things down without mentioning all the extreme rhetoric on the left, “you don’t really care about the temperature.”
Trump’s defenders note that his son-in-law, daughter, and grandchildren are Jewish, said Charles Sykes in WeeklyStandard.com, and that he is staunchly pro-Israel. And yet he “has clearly given oxygen” to anti-Semitic narratives. During the closing days of the presidential campaign, Trump ran a shocking TV ad portraying Hillary Clinton as secretly conspiring with “global financial powers” to rob “our working class.” The ad showed pictures of Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, Democratic donor George Soros, and Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen—all Jews. His campaign also retweeted an image of Clinton inside a Jewish star. When prominent Jews and Jewish journalists criticize Trump, they are invariably inundated with anti-Semitic threats and images of concentration camps—actions Trump has refused to denounce. It’s not an accident that the flagrantly anti-Semitic alt-right and white supremacists believe Trump is on their side.
“What is happening to our country?” asked Max Boot in The Washington Post. I’ve always thought of political terrorism and religious violence as something that happened over there, in places like the Balkans and the Middle East. “Now the horror show has arrived on our shores.” When I grew up in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue and the surrounding Jewish community, said Howard Fineman in The New York Times, I was taught that America was a kind of promised land, the one nation besides Israel where Jews could live “unburdened by fear.” But my faith has been shaken. Throughout history, Jews have been the “canaries in the coal mine of social and political collapse.” Beware: “Hatred of The Other is poisoning our public life.”
Anti-Semitism “appears to be intensifying” in the U.S., said Andrew Kragie in TheAtlantic.com. In 2017, the Anti-Defamation League recorded a 57 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents from the previous year—including bomb threats, assaults, and vandalism—reversing a long downward trend. More than half of the anti-religious hate crimes committed in the U.S. were motivated by anti-Semitism, even though just 2 percent of the American population is Jewish. In response, “many synagogues and Jewish day schools have been amping up security measures,” said Laurie Goodstein in The New York Times. “I’m not a Chicken Little who’s always yelling, ‘It’s worse than it’s ever been!’” said Deborah E. Lipstadt, professor of Holocaust history at Emory University. “But now I think it’s worse than it’s ever been.”
Cover illustration by Howard McWilliam.
Cover photos from Getty (3)