Commentary: What’s different about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

On Saturday, the United States awoke to the horrifying news of a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh during Sabbath services. Robert Bowers, armed with an assault rifle and three handguns, charged into the sanctuary of the Tree of Life temple, yelling “all Jews must die” before spraying bullets indiscriminately on the worshipers. Killing 11 and wounding six others, it is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jewish people in the history of the United States.

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Debates are already raging about gun control, the death penalty, and security at houses of worship. But this tragedy, while bearing similarities to other recent mass shootings, is also very different. Coming on the heels of a record-breaking increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, it represents a continued escalation in violence against Jews. Emerging from a pattern of tolerated hate speech, it serves as a reminder that Americans must address the increasingly permissive environment that trivializes anti-Semitism in the United States.

Shortly after the shooting, we learned that the murderer was active on Gab, a social network that advertises its protection of free speech above all else. In recent weeks, he posted comments such as “jews are the children of satan” and "there is no #MAGA as long as there is a kike infestation.” He called one member “a deceptive little oven dodger” for debunking a rumor that trucks marked with the Star of David were bringing migrants to the United States. Unsurprisingly, this did not appear to violate the platform’s community guidelines, which reserve the right to police explicit calls for violence but make no specific mention of hate speech. Though Bowers ultimately wrote “screw your optics, I’m going in” just minutes before the shooting, it was too late. Only after the attack did Gab close the account and refer it to the FBI. (Gab was offline Monday, posting a message that it was “under attack” and inaccessible while it transitioned to a new hosting provider.)

Some may find a measure of comfort knowing that such disgusting speech is at least relegated to a small forum for bigots to blow off steam. But the problem is in fact significantly greater. This isn’t just the stuff of fringe, extremist websites. According to an extensive study by the Anti-Defamation League, approximately three million users posted a total of at least 4.2 million English-language anti-Semitic items to Twitter between January 29, 2017 and January 28, 2018. Three MILLION, spewing hatred specifically directed at Jews. In at least one prominent case, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan blamed society’s moral decadence on the “Satanic Jew and the synagogue of Satan” and later quipped “I’m not an anti-Semite. I’m anti-Termite.” While Twitter removed his blue verification badge after the first tweet, they apparently did not find the second in violation of any existing policy. Following an uproar, Twitter said in a statement to BuzzFeed that it would not suspend Farrakhan or remove the offending tweets because they did not violate Twitter policies in place at the time.

Bigotry is contagious, and social media companies are failing in their obligation to curtail it.

Anti-Jewish hate speech has also spilled out beyond the internet. An avowed Nazi who told Politico he was running to fight a “two-party, Jew-party, queer-party” system will be on the ticket for an Illinois congressional seat this November. One candidate for state office in North Carolina wrote on his campaign website that Jews were the descendants of Satan and that God “is a racist and white supremacist.” A candidate for the Missouri House of Representatives said “Hitler was right” during a radio talk show interview. A councilman in Washington D.C. this March apologized for a comment accusing the Rothschilds, a prominent Jewish family, of being behind climate change.

Additionally, though more nuanced, plainly anti-Semitic rhetoric is often disguised as criticism of Israel. Congresswoman Betty McCollum has repeatedly accused the Israeli military of mistreating and abusing Palestinian children. Linda Sarsour — a co-leader of the 2017 national Women’s March on Washington — accused Israel of being behind the killing of unarmed black people in the United States. A presentation at the national conference of United We Dream – the country’s largest immigrant youth-led community – accused Israelis of sterilizing, imprisoning and murdering Palestinians in order to maintain a majority of white Jewish people in Israel. While cloaked in language about Israel, these attacks quite clearly cross the line of legitimate criticism, flirting instead with old blood libels that have been used for hundreds of years to justify persecution and violence against Jews.

Saturday’s bloodbath must serve as a wake-up call. Generation after generation, demagogues have poisoned minds, but society still underestimates the ability of words to arouse action. As human beings, our instinctive optimism lulls us into believing the Pittsburgh shooting was an isolated incident. And America’s reverence for the First Amendment blinds the nation to the dangers of letting hate speech fester.

If there’s one lesson from Pittsburgh, it’s this: in all societies, hate speech breeds violence. It follows a predictable pattern, which begins with the dehumanization and demonization of a targeted group. Injustice, real or perceived, is then attributed to that group. Finally, crazed bigots set out to restore what they perceive as justice, with tragic consequences.

The first two ingredients are firmly in place in the United States today. Grievously, we witnessed Saturday what happens when you add the third.

About the Author

Zach Schapira is executive director of the J’accuse Coalition for Justice, a nonprofit organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.