Jewish in America

The History of Hate, Violence, and Anti-Semitism that Led to the Pittsburgh Shooting

On Saturday, October 27, at 10:00 a.m., the weekly Sabbath prayer service was just beginning for thousands of Jewish communities worldwide. At the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, PA, however, the ordinary service became a tragedy when 46-year-old Robert Bowers entered with an assault rifle, killing eleven people and injuring six more.

The shooting occurred at the start of the service, when the congregants mostly consisted of old-timers. All eleven victims were between 54 and 97 years of age and had gathered for a shared religious and communal experience. Among those who were killed were a couple in their 80s, two brothers, a doctor renowned for HIV/AIDS treatment when there were few options available, and a 97-year-old woman who had many years left to live, according to those who knew her.

The United States of America is in the middle of a shooting epidemic, and this mass murder follows a horrific trend of violence throughout our nation. Shooting after shooting, the conversation of gun control and the Second Amendment gets increasingly frustrated and heated. This conversation is incredibly important. However, I am not going to talk about gun control here. I am going to talk about hate.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported, based on FBI data, that 684 anti-Semitic events occured in the United States in 2016, more than all other religious-based hate crimes combined from that year. In 2017, the number of anti-Semitic hate crimes increased by 60 percent.

The mass murder that took place last Saturday is the largest anti-Semitic attack to have ever occured in the U.S..

Anti-Semitism has been prevalent for centuries. There is a glaring and recurring pattern throughout history, targeting Jews and Jewish groups. For example, the Spanish Inquisition in the fifteenth century expelled Jews who did not convert to Christianity, forcing thousands of people out of their homes. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, waves of anti-Semitic events in Russia and Eastern Europe killed Jews and forced many others to flee for their lives. Many of those hateful acts were known as pogroms, or organized massacres that swept through Jewish shtetls (villages), killing and destroying as much as they could. Less than 100 years ago, Nazi Germany murdered over six million Jews in the Holocaust, wiping out two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population.

The anti-Semitic narrative is not a new one. What’s new is the violent manifestation of anti-Semitism now in America. At the turn of the twentieth century, waves of Jewish people fled persecution (primarily from Russia and Eastern Europe at this time) and arrived in the United States. Like many other ethnicities and nationalities, the Jews found a sort of imperfect refuge in America, a country of immigrants and freedom of expression — and anti-Semitism, which has always existed on some level in the U.S..

America was supposed to keep Jews safe, and is now unable to. The Jewish community is still haunted by centuries of persecution, and these recent events reignite the fear of generations.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Jewish, interfaith, and secular communities have come together in a series of events and vigils to mourn, preach love, and discuss integral political changes. A series of events have taken place this week in Portland as vigils and memorials for the tragedy. Last Saturday night, Reed College’s Jewish Student Union (JSU) held a gathering to discuss the event and bring students together in song and prayer. Events continued on Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday, run by the Oregon Board of Rabbis, PDX Hillel and Lewis and Clark’s Office of Spiritual Life, and Portland State’s JSU respectively.

The event on Sunday took place in Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in northwest Portland. Hundreds of people of multiple faiths and backgrounds gathered, filling the massive space. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy spoke, as well as local and federal government officials. Moved in shared hopes of love and peace, the community united in the face of hate, as many are doing across the country.

Rabbi Joshua Rose of local Congregation Shaarie Torah wrote in a letter to the community, “The Jewish response to the denigration of humanity is to elevate humanity. This is the time for us to bring goodness into the world with acts of love and generosity.”

We cannot address the attack without addressing anti-Semitism and the history of continual persecution and trauma in global Jewish communities. We need to talk about it and understand it, or this hate will never go away.