October 27, 2018. A lone gunman walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and three pistols, and opened fire on the congregants who were gathered for Shabbat morning services. After shooting up the main floor, the gunman went down to the basement to find more victims, shouting, “All Jews must die!” Eleven were killed, six more injured. It was the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.
My students and I were in New York, some 400 miles away. It was the second month of my new job teaching at a small, private Jewish school. We were nowhere near the incident in Pittsburgh, but that didn’t matter. The essence of a hate crime or terror attack is that it affects more people than just its immediate victims. Everyone who belongs to the targeted group knows they could be next. An attack on Jewish people was an attack on us.
There were new protocols. The friendly old security guard, Louie, was replaced by an elite team of agents who surrounded the building, guarding every entrance, looking and acting like the U.S. Secret Service. They gave us codewords and passwords and a new, more secure school ID. When we went on field trips, the boys were instructed to wear baseball caps instead of the yarmulkes they wore at school, so they could keep their heads covered without boldly identifying themselves to the world as Jews. Of course we were already doing the shelter-in drills and active shooter drills that have become commonplace in recent years, but the drills took on a different tone now. The hypothetical scenarios didn’t seem quite so hypothetical anymore.
I don’t normally think a lot about my identity as a Jew. I don’t wear a kippah or belong to a synagogue. I don’t observe Shabbat or keep kosher. I light candles on Hanukkah but I need a cheat sheet to say the blessing. I took the job at a Jewish school because it was, well, a job. But that makes no difference to the substantial number of virulent antisemites who are increasingly committing acts of harassment and violence across the country. To someone like the Pittsburgh shooter, a Jew is a Jew and “All Jews must die.”
When I thought about it, as tragic and harrowing as the Pittsburgh attack was, it surprised me that this incident (eleven dead, six injured) was the worst in our history. Haven’t there been worse antisemitic rampages? The answer, of course, is yes, there have been deadlier attacks—in Russia. Latvia. Romania. Poland. Germany. But not here.
We tend to think of bigotry and hate as remnants of the past—though hate is very much still with us, we are comforted by sentiments like Martin Luther King’s: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In this case, though, we’re actually moving in the wrong direction. 2018 and 2019 saw record high numbers of antisemitic attacks, and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) notes that in 2020 the situation is still “persistent and worsening.”
As America faces a long-overdue national reckoning on race, it is important to note how racism, antisemitism, and other forms of bigotry are inextricably connected. The right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis who gathered in the summer of 2017 for a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, were chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” This “replacement” theory—that white/European heritage is threatened by the addition of other ethnic/racial groups to the cultural and genetic pool—is a standard antisemitic trope which predates Hitler, but which Hitler energetically promoted.
That same “replacement” theory is at the heart of other forms of bigotry and hate that are on the rise in America. The common refrain that “Immigrants steal American jobs” is a closely related trope. Right-wing commentators have claimed that immigration makes our country poorer and “dirtier.” Racist language describing immigrants and others as “invading” or “infesting” our cities mirrors the language Nazis used to describe Jews, Roma, and others.
Of course, most Jewish people in this country don’t have the same issues as Black and Brown people in America. People aren’t profiled by law enforcement, stopped and frisked, or disproportionately shot by police, for being Jewish. While there are Jewish people of every race and color, most Jews in America just look like any other type of white folks.
The fact that Jews enjoy some degree of white privilege is one of the things Nazis are most mad about. The antisemites’ theory is that because Jews look (basically) like white folks, they can infiltrate white society, passing as white Europeans or European Americans while secretly poisoning the white civilization, culture, and gene pool. This is one of the reasons Hitler’s Nazis forced Jews to identify themselves by wearing yellow Stars of David: that way, they could not pass themselves off as white.
The Pittsburgh shooter, Robert Bowers, was of course an avowed antisemite but he was equally committed to the related neo-Nazi tenets of hating and fearing immigrants. The Tree of Life shooting was motivated, in large part, by Bowers’ anger and fear over the caravans of Central American migrants who were approaching the U.S. border in the fall of 2018. That year, especially in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, the political conversation was dominated by talk of a Central American “invasion”; nativist politicians referred to migrants as gang members and “animals.”
Like many neo-Nazis, Bowers blamed Jews for aiding the Central American “invasion.” In particular, he pointed a finger at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). HIAS was originally founded to aid Jewish refugees, but in recent decades it has expanded its mission to help refugees of all nationalities and creeds. On the morning of the attack, Bowers posted on Gab (a social media site that, like Parler, was founded as a right-wing alternative to Twitter): “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered… I’m going in.”
The essence of a terror attack is that everyone in the targeted group knows they might be next. My young students and I felt it in our bones: what happened in Pittsburgh could happen anywhere. The next time might be in our backyard.
We weren’t wrong. This month, the North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, New York was victimized by a malicious cyberattack. Its website was hacked, and the hackers posted Nazi imagery including swastikas, a photo of Hitler, and video clips of Gestapo officers. The text of the site’s main page was rewritten to include gleeful references to Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazi death camps. The hackers were also able to access students’ contact information and send threatening messages. One such message read, “YOU’RE NEXT I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE HEIL HITLER.”
This attack was terrifying, shocking, disturbing, a nightmare. And at the same time, it is not exactly surprising. These sentiments, these threats, these attacks, have been on the rise for the past several years.
An attack on Jewish people is an attack on us—all of us who believe in a pluralistic, diverse society, and reject bigotry and hate. I still hope that, in the long run, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. But with a new generation of racists and neo-Nazis emboldened by extreme rhetoric on the right, we’ve clearly got a long way to go.