Jewish Group That Enraged Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooter: 'Lots of anti-Semites Out There'

In interview with Haaretz, VP at HIAS says no previous warning about suspect in Pittsburgh synagogue massacre

A candle burns as members and supporters of the Jewish community come together for a candlelight vigil in remembrance of victims of a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, in front of the White House on October 27, 2018.
ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP

Based on his social media posts, the suspect behind Saturday morning’s massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh was especially fixated on HIAS, once known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

“HIAS likes to bring invaders in who screw our people,” he wrote on the social media site Gab. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

In another post on the same social media site, he referred to an event organized by HIAS last Saturday that was meant to welcome refugees at Jewish congregations around the United States. “Why hello there, HIAS!” he wrote. “You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the list of friends you have provided.” The post included a link to “National Refugee Shabbat” event that included participating synagogues, among them the Reconstructionist congregation that uses the building where Saturday morning’s shooting took place.

HIAS is one of nine agencies in the United States that helps resettle refugees and the only one among them that is Jewish. 

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Responding to what the Anti-Defamation League described as “likely the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States,” a senior HIAS executive told Haaretz she felt that “our work is more critical now than it ever was.”

In a telephone interview, Melanie Nezer, senior vice president for public affairs at HIAS, said: “We’ll get through this moment in history, but there’s no denying that this is a devastating moment. But I don’t think it lessens our resolve. If anything, it makes us feel more strongly that we need to stand up for what’s right.”

According to Nezer, HIAS had not been aware that it had been targeted by the suspect, identified as 46-year-old Robert Bowers. “We do monitor social media, but we didn’t have any knowledge about him,” she said.

As far as she knew, she added, HIAS had never received any threats from right-wing, anti-immigrant groups. “I know there are people who have commented about our work negatively on social media,” she said. “There are lots of anti-Semites out there, as we’ve tragically seen today, who don’t view the United States as a place that should be welcoming refugees and immigrants, but there have been no direct threats.”

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Nezer said that staff members at HIAS were shocked by the event and trying to come to terms with what had happened.  “We’re right now processing our shock, devastation and sadness for loss of life, particularly because this happened in a synagogue, and as a Jewish organization, this is personal to us,” she said.

The original mission of HIAS, which was founded in 1881, was to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. After World War II, the organization was instrumental in resettling 150,000 Holocaust survivors. In recent decades, HIAS has focused its efforts on extending assistance to non-Jewish refugees.

The organization has a full-time staff of about 60 employees working out of its main offices in New York and Washington D.C. and thousands of volunteers around the country, most of them Jewish.

According to Nezer, in the past two years, since Donald Trump was elected president, HIAS has helped resettle 3,900 refugees in the United States. In Pittsburgh, with the help of the Jewish Family and Community Services Agency, it helped resettle 169 refugees. This is a significant drop, she noted, from previous years.

Active in countries around the world, HIAS runs a special program through its Israel office that trains Israeli lawyers and law students to represent asylum seekers on a pro bono basis. To date, there are more than 120 volunteers in the program.

Robert Bowers, a 46-year-old far-right nationalist, was arrested under suspicion of carrying out the attack on the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday. According to local media outlets, Bowers entered the synagogue and yelled, "All Jews must die."

HIAS was not the only national Jewish organization targeted by the murder suspect. His social media posts reveal that the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors anti-Semitism in the United States, was also on the firing line. According to a tweet posted by Oren Segal, director of the organization’s Center on Extremism, the ADL was mentioned in two of the suspects posts on the social media site Gab(one was a repost and the other a comment).

“Modern white supremacy is centered on the notion that whites must fight against growing numbers of non-whites, who are in turn controlled and manipulated by the Jews,” wrote Segal in a tweet reposting one of the references.