American politics and the deadliest attack on Jews in US history
(COMMENTARY) I had plans for Saturday morning. I had recently written a couple of articles for The Jerusalem Post about international religious freedom and had decided to focus a new one on the surging antisemitic attacks in the United States.
I thought it was time to connect the dots between several recent events.
On October 16, a violent incident in the streets of New York was captured on a horrifying video. Lipa Schwartz, a 62-year-old Orthodox Jewish man – his religious affiliation evident in his attire – was assaulted, knocked down and struck repeatedly by an infuriated taxi driver.
Fox News reported that said the attacker “was yelling the words ‘Allah’ and ‘Israel’ while pummeling him early Sunday morning in the heavily-Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park.”
Bruised and battered, though thankfully not seriously injured, Schwartz was released from the hospital, but still he suffered.
“The trauma of being attacked by someone who seemed to want revenge will stay with me forever,” he explained.
The 37-year-old suspect, Farrukh Afzal from Staten Island, was charged with assault, hate crime, criminal mischief and harassment.
The following day, NBC news reported that a black youth had terrorized yet another Orthodox Jewish man in Brooklyn NY, beating him with a broken tree branch and chasing him down a busy street until the terrified victim took shelter inside a local business.
A day or two later, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan mocked Jews on Twitter, describing them as “termites” and stupid. He tweeted, “I’m not an anti-Semite. I’m anti-Termite.”
Despite angry complaints, Twitter refused to remove the social media post. A spokesperson for Twitter explained that Farrakhan’s account would not be suspended because his message “was not averse to any policies currently in effect.”
With all this on my mind, I got up Saturday morning, brewed some coffee and gave further thought to what I wanted to write, and at around 9:45 I turned on my computer.
I immediately realized that the worst antisemitic attack yet was exploding in real time across my screen.
“Live fire as gunman attacks at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Fatalities reported. This is a developing story….”
Stunned and sickened, I obsessively clicked from one news source to another, back and forth, searching for more details, hoping the shooting had stopped.
The number of fatalities doubled, from four to eight. Finally, the killer was apprehended, the death tally was finalized and details began to emerge: 11 worshipers at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania were dead. The killing took place during a bris, the circumcision rite of a baby boy. And the lone shooter, Robert D. Bowers, 46, was charged with 29 counts of federal crimes of violence and firearms offenses.
The Washington Post went on to report that the same Robert Bowers “had posted antisemitic statements on social media before the shooting, expressing anger that a nonprofit Jewish organization in the neighborhood has helped refugees settle in the United States.”
In what appeared to be his final social media post minutes before the attack, Bowers wrote: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
The synagogue shooting certainly didn’t take place in a vacuum. Antisemitic activities have been soaring in the United States. According to an Anti-Defamation League report released earlier this year, “From 2016 to 2017, instances of antisemitic harassment, vandalism and assault increased 57%, the largest single-year jump since ADL began tracking the data in the 1970s.”
After the shooting, I spoke to my Hudson colleague Hillel Fradkin, who pointed out that after World War II and the Holocaust, there was a lengthy respite from attacks on Jews in the United States.
“This finishes a largely peaceful interlude,” he told me, “when Jews could feel as protected as any other Americans. This mass murder in a synagogue marks the end of an era.”
Indeed, the massacre in the Pittsburgh suburb was the deadliest attack on Jews in US history.
As if that weren’t disturbing enough, Saturday’s tragedy continues to be played out against a gloomy backdrop of political rivalry during the last remaining days before America’s mid-term elections on November 6.
Needless to say, the responsibility for the killing rests solely on the shoulders of the assailant, Robert Bowers, an obsessive antisemite, and judging by his social media posts, an anti-Trump activist.
However, blame for the shooting seems to be shifting, for the sake of political gain, from the mass murderer to the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump – his tone, his taunts and, of course, his tweets.
I asked New York Rabbi Aryeh Spero, spokesperson for National Conference of Jewish Affairs, for his views about this turn of events.
“Sadly, some left-wing Jewish organizations are already on television exploiting this tragedy as a means to defame President Trump. But it is obvious to many that President Trump feels a specific personal pain regarding this slaughter inasmuch as his daughter and three grandchildren are Jewish. In fact, Trump’s own Jewish grandsons underwent a bris ritual similar to that which took place yesterday in the Pittsburgh synagogue…. The Jewish Left is exploiting this incident with only politics and the midterms in mind, deliberately disregarding how Trump, like his late father, Fred, has been supportive of synagogues and, as demonstrated, is a lover of Israel.”
In fact, the political reframing of the Pittsburgh massacre is deceitful, disguising the malice of the assailant. Turning the carnage into a partisan issue also deprives the mourners of America’s undivided support and solidarity, but perhaps worst of all, politicizing the murder obscures its very real motivation – the ancient and deadly hatred of Jews.
In democracies, politics and politicians come and go, but Trump or no Trump, Jew-hatred moves steadily along its historic path as an unrivaled and utterly devastating source of evil. If antisemitism is increasingly worrisome in the US, it is far worse in today’s Europe and the Middle East.
And therein lies the danger, lest we forget.
This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.
The writer is an internationally recognized expert on religious persecution, an award-winning author and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute who lived in Jerusalem for over a decade. Her book Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner received wide critical acclaim. She is also co-author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians, and Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @lelagilbert.