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'We'll survive this, too': The Tree of Life massacre and the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the U.S.

As thousands grieved for the 11 people killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the tragedy reawakened concerns in the Jewish community about the return of violent anti-Semitism in the U.S.

Pittsburgh 'was always a nice little small town. It’s not a small town anymore'

Mourners grieve at an impromptu memorial at the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday's shooting in Pittsburgh. The tragedy has reawakened dormant-but-never-forgotten concerns in the Jewish community. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

They were Jewish worshippers killed on Saturday by a gunman who stormed the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighbourhood. Many of them lived in the largely Jewish enclave where Halloween trick-or-treaters visit homes with Hebrew scrolls affixed to doorposts in decorative cases.

Their names were:

  • Joyce Fienberg, 75
  • Richard Gottfried, 65
  • Rose Mallinger, 97
  • Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
  • Cecil Rosenthal, 59
  • David Rosenthal, 54 
  • Bernice Simon, 84
  • Sylvan Simon, 87
  • Daniel Stein, 71
  • Melvin Wax, 88
  • Irving Younger, 69

And as thousands grieved the 11 people killed at a memorial on Sunday, the tragedy has reawakened dormant-but-never-forgotten concerns in the Jewish community: the prospect of a violent anti-Semitism taking hold again in the U.S.

"What happened yesterday will not break us," Rabbi Jonathan Perlman told the memorial audience on Sunday, his voice trembling as he vowed to continue to "sing and worship" as always.

'It's not a small town anymore'

Scattered sniffles from a crowd of some 2,500 attendees filled the hall. 

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha Congregation hugs Rabbi Cheryl Klein of Dor Hadash Congregation on the stage in Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall during a community gathering held in the aftermath of the shooting. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

Marlene Haus, who was in attendance, knew all 11 of those slain. The 80-year-old used to pray along with them on Saturdays, often taking a seat beside Joyce Fienberg, a 75-year-old widow originally from Toronto who was confirmed among those killed.

Haus was consumed by grief for her friends — and for her city.

"I don't know what to say. It's so terrible," she said. "Our nice little city of Pittsburgh. It was always a nice little small town. It's not a small town anymore." 

'You wouldn't think this would be possible,' Trump says

The Squirrel Hill neighbourhood must now grapple with becoming the latest American location to be forever linked to horrific gun violence, and the possibility of a new, deadly era of anti-Semitism that threatens to creep into the country.

The horrors of anti-Semitism are very real today for Kris Kepler, a Tree of Life congregant who missed a rare Sabbath morning because he felt ill. 

Marlene Haus, left, and Kris Kepler, part of the congregation at Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha in Pittsburgh, ride a city bus towards a memorial service for victims of Saturday's shooting. The shooting killed 11 people and wounded 6 others. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

His decision to stay at home likely saved his life, though he knew many of the 11 people slain at the synagogue. 

On a bus ride to Sunday's memorial, Kepler resisted trying to get political, but said "some of the leaders" are "giving more licence" to extremists.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has a daughter and son-in-law who are Jewish, seemed to be trying to wrap his head around how the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history happened in 2018 during his presidency. "You wouldn't think this would be possible in this day and age," he said.

Dog-whistle terms

Trump has received criticism for endorsing far-right language and deploying dog-whistle terms adopted by extremist websites — reusing disparaging terms like "globalist," well-known to be a coded word for "Jew." 

The suspect, 46-year-old Rob Bowers, had declared he wanted "all Jews to die" during his 20-minute rampage, a police affidavit says.

Two people support each other in front of flowers at a makeshift memorial at the synagogue. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

Although he was critical of Trump for himself being a "globalist," Bowers also pushed an online conspiracy that Jews were funding the migrant caravan that is one of Trump's favourite talking points.

Outside the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh, rain began to fall as Michael Werner embraced family friends waiting to enter Sunday's vigil for the victims. His eyes were still red and swollen from weeping.

'He thought he was doing the right thing'

"As Jewish people, we've always lived with this threat of anti-Semitism," he said. "And right now in our country, it seems those flames are being fanned on such a level that it's almost acceptable to voice these anti-Semitic opinions."

He knows elected officials didn't place the AR-15 into Bowers's hands that day, he said.

Michael Werner embraces a family friend in front of the entrance to the Sailors and Soldiers Memorial Hall. Werner attended synagogue on Sunday, where he found a police officer weeping in his patrol vehicle. He hugged the officer, who said he was part of the SWAT team that responded to Saturday's shooting. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"But they helped create an environment where he felt comfortable enough to pick it up, and he thought he was doing the right thing."

A measurable resurgence in anti-Semitism began when hateful rhetoric moved from the margins to the mainstream, Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told NBC 's Meet The Press on Sunday. Even "political candidates and people in public life now literally are repeating the rhetoric of white supremacists."

Anti-Semitic attack numbers up

Republican Iowa congressman Steve King, for example, endorsed Toronto mayoral candidate and "white genocide" conspiracy theorist Faith Goldy for mayor.

The stats on anti-Semitism in the U.S. show a resurgence. Last year, the Anti-Defamation League recorded a 57 per cent spike in anti-Semitic attacks, the largest surge the group has ever tracked. The ADL linked the uptick to inflammatory political rhetoric.

Over a slice of kosher pizza in a Squirrel Hill vegetarian restaurant, Aaron Herman, who teaches high-school students Judaism studies, said he feels that anti-Semitism has always seethed beneath the surface.

A woman reacts during the memorial service at the Sailors and Soldiers Memorial Hall . (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

"Although the world more broadly understands the evils of anti-Semitism in a way it didn't during the Second World War," he said, that hatred can still manifest itself in deadly ways.

"The Jewish community still lives under the shadow of the Holocaust," he said. "It's a mixed bag of emotions. On the one hand, this kind of anti-Semitic violence is completely unexpected; on the other, this really forms part of the Jewish narrative."

The reality of a hatred based on someone's identity or the way they pray isn't much on his students' minds, Herman said. He plans to speak with his students about the attack on Monday. He isn't sure yet what to tell them.

'We'll survive this, too'

In the meantime, Haus, who lost 11 friends she considered "pillars" of the synagogue, still has hope. The very people the gunman killed were the kinds of people who might have reached out to help him as a troubled soul, she said. And there are more people like them.

"If he only knew," she said. "The people he killed would have done anything for him."

Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh are spoiled with some of the finest inhabitants, Jewish or otherwise, Haus said, and the shooting and the outpouring of inter-faith support from the city has only strengthened her faith.

"The Jewish people have survived for more than 5,000 years. We'll survive this, too."

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong