Pittsburgh shooter had Jews, and multiculturalism, in the crosshairs

Pittsburgh shooter had Jews, and multiculturalism, in the crosshairs
10 min read
30 Oct, 2018
Comment: Bowers' attack on the Tree of Life synagogue wasn't simply anti-semitism put into merciless motion, but a white supremacist's assault on multiculturalism, writes Wilson Dizard.
Trump will visit Pittsburgh on Tuesday afternoon, despite requests that he stay away [Getty]
Mass shooters in America can sometimes seem to leap out of some parallel universe of grey-static destruction, their motivations as comprehensible as an earthquake's.

But that was not the case on Saturday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where Robert Bowers killed 11 worshippers with a semi-automatic rifle, authorities say. He wanted to kill Jews, and specifically Jews who belonged to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which has helped refugees to America for a century. The group has recently lent a hand to Muslim refugees to the United States.

"HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in," Bowers posted hours before the attack to the social media site Gab, a platform where other sites' rules against hate speech don't apply.

On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump will visit Pittsburgh to "pay respects" to the lives lost there. His response to the violence so far has been to condemn the attacks in a scripted fashion, but keep up the invective against migrants that helped bring it about.

His first, unscripted reaction was to suggest the synagogue should have had an armed guard to repel the shooter. His reflex here, to put more guns into the mix, reflects not just a standard Republican talking point, but also a vision of the humanity that is relentlessly grim, Darwinian in its assumptions.

Jim Busis, editor of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, told MSNBC that weapons had no place in American religious life.

"That's not how we want to live in this country. That's not our way," Busis said.

But some people really dig the idea of constantly vigilant, heavily armed country, and dispelling that notion seems beyond the capacity of moral persuasion or statistical analysis. And while they are in the minority, that minority has seized control over all three branches of American government. Magnanimity itself, not just liberal democracy, is in retreat.

The speakers at the event called out white supremacy as a danger to all of their communities, and a reason to show solidarity with each other

Bowers' attack on the Tree of Life wasn't simply anti-semitism put into merciless motion, but a white supremacist's assault on multiculturalism, a regular target of Trump, Fox News and the Republican Party. Trump absolutely owns Bowers' bloodthirsty rage, but he does so through the political equivalent of shell corporations, a scam aided by the White House.

"The only person responsible for carrying out either of these heinous acts were the individuals who carried them out. It's not the President," Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said on Monday, after repeating well worn phrases about how America is a country that believes in religious liberty, and so forth. The media's negative coverage is the real villain, the one responsible for division.

Asked on Fox News on Monday to respond to Barack Obama's accusation of fearmongering, Trump didn't deny it, but said Obama was doing "the opposite." Calmmongering? Couragemongering? Who knows?

The context of these attacks goes deeper than Trump's invective against immigrants, his smears on liberal philanthropist George Soros as a facilitator of migrant invasion, or his press secretary's symphony of duplicity.

The context is whether human psychology can stand modern civilization at all, or if we're doomed to react to the presence of strangers by choosing to self-destruct in a trembling bunker, where fascist fealty to president, skin colour and flag are all we have.

The response of the American Jewish community to the attacks in Pittsburgh on multiculturalism serves as a microcosm for how the rest of world is grappling with the conundrum of modernity. On Sunday night, Muslims, Jews and Christians stood together at a vigil in Washington DC, under an indifferent sprinkling of rain, to condemn the attacks, and Trump, too.

"I think part of what is happening is to force fear and to force suspicion of each other so we become more isolated individually, while being afraid of literally everybody around us, but that's a very difficult place for anyone to be in.

"In moments of tragedy, moments of violence, those are moments for us to step up, because these are the moments that people are looking for 'Who has my back,'" Darakshan Raja, the founder and co-director of DC Muslim Justice - an anti-Islamophobia activist group - told The New Arab.

The speakers at the event called out white supremacy as a danger to all of their communities, and a reason to show solidarity with each other instead of shutting themselves off.

According to Breivik, multiculturalist Jews were the real danger to Europe, not nationalist ones

"It's going to say a lot about our community, whether we continue to open our doors. That solidarity is what's going to bring safety," said Ethan Miller, a member of If Not Now, a Jewish advocacy group that is vocal in its criticism of Israel's military occupation of Palestine.

But one voice - right wing Twitter personality and notorious conspiracy peddler, Lara Loomer - responded to news of Muslims raising tens of thousands of dollars for the Pittsburgh synagogue by condemning the Quran.

"I'll tell you what they need. They need ppl to stop preaching Jew hatred, & there is more Jew hatred in the Quran than in Hitler's Mein Kampf," she tweeted. "When can we stop virtue signaling & actually talk about that? How come nobody wants to talk about it!"

She condemned Soros, too, tweeting at a series of lies at his son, Alexander, after he asked people to sign on to a petition by the Pittsburgh Jewish community telling Trump to condemn white supremacy.

"Your father is a Nazi collaborator," she wrote. "Your father said he has no God, he is not a real Jew, & you have the nerve to say Trump hurts the Jewish community?"

Read more: For a window on the future of America, look to Israel

Is Loomer reflective of the American Jewish community at large? Of course not. The vast majority of American Jews vote Democrat and oppose Trump. But Orthodox voters and wealthy friends of Israel are squarely in the president's camp.

