When Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and gunned down eleven Jewish victims, his purpose was clear. He told police that ‘all these Jews must die’. His social media posts showed his disdain of Jews, immigrants and of President Trump – whom he considered to be a Jewish puppet.
One would have hoped that the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history would have brought about a ceasefire in the battle between left and right, blue and red. Sadly, instead of pausing for a moment to absorb the carnage, instead of giving the families and the community the space needed to mourn and bury its dead, instead of allowing a universal condemnation of the scourge of anti-Semitism to echo in silence, instead of allowing leaders on both sides to unite for one day in condemning this wrong, instead of all this, we saw the lives lost being used as political capital.
The bodies of the victims were yet to be buried when the blame game began. The accused, in order of appearance, were President Trump, gun-laws and the Gab social media platform.
‘You can draw a direct line from all of the vitriol and hateful rhetoric about the caravan… and the gunman in Pittsburgh,’ claimed the CNN anchor. ‘The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting Is the Inevitable Result of Trump’s Vile Nationalism’ ran the headline at the Nation. ‘There is moral culpability for creating this overheated climate of fear,’ professed the Washington Post. Similar views were echoed in the New York Times, the Atlantic and many other media outlets.
These claims have an ounce of truth. Trump did flirt with the alt-right (which contains a subgroup of white supremacists) and Trump’s style has played a part in overheating the national discourse. However, we cannot ignore the fact that Trump has disavowed the alt-right since he dismissed Steve Bannon, nor can we ignore the responsibility of those on the Left for their part in the shouting matches and mob violence that have taken over political discourse in the US.
For his part, President Trump was quick to condemn the attack stating that ‘this evil anti-Semitic attack is an assault on humanity. It will take all of us working together to extract the poison of anti-Semitism from our world. We must unite to conquer hate.’ Trump reached out to Democratic leaders in the House and Senate to join him in a unity rally to condemn anti-Semitism, but his overture was rebuffed. Instead, they preferred the opportunity to score political points. They would not join him on his visit to Pittsburgh.
There is a long history of presidents attending sites of terror to show that the nation is mourning as a whole. President Trump is uniquely qualified to do so, not because he is Trump but because he is the President. One may disagree with his policies, disapprove of his tweets or find him personally objectionable, but that does not change the simple fact that he is the President of the United States, the only person in the land who can represent the entire nation.
The headlines on the day of his visit were unanimous: ‘Pittsburgh Jewish leaders say Trump is Not Welcome to Visit Synagogue.’ That was a blatant lie. Pittsburgh Jewish leaders said no such thing. The open letter cited by the media was penned by Bend the Arc, a Soros-backed Political Action Committee set up to ‘advocate exclusively for progressive policies in the US.’ Rabbi Myers, the Rabbi of the Tree of Life Synagogue unambiguously stated: ‘The President of the United States is always welcome. I’m a citizen, he’s my president. He is certainly welcome.’ For saying so, the Rabbi who had just buried eleven of his congregants was subject to a torrent of abusive emails. Trump-hate knows no boundaries.
Then came the attack on the tools used by Robert Bowers, his gun and his social media account.
Barrack Obama tweeted: ‘We have to stop making it so easy for those who want to harm the innocent to get their hands on a gun.’ When asked if gun laws would prevent such violence, Trump responded by saying ‘if they had some kind of protection inside the temple, maybe it could have been a very different situation.’ Both statements contain truth and are not mutually exclusive. That said, neither Obama nor Trump should have addressed this hotbed political issue that day. The media vilified Trump for his comment. Obama, of course, was immune from criticism.
The media then turned their focus on Gab, the social media platform with a mission ‘to defend free expression and individual liberty online for all people’ which Robert Bowers used to spew his hate. Gab released a statement in which it ‘unequivocally disavows and condemns all acts of terrorism and violence.’ Gab was held accountable for the actions of a lone deranged man while Facebook and Twitter have evaded such scrutiny following the many mass shooters who have used their platforms. Within days of the attack, Gab was de-platformed losing its hosting (Joyent), domain registration (GoDaddy) and payment providers (Paypal, Stripe).
It is unbefitting to link the Tree of Life with an attack on free speech. Judaism has a long and celebrated history of diversity of opinion dating back over two thousand years to disputations between the academies of Hillel and Shammai. It continued with the codification of the Talmud, a 6,200-page transcript of spirited debate and culminated with Jewish thought leadership among free-market liberals and communists alike. David Ben Gurion observed that wherever there are two Jews, there are three opinions. We do the dead no honour in using their name to stifle free speech.
Trump has become the scapegoat for all that is evil in this world, as Jews are to anti-Semites. By blaming Trump, guns and Gab for Bowers’ actions, we lose sight of the underlying evil of anti-Semitism and we ignore its upward trend among the the far right (racial) as well as the mainstream Left (national) and among radical Muslims (religious). The NY Times reported that of the 142 anti-Semitic hate crime that took place in New York since Trump took office, none were associated with a far right-wing group. Rabbi Myers said it best: ‘Hate is not blue, hate is not red… Hate is in all.’ In memory of the dead and for the sake of the living, let us all tone down the hate.