by Ella Belvin and Gabriella Couloubaritsis
October 27, 2018 was a Saturday, the holiest Jewish day of the week, Shabbat. That morning, Robert Bowers entered Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue with an assault rifle and three handguns. After shouting “All Jews must die,” Bowers proceeded to kill eleven men and women and injure six others in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. However, anti-Semitism is unfortunately not just isolated to the Pittsburgh shooting: on K-12 school campuses, anti-Semitic acts jumped an alarming 94% this past year.
Ella Belvin (11) is a guest writer for Tatler. She's actively involved in BBYO and on the leadership team for Belles Melodies at St. Mary's.
We would like to pay our deepest condolences to the innocent victims and families affected in Pittsburgh. We are saddened that this unfortunate and tragic event sparked the need for this article. However, we believe it is our duty as American citizens to reveal the truth, to the best ability that two young adults in the midst of this confusing 2018 climate can, about anti-Semitism in our nation and world today. We understand that a complex issue such as anti-Semitism is layered with centuries of economic, political and social factors that one article cannot fully address. Therefore, we encourage any further discussion in the comments section below.
This October, the United States faced a string of tension-filled, alienating and life-changing events. From the heated Kavanaugh hearings to Hurricane Michael’s devastation to the recent mail bombing attempts, our emotions — namely, fear and anger — have clouded not only the nation’s news stream but also individuals’ daily interactions with family and friends. Today, the events we Americans have blasted across our screens are so politically polarizing that our private conversations, between classmates or family friends, have likewise become increasingly tense. Whether on the news or in daily conversations, the invisible rulebook of society has drawn a fine line between “us” and “them” — and not just along the conventional political lines. In this increasingly tense environment, a select few have committed violent acts in the name of spite and anger against those seen as “different” or “other.” Robert Bowers, Pittsburgh’s anti-Semitic shooter, committed one of these premeditated acts of hatred.
On the morning of October 27, 2018, Robert Bowers entered Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue with an assault rifle and three handguns. His shout “all Jews must die” interrupted not only the most holiest day of the Jewish week, Shabbat, but also interrupted a bris ceremony. Instead of the Pittsburgh Jewish community initiating this new child into the world, Pittsburgh and the rest of the nation faced the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. Eleven men and women lost their lives and six remain injured. We encourage you to read each victim’s biography here.
Immediately, Americans condemned this hate crime and attack on freedom of religion. The American Jewish community received a global outpouring of sympathy. However, as the facts rolled onto various news sites and stations, political commentators and social media users filled their waiting periods by asking the question: what does the Pittsburgh shooting politically mean for the future? Support and sympathy for the Jewish community was headlined, side by side, with controversial subjects such as gun and immigration reform. Speakers debated Trump’s handling of the attack and its implications for the upcoming midterms.
With so much talk about the future, Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto expressed a resounding message about the present: Peduto asked the nation to give Pittsburgh and its Jewish community a week to grieve. He said, “Our focus as a city will be on the families and the outreach they’ll need this week and the support that they’ll need to get through it ...” in one CNN article. During an interview with NPR, Peduto further expressed “there is an underlying tone around this world [that] enough is enough. And this level of hatred has to end.”
This sadness is also reflected in the broader American and global Jewish community. Cities throughout the country held funeral-like memorial services for the victims and their families. In Memphis, both the local Jewish community and those from a variety of congregations participated in a Solidarity Gathering and Vigil. Jewish leaders, such as Rabbi Micah Greenstein, emphasized the importance of the interfaith community gathering. In a Commercial Appeal Viewpoint, Greenstein stated, “Turat rabim, chatzee n’chama,” or “Pain shared is half a comfort.”
Several of us came to school the following Monday wearing blue, showing our support and raising awareness for the Jewish community. In a further show of unity, on Friday, Nov. 2, Minority Students’ Association’s Ella Belvin (11) and Emma Harkavy (12) hosted a Fireside Chat. In this forum, both middle school and high school attendees discussed what anti-Semitism looks like in 2018 and how they can be allies to the Jewish community. Students discussed how this incident exemplifies anti-Semitism as a present phenomenon — not something that our generation reads in the Holocaust section of our history textbooks.
Recent increases in anti-Semitic hate crimes are jarring. However, many news sites did not acknowledge the problem until the Pittsburgh incident occurred. While Jews account for 2% of the U.S. population, 54.4% of all religious hate crimes — including bomb threats, assaults, vandalism and anti-Semitic posters and literature found on college campuses — are committed against the Jewish people (FBI 2015 Crime Report). Last year, the Anti-Defamation League logged a 57% rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States compared to the previous year. Equally worrying, the ADL also found that K-12 schools surpassed public areas as the locations with the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents (ADL 2017 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents). In fact, K-12 anti-Semitic acts jumped an alarming 94% this past year. The chief executive of the ADL, Jonathan A. Greenblatt, contributed these sharp increases to the increasingly divisive state of American politics, the invigoration of extremists and the effects of social media.
In light of these sharp increases, what does this mean for U.S. citizens? What does it mean for our St. Mary’s community? How can we find a “higher standard” within ourselves and preach and practice nonviolence? Well, we encourage you to follow the example of Ari Mahler. As a Jewish nurse, he, along with two other Jewish medical personnel, treated the anti-Semitic shooter. In a spotlight in The Guardian, Mahler described the event, saying that the gunman “thanked me for saving him, for showing him kindness, and for treating him the same way I treat every other patient. I’m sure he had no idea I was Jewish. Why thank a Jewish nurse, when 15 minutes beforehand, you’d shoot me in the head with no remorse? I didn’t say a word to him about my religion.” However, Mahler’s silence is neither an act of self-defense nor a reflex of the Hippocratic Oath. In withholding his faith background and treating the patient as he would a friend, Mahler acted as a true person of faith. Mahler wisely concluded that “… I did my job, a job which requires compassion and empathy over everything … and, if my actions mean anything, love means everything.”
In response to the Pittsburgh shooting, many people quickly directed their energy, compassion and sympathy to the Jewish community. That wave of support, however timely, was ultimately only temporary. Unfortunately, too many tragedies have been occurring for society to remain laser-focused on one particular issue. However, while there are many social issues in need of being addressed, we encourage you to keep today’s problem of anti-Semitism on your mind. We as Americans must be cautious not to lessen the support to any one group in order to support another. We all must work together to make this world safe for everyone at all times.
How you can help the victims of Pittsburgh: Ella Belvin is collecting letters to send to Pittsburgh. Please contact her at her email, firstname.lastname@example.org, for more details.