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The Tree of Life shooter will likely receive the death penalty. Only one question remains

Five years after the most deadly attack against Jews in the United States, are we any safer?

The man who committed the deadliest crime against Jews in American history was just found eligible to receive the death penalty.

On Oct. 27, 2018, he walked into the Tree of Life synagogues in Pittsburgh carrying three handguns and an AR-15. He opened fire, killing 11 worshipers and wounding six others. On June 16, a jury found him guilty on all 63 counts.

Justice has finally been served. But five years after the gunman told officers “All Jews had to die,” are American Jews really any safer?

Many of the biggest threats to American Jewish safety have only gotten worse. But still, I see a few reasons for optimism.

Hate from the top

The only person to blame for the Pittsburgh massacre is the shooter himself. But hate doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The killer was ostensibly enraged because American Jews were hosting Shabbat dinners to support refugees. And at the time, Trump had spent months whipping up his base with anti-immigrant rhetoric.

For years, Trump has been an “accelerant” for hate and extremism in general — and there is a strong correlation between the former president’s hateful leadership and real-world consequences.

In 2015, the number of antisemitic acts in the United States had been in decline for almost 15 years. But in 2016, the year Trump ran for office and won, they increased by 37%, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The numbers have stayed high since.

By 2020, most Americans had seen enough. Two-thirds of voters, Republicans and Democrats, said they turned out because they were “excited to vote against Trump.” Joe Biden said he only made up his mind to run for president after witnessing the “Unite the Right” protest in Charlottesville. He framed his campaign as “a battle for the soul of the nation.”

Where do we go from here?

The good news is the nation took Biden’s side in that battle.

The bad news is that, while Americans overwhelmingly spurned Trump in 2020, a large percentage of the country is ready to vote for him again. In the latest YouGov poll, Trump and Biden are in a dead heat.

For his part, Trump seems not to have learned the lessons of 2018. Last November, he dined with the rapper Ye and Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist propagandist, despite both having a history of antisemitic remarks and actions.

Trump has surrounded himself with even more fringe characters. The so-called moderating influences in his administration — his Jewish daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, — have both since stepped back from politics.

In 2024, who around him will step on the brakes?

Social media cesspools

The Pittsburgh shooter actively participated in the social media site Gab, where he found validation for his hateful views. Civil rights groups, including the ADL, correctly point fingers at social media companies for providing platforms for hate speech and communities for haters.

 

That problem is far from solved. While Twitter’s former owners deplatformed users who engaged in hate speech, the new owner, Elon Musk, has invited many of them back. And hate and disinformation continue to proliferate on virtually every social network, mainstream or not.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear deplatforming hate speech even works. A Stanford study found that following the Jan. 6 riots, when social media companies kicked thousands of users off for inciting violence, many just migrated to Gab, swelling its user base by 40%.

Technology has marched ahead in the past five years in even more challenging ways. AI now can produce “deep fake” stories and videos that promote extremist agendas at scale. We are still very much coming to terms with technology that can empower the best and worst of humanity.

A national wake up call

The Biden administration treated Pittsburgh like a national wake-up call. It tapped first gentleman Doug Emhoff, who is Jewish, to chair the first national strategy to counter antisemitism.

The plan, released in May, called for a mix of the concrete, like increased security grants to Jewish institutions and better cybersecurity monitoring, and the aspirational — encouraging leaders to speak out against prejudice and institutions to be on guard against antisemitic comments and images.

There aren’t many instances in history when a government mobilized so many resources, at such a high level, to protect its Jewish citizens.

We’ve done nothing to change

But by other measures, we are no better able to prevent what happened in Pittsburgh from happening again.

The shooter’s defenders claimed he struggled with mental illness. Whether or not this is true — and it certainly doesn’t justify his actions — America still fails miserably to treat people whose illness sends them into dark and hateful places.

In five years, Congress has passed no significant legislation that would prevent a man like the Pittsburgh shooter from arming himself to the teeth. And the networks of hate groups that amplified the killer’s conspiracy theories still attract their damaged souls.

But despite all this, we have one major reason for optimism: American Jews have not been bystanders to their fate.

American Jewish self-determination

We’ve organized, lobbied, nurtured allies, formed coalitions and donated to Jewish defense and civil rights groups. We’ve spoken out, often using the very social media channels that have so often been used against us.

Will it work? Will there be a time when antisemitism is eradicated, when we’ll be able to enter a guardless synagogue without taking a quick, nervous glance around us?

I take strange comfort in thinking back on a much earlier antisemitic trauma in American history, the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank — and how very different things are this time.

After Frank was wrongly convicted of murder, dozens of men, whipped up by vicious antisemitic press and politicians, dragged Frank from his prison cell and hung him from a tree. Many of those men boasted of their involvement and posed for pictures beside Frank’s body. Not one was ever arrested, much less prosecuted.

Though we have a long way to go until hate is eradicated, the aftermath of Pittsburgh looked very different. Politicians flocked to Pittsburgh to express their condolences. The country united around American Jews.

And finally, after a protracted legal process that gave ample opportunity for survivors and the loved ones of those killed to be heard, justice was served in Pittsburgh today.

We still have a long way to go. But today, American Jews are not alone. Our place in this country has gotten better. And it can, working together with others, always get better still.

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