Thousands of U.S. Jews Deliver Defiant Message at Pittsburgh Protest

Demonstrators condemn president for his policies, rhetoric and decision to visit the Tree of Life synagogue while funerals are still taking place

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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White House senior advisers Jared Kushner, left, and his wife Ivanka Trump standing with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at a makeshift memorial to the 11 victims outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 30, 2018.
White House senior advisers Jared Kushner, left, and his wife Ivanka standing with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 30, 2018. Credit: \ KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

PITTSBURGH - On Tuesday evening in Pittsburgh, only a single block separated two parts of the American-Jewish community that seem to have less in common with every passing day.

At the Tree of Life synagogue – the site of Saturday’s anti-Semitic terror attack, where 11 people were killed by an anti-immigrant shooter – a small group of Jewish advisers and supporters surrounded President Donald Trump. Among those accompanying the president on his condolence visit were his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; his daughter Ivanka, who converted to Judaism in 2009; and Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, who grew up in an American-Jewish family and still has a distinct American identity.

A block north of the synagogue, thousands of Pittsburgh residents – many of them Jewish – demonstrated against Trump’s visit, which was initiated by a group of local Jewish activists. The demonstrators sang Jewish prayers as they marched through the streets of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, separated from Trump by a heavy police presence.

One after another, the main speakers at the demonstration discussed their Jewish backgrounds before turning to criticize Trump for his policies, his rhetoric and his decision to visit Pittsburgh at a time when the Jewish community was still burying its dead.

On the surface, it looked like all that was separating the small group with Trump inside the synagogue from the massive crowd outside were a few buildings and hundreds of police and Secret Service officers. But in the aftermath of the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, the two sides seem to be moving even further apart, their differences irreconcilable – at least in the age of Trump.

Demonstrators protesting against President Donald Trump's visit to Pittsburgh, October 30, 2018. The "Hate is not welcome in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood" is a reference to TV entertainer Fred Rogers. Credit: Amir Tibon

For Trump’s supporters and defenders within the Jewish community, he is first and foremost a supporter of Israel – and specifically of its current government. He is the president who moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, two decisions that received unprecedented praise from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Dermer.

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For the vast majority of American Jews, though, he is the leader of a nationalist movement in American politics, aligned with some of the most extreme Christian elements in U.S. society. Jews who view Trump this way – as a threat to everything they cherish in American life – were heavily represented at Tuesday’s demonstration.

Jonathan, a resident of Squirrel Hill who joined the demonstration with his kids and his elderly mother, told Haaretz, “We need to show this president that love is more powerful than hate, and hateful words have an impact. His conduct is unacceptable.”

A woman marching a row behind him added that Trump “shouldn’t have come here today. We don’t want him here. He should have done this after the funerals, like the mayor of Pittsburgh asked him to do.”

Trump announced his intention to visit Pittsburgh earlier this week and the plan encountered resistance in the city, including among the Jewish community. The city’s mayor, Bill Peduto, said Trump should have discussed the visit with the families who were burying their loved ones, and perhaps waited until after the funerals.

A large demonstration led by Jewish activists in Pittsburgh against President Donald Trump's visit, blocks from Tree of Life synagogue, October 30, 2018.Credit: Amir Tibon

Lynnette Lederman, a past leader of the Tree of Life congregation, made clear that Trump wasn’t wanted in Pittsburgh, explaining that he represented the opposite of the city’s values.

Tuesday’s demonstration was born out of an open letter by 11 progressive Jewish activists criticizing Trump for failing to denounce far-right groups and telling him he was “not welcome” in the city while he persisted with his current policies. The letter became an online petition that was signed by over 80,000 people. Following that success, the activists decided to organize a demonstration during the president’s visit.

“We are amazed and thankful that so many came out,” said Joshua Friedman, one of the activists from Bend the Arc, the group that wrote the letter. He said he was surprised by the thousands of participants. “It shows there are many people, in the Jewish community and other communities, that aren’t afraid to speak up. This is a good thing for everyone to see,” he said.

This conversation took place on the sidelines of the demonstration as news outlets began reporting details of Trump’s visit to the synagogue. “Well, we didn’t exactly welcome him to the city, did we?” Friedman asked, pointing to the large crowd. “Or maybe we actually did. But this isn’t a welcome to him. This is about us having a moment to comfort and support each other, and that we are stronger than the hate Trump is spreading.”

Lisa Tamres, who lives two blocks from the synagogue, told Haaretz she “heard the gunshots” on Saturday from her home. “I’m very upset at our supposed president,” she said. “I’m very unhappy that he came here. I wanted to show solidarity in light of his visit. He is not wanted here. His visit is a publicity stunt.”

Tamres described Pittsburgh as “the biggest small town you’ll ever see,” stressing that “everyone knows everyone in this city. We are standing together. His visit is only causing a distraction in the middle of our healing process.”

That “small town” feeling was evident when the demonstrators marched around the block and passed a local police station that was the first to respond to Saturday’s shooting. As the first marchers approached the station, they began clapping their hands and shouting “Thank you” to the officers who stood outside. Thousands of others joined in, leading some of the officers to shed tears.

“You won’t see this kind of thing in demonstrations in most cities,” said one officer, who asked not to be identified because he was speaking without official authorization. “This, to me, is the most Pittsburgh thing in the world.”

Yet the gratitude bestowed on the local police station was in complete contrast to the anti-Trump signs in the crowd. “Trump fouls our country,” said one; “Go away Trump” proclaimed another. One young marcher carried a homemade sign with the words “Fuck off, Nazi president.”

Jews comprised a large percentage of the crowd, but there were also many non-Jews demonstrating. Gina, a Chinese-American student at the University of Pittsburgh, told Haaretz this was the first time in her life she had joined a demonstration. “There is always a sense of complacency among different communities, who think that whatever happens to others won’t happen to them,” she said. “We don’t stand up until something is ‘our problem.’ But I think whatever affects one community here in Pittsburgh should be everybody’s problem.”

Demonstrators protesting against President Donald Trump's visit to Pittsburgh, October 30, 2018. "We don’t want him here," said one protester.Credit: Amir Tibon

The sights and sounds of the demonstration seemed to take place in a different world to the scene at the synagogue, where Trump was also accompanied by Rabbi Jeffrey Myers from the Tree of Life synagogue. He was one of the only Jewish community leaders in Pittsburgh to openly say he was fine with the visit. “He’s the president,” Myers explained. “The president of the United States is always welcome.”

The historical building that houses the Tree of Life congregation is also home to the Reconstructionist Dor Hadash, which is considered more progressive. The president-elect of that congregation, Donna Coufal, admitted to the New York Times that she was sad to oppose Trump’s visit: “I think if he was capable of feeling empathy or understanding how much we welcome strangers into our community, he would be welcome here,” she said.

Trump spent three hours in Pittsburgh before going back to Washington. Over the next six days, his attention will shift to the upcoming midterm elections. The demonstrators in Pittsburgh will do likewise.

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