Anti-semitism is not dormant in the United States, and last Saturday was a reminder of it. During Shabbat rites on Saturday morning, a gunman named Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life Synagogue and killed eleven people in what is recognized as the deadliest hate crime against Jewish communities in US history. The jarring attack shook the Pittsburgh community and unsettled the rest of the United States. Following the shooting, several international leaders such as Benjamin Netanyahu have spoken out in solidarity with Jewish communities within the United States.
The shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue raises important questions about the rise of hate crimes, domestic terrorism, and regressive values in America. Like so many other perpetrators of similar acts of violence, Robert Bowers was an active member of anti-Semitic hate groups on social media. Though the aggressive nature of the virtual community was perhaps the basis for violence against a Jewish community, anti-Semitic beliefs are diffused across the Internet and American culture in general. For example, many social media pages trivialize elements of Jewish persecution, using events like the Holocaust in humorous contexts. As one Oxford student of Jewish descent stated, “there is a line between satire and hateful political rhetoric, and it can be difficult to tell them apart because hateful rhetoric masks itself as satire.” Despite pro-Israeli policies and opinions in the United States, it has, to some extent, become commonplace to downplay, stereotype, and even ridicule aspects of Jewish identity, culture, and history.
Some of the shock from the shooting may be derived from questioning the connection between mainstream Jew jokes and aggressive hate platforms on social media. In other words, the idea that normalized or “harmless” cultural tendencies could be tied to or result in violence is one that causes a restructuring of identity across the spectrum of American society. To many people and communities that are non-Jewish, hate crimes such as the Tree of Life shooting present an opportunity to re-identify values and beliefs that may support anti-Semitism. To Jewish communities and individuals of Jewish descent, the shooting reaffirms a legacy of anti-Semitism that spans millennia of Western civilization.
Domestic violence carries political magnitude that challenges political leaders and their failure to recognize vulnerability and discrimination. Although Donald Trump and members of the current administration swiftly condemned the Tree of Life shooting, it was not long ago that Gavin McInnes appeared as a speaker at the Metropolitan Republican Club in New York. Gavin McInnes is the founder of the Proud Boys, a far-right movement that supports the use of political violence against minority groups in the US. The Republican party’s tolerance of white supremacy must be addressed as the relationship between Jewish-American communities and Israel strengthens in the wake of violence. Not only does the shooting confront certain cultural identities within America, it provides sharp relief the double-standards that exist within the Republican party as it continues to support Israel, a state that claims to shelter Jewish people from persecution. Now, more than ever, Republicans must publicly renounce their association with domestic white-supremacy and violent alt-right movements in order to protect their international reputation.
As a college student in contemporary America, it is often difficult to engage with events such as the Tree of Life shooting. Although we increasingly live in a culture that exposes discrimination against minority groups, the burden of death and violence reveals the limitations to which dialogue and advocacy can prevent hate crimes. At times, it seems as if recent advancements in social justice are futile in the face of aggravated hatred. The growing momentum behind regressive political campaigns can appear to overwhelm the conversations about inequality that take place in academic and personal settings. However, these conversations are important. Just as political violence may be traced to everyday nuances of anti-Semitism, small conversations about identity and empowerment lead to a cultural counterbalance against invisible hatred. In times of numbing violence and nation-wide shock, we need to feel the strength, pain, and pride of minorities in order to bring about greater unity in our future as Americans and global citizens.
In a time when conversations about prejudice are paramount, continue to make space for individuals to express their memories, emotions, and reactions to acts of violence. If you have experienced discrimination because of your race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, or for any other reason, then keep sharing your narrative. Your story is powerful in affecting change in a culture that systematically obscures and reproduces different forms of hatred and bias.