When I heard about the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue, the first thought that ran through my mind was, “I wonder if I know the attacker.”
Growing up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, I was often the only Jew that any of my classmates had met. I began to receive death threats when I was ten years old. One day by the bus stop, a boy shouted at me, “When I grow up, I’m going to get a machine gun and come shoot you and the rest of your family and finish what Hitler began.” He was in second grade. I didn’t tell anyone about it; I was embarrassed to feel frightened by a child two years younger.
On Saturday, as I scrolled through dozens of texts asking if I was safe and pieced together what had happened, I was stunned, but not surprised. I have been expecting this for most of my life.
As the next 48 hours unraveled my friends, family and I found ourselves shifting between emotional states rapidly and without warning: Shock, numbness, anger, fear, deep grief and sadness. I found myself afraid to leave the house. And then embarrassed about my fear — I wasn’t at Tree of Life. I was physically unharmed. But the actions of the shooter this Shabbat had brought back the state of consistent fear and isolation I had felt growing up as one of the few Jews in small town America.
Anti-Semitism is part of the culture of southwestern Pennsylvania. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s most recent report, Pennsylvania is home to 36 hate groups, making it the eighth most “hate-full” state in the country.
Anti-Semitism is also part of American culture at large. As the 2016 presidential campaign raged and Trump’s rhetoric emboldened white nationalists, over 800 journalists received 19,000 anti-Semitic messages on Twitter. Since Trump took office, anti-Semitic incidents in the United States have increased 57% from 2016, the highest increase on record since incidents were first recorded in 1979.
These statistics can normalize anti-Semitism as a naturally occurring phenomenon, a wellspring of hatred with ebbs and flows. But in fact, anti-Semitism is woven into white supremacy.
Today, Jews were targeted because of our support for refugees. The shooter, a white nationalist, made posts blaming Jews for “letting immigrants into the United States,” specifically targeting the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Tree of Life, the synagogue where eleven congregants were murdered, was targeted in particular because they were hosting a refugee Shabbat.
It’s not that long ago that Jews were refugees to America. The policies of 1939 that turned away a ship of 900 German Jews still reverberate today in restrictions on refugees and on immigration. Despite claims of “this is not who we are,” my country has a long history of anti-Semitism, and these views are becoming emboldened and inflamed by Trump’s far-right administration.
We were also targeted because for Ashkenazi Jews, our whiteness masks our otherness. That ambiguity is a threat to white supremacy — the belief that white Europeans are racially superior to all other peoples. Ashkenazi Jews are particularly threatening because our existence blurs the line between “white European” and “Orientalized other.” The belief system of white nationalists depends upon the existence of a Jewish conspiracy to explain the progress made by African Americans, LGBTQ+ and women’s movements in the United States. If whites are the superior race, then their defeat requires a double agent, some sort of white-appearing blood traitor. Enter the European Jew. Of course, this narrative entirely erases the existence of Jews of color and the very different experiences of anti-Semitism and coexistence that Jews across the global Diaspora have experienced.
The attack we witnessed this Shabbat is part of a larger pattern of violence targeting a rotating cast of marginalized groups. On Wednesday in Kentucky, we witnessed a racist shooting of two black strangers shopping at a Kroger’s.
My experience facing anti-Semitism as a young person pushed me to build safety and partnership with others who were under attack. It has led me to work in solidarity with the most vulnerable people in my society. And it has led me to oppose the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestine, and the violent oppression of Palestinian people.
Though my activism is rooted in my Jewish identity and experience, I have routinely been accused of anti-Semitism by those who seek to stifle dissent. Pittsburgh will soon be visited by Trump and was already visited by Naftali Bennett, an Israeli politician whose party has openly advocated for ethnic cleansing, described African migrants as “infiltrators” and allegedy bragged about killing Arabs. These are the same types of policies and rhetoric espoused by Trump, and the same types of policies and rhetoric that have unleashed violence against my community today.
To Trump and Bennett: You will not protect us. You will not use us for your political gain. You are not welcome here. Pittsburgh is a city where we value kindness, where we strive to treat each other as we would like to be treated.
In the end, I didn’t know the attacker. But as a Pittsburgh native, I am deeply familiar with the ideology behind it.
In the days ahead some leaders will use this tragedy as a way to bolster support for increasing military control here and in Israel/Palestine. I hope that you will join me in making the opposite choice — in seeing that our true enemy is white supremacy, and the only way to resist white supremacy is to join our liberation to those of all the other “others” — our refugee, immigrant, Muslim, black, asylum-seeking, LGBTQ+ and disabled neighbors.
If we choose this path, not only can we survive, but we can emerge more powerful and vibrant than ever before. We will take care of each other as a form of resistance. The pain from this Shabbat will be channeled into our fight. Those who attack us will regret becoming the catalyst for our liberation.