Pittsburgh Was Never anti-Semitic. Trump and the Internet Changed That

I spent nearly a decade monitoring anti-Semitism in Western Pennsylvania, and if I were in Pittsburgh Tuesday I would only attend the president’s visit with a protest sign in my hand

Cliff Savren
Cliff Savren
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People pausing in front of at a memorial for victims of the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded 6 at the Tree Of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 29, 2018.
People pausing in front of at a memorial for victims of the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded 6 at the Tree Of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 29, 2018.Credit: AFP
Cliff Savren
Cliff Savren

The news of Saturday’s killing of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh hit me particularly hard. Before making aliyah to Israel in 1999, for nearly a decade I was regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for the region that included Pittsburgh.

I was in Pittsburgh on a regular basis, and always welcomed the opportunity. The city is a great mix of urban sophistication and Western Pennsylvania folksiness and charm. It also has a wonderful Jewish community that is in the heart of Pittsburgh itself – in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where the Tree of Life synagogue is located – rather than in the suburbs.

As part of my job, I was responsible for monitoring anti-Semitic and racist extremist activity in the region, which included all of Western Pennsylvania. I never considered Pittsburgh to be a particularly problematic area. There was a rally in 1997 in downtown Pittsburgh by about 50 members of the Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, organized by the group’s grand dragon, who lived over an hour outside the city. There were other pockets of extremism, but I never got the impression that they posed an imminent threat.

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This was before the era of the internet, when anti-Semitic extremist groups were dependent to a large extent on leafleting and small meetings to spread their views. In any event, it would be a mistake to try to gauge the level of anti-Semitic sentiment in a region by the prevalence of organized extremist activity, which remains on the fringes in the United States for the most part.

At this point, the FBI says the alleged perpetrator of the massacre, Pittsburgh resident Robert Bowers, was acting alone. Because he survived the exchange of gunfire with police, we are likely to know more about his warped thinking as his criminal case unfolds. This raises the suggestion that he perpetrated the killings due to the incitement of President Donald Trump’s own extremism.

I think it would be a mistake to conflate the two – not because it is out of the question, but because it doesn’t advance the discussion to make such accusations until we know what actually fed Bowers’ anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant ideology. From his social media posts, ironically, he seems to take exception to Trump’s views for not being sufficiently extreme.

Trump does set the tone in the United States, however, and it is a malevolent and antidemocratic one. His anti-immigrant rabble-rousing is outrageous and should be addressed on its own merits, but it does nothing to counter Trump to speculate about the extent of his influence on the shooter.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh must have faced a tremendous dilemma in deciding how to handle Trump’s visit to Pittsburgh on Tuesday, in a purported show of support for the community. In a statement quoted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper, the federation said: “There are going to be people in the Pittsburgh Jewish community who are very angry Trump is visiting, and there are going to be people who are very happy Trump is visiting.

Members and supporters of the Jewish community attending a candlelight vigil in remembrance of those who died at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, in front of the White House, October 27, 2018Credit: AFP

“We are in the unusual position of representing all of Jewish Pittsburgh,” it acknowledged.

I think that’s the right stance for the federation to take, but that doesn’t mean other leaders in the Jewish community should give Trump a free pass. He is the most divisive and irresponsible president in modern U.S. history, and should not be able to show up in Pittsburgh in the guise of national healer and conciliator. Indeed, if I lived in Pittsburgh, I would only show up for his visit if I did so with a protest sign.

I have confidence in the ability of the organized Jewish community in Pittsburgh to do whatever is possible to promote the healing process there. But there is another task at hand that the community also has leverage in addressing: Preventing the next massacre at the hands of a crazed gunman somewhere else.

The American public has been through this drill far too often since Trump took office. After every mass killing, he vows to do everything possible to help the victims’ families, but does little to protect potential future victims.

Organized Jewish communities, particularly Jewish community federations, must remain nonpartisan if they are to continue to represent the entire Jewish population of their areas. But if there is some way for Pittsburgh’s Jewish community to take the lead on gun control, an issue on which it sadly now has special credibility, that would at least leave a positive legacy.

There is also a distinction between institutional nonpartisanship – meaning not identifying as an institution with a specific political party – and a nonpolitical stance. Jewish community institutions get involved in political issues all the time – advocating on domestic issues and on behalf of Israel.

The Pittsburgh Jewish community, either institutionally or through individual leaders, would have the nation’s attention on the gun control issue. And there is no more fitting a way of honoring the memory of the 11 people who were gunned down on Saturday than to advance that effort.

Cliff Savren was regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky during the 1990s, and is a member of the editorial staff at Haaretz English edition.

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