Richard Silverstein, a Seattle-based Jewish journalist who writes about Israeli apartheid, said that those who are close to the president have outsized influence on his decisions, and reflect a left-right partisanship that breaks along loyalty to Trump and Israel.

"Trump has virtually no support in the American Jewish community, except from the Orthodox and the wealthy. That being said, Adelson and other billionaires generally provide Trump with huge financial contributions, which explains why Trump moved the embassy to Jerusalem. Trump's 'deal of the century' is also motivated by such support. Even if it fails he can tell these donors that at least he tried," Silverstein said.

"But Trump's anti-Semitism is fueled in large part by the overwhelming support by Jews of Democrats. That's why he excoriates figures like Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer and most especially, George Soros."

Bowers' attack on a refugee-supporting synagogue has ideological links to previous mass shootings of its ilk. One that comes to mind was Dylann Roof's murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, people who had welcomed the gangly young white supremacist into their prayer group, where he slaughtered them.

It also recalls the murderous nightmare Anders Breivik unleashed on 77 people, most of them leftist teenagers, in Norway in 2011. Gathered for a summer retreat, they never saw it coming. Like the victims in Charleston and Pittsburgh, they were unarmed.

Before the massacre, Breivik wrote a manifesto in which he chastised Adolph Hitler for slaughtering Jews without regard for their politics. Indeed, multiculturalist Jews to Breivik were the real danger to Europe, not nationalist ones.

"So let us fight together with Israel, with our Zionist brothers against all anti-Zionists, against all cultural Marxists/multiculturalists. Conservative Jews were loyal to Europe and should have been rewarded. Instead, he [Hitler] just targeted them all…

The tragedy in Pittsburgh will cast a giant shadow over Trump's relationship with American Jews, and their relationship with Israel

"So, are the current Jews in Europe and US disloyal? The multiculturalist (nation-wrecking) Jews ARE while the conservative Jews ARE NOT. Aprox. 75 percent of European/US Jews support multiculturalism while aprox. 50 percent of Israeli Jews do the same. This shows very clearly that we must embrace the remaining loyal Jews as brothers rather than repeating the mistake of the NSDAP [Nazis]" Breivik wrote.

He prefaces this by saying that Hitler could have defeated the Islamic "occupation" of the Holy Land, and while the deportation of European Jewry would have been controversial, Jews would have ultimately considered him a hero for making common cause with them against Muslims.

This is a terrifying interpretation of history, but what's even more terrifying that under Trump it's becoming closer to reality.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been unreserved in his praise for Trump, whose administration has vilified Muslims. Netanyahu and his political allies are not multiculturalists, but unapologetic nationalists. Neither man sees a problem with a world where rigid borders dictate rights and identity, and Netanyahu has made a deal with the devil to do it. This was Breivik's vision.

But Netanyahu's cynical collusion with a racist American president is obvious to many American Jews.

David Simon, the American journalist who created the popular television show The Wire and chronicled crime, poverty and corruption in Baltimore, had strong words for Naftali Bennett, the Israeli education minister, who is set to visit Pittsburgh.

"Go home. Netanyahu's interventions in US politics aided in the election of Donald Trump and his raw and relentless validation of white nationalism and fascism. The American Jewish community is now bleeding at the hands of the Israeli prime minister. And many of us know it," he said.

The tragedy in Pittsburgh will cast a giant shadow over Trump's relationship with American Jews, and their relationship with Israel. The deal Netanyahu made with the devil was never one that could last. Making friends with the enemies of your enemies eventually means you end up without any true friends. But that's the kind of world nationalism assumes and multiculturalism rejects.

The crisis for multiculturalism and modernity is an existential one, and it goes beyond religion and politics to the core of who we are as humans. It seems as though what we call politics isn't a clash of ideas but rather a clash of personalities. Some irreducible number of people will always be hostile to strangers, and more ready to fear their neighbour than love them.

The modern world presents us with an avalanche of strangers everyday, and the internet is a mile high tsunami of them. Politics seems to be a proxy for how we handle this psychologically, and people who are ruthlessly anti-stranger are suddenly ascendant.

Digital communication is distorting reality by presenting distant and impossible dangers to brains, as near and immediate, and driving more people to fear each other who wouldn't have before. Behind the scenes of consciousness, our neurons process far off horrors we see on our smartphones as a greater risk than much more fatally mundane habits, such as looking at our smartphones while driving.

It's not strangers we should worry about; it's ourselves. America is gawking at an IS video while speeding down a busy highway.

It's not strangers we should worry about; it's ourselves. America is gawking at an IS video while speeding down a busy highway

There is only so much journalists can do to explain what's happening, or help make people safer. We can interpret the cultural rifts and political divisions, but the really bleak conclusion is that the first draft of history doesn't have the power to arrest society's decline and the rising tide of racist cruelty.

There were plenty of newspapers in the United States during the first Civil War, and now there are plenty of earnest outlets during our second, cyber conflagration, a "hybrid war" where hate and fear flow through the electromagnetic ether and erupt into the "real world" as murder.

Just as when a mass shooting happens, although leaving so many unanswerables, the only certainty is that some of us won't make it out of these years alive.

Wilson Dizard is a reporter and photojournalist covering politics, media and culture. He enjoys bicycling. 

Follow him on Twitter: @willdizard

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.