The Tree of Life: The Time to Mourn and Organize

Governor Tom Wolf / Governor Wolf Joins Pittsburgh in Mourning After Tragic Shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue

October 29, 2018; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, New York Times

In just a few minutes, hatred upended their world. The families of the 11 men and women murdered in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue must face incomprehensible trauma and indescribable pain. All of us—their friends, neighbors, and community—are called to be with them and support the human work they do as they mourn and figure out how their lives can move on.

If Saturday’s horror were just a tragic accident, that would be enough. But hanging over the moment are the shooter’s words. The killer selected his victims because they were Jews, and because a Jewish organization defended immigrants. He chose his victims because in his mind, which had evidently been whipped into a frenzy by Fox News and its adherents (including the president), Jews were in league with the brown immigrants he felt were destroying his country, and the president he supported did not match his words with action. This makes the tragedy more than personal. As difficult as it is to consider the larger societal meaning of hate and violence in the face of individual pain and suffering, we must ask if we can ignore or delay thinking about the bigger picture as we ease the pain of those directly hurt.

The larger context is not difficult to see. Saturday’s tragedy occurred just days after the arrest of a man who had mailed bombs to political opponents of President Trump. Days earlier, another man killed two Black Kroger shoppers after he was unable to enter a Black church. It comes in the wake of efforts on social media to fan and amplify hateful and conspiratorial voices. It comes when mass violence is all too common, when shootings are the norm. It comes at a moment when our president and other elected officials regularly use their platforms to demonize immigrants, people of color, inner-city neighborhoods, the LBGTQ community, and the press.

When President Trump announced during a TV interview that he planned to visit Pittsburgh on Tuesday, telling Laura Ingraham, “I’m just going to pay my respects…I’m also going to the hospital to see the officers and some of the people that were so badly hurt,” a challenge arose: Could the Jewish community, its leaders, and its organizations ignore the larger context? It’s now in their hands to decide whether they are best served by ignoring the president’s words and actions, or they are called by their values to speak out, seeing violence and speech as connected.

Some have already made their decision. Led by members of its Pittsburgh chapter, Bend the Arc, a progressive social justice group, issued a statement on Sunday evening before a date for a presidential visit had been announced, demanding that the president not come to Pittsburgh unless he took specific actions and stopped targeting vulnerable communities:

For the past three years your words and your policies have emboldened a growing white nationalist movement. You yourself called the murderer evil, but yesterday’s violence is the direct culmination of your influence. Our Jewish community is not the only group you have targeted. You have also deliberately undermined the safety of people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. Yesterday’s massacre is not the first act of terror you incited against a minority group in our country.

By Tuesday night, it had been signed by more than 75,000 individuals.

Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto, who has spoken of the important role that the Jewish community has played in building a welcoming city, as reported by the Forward, “positioned himself as a vocal member of the ‘resistance’ against Trump.” Ari Feldman wrote,

In recent days, Peduto has publicly pushed back against Trump’s plans to visit Pittsburgh Tuesday. Speaking to reporters Monday, he said Trump should consider “the will of the families” of the victims before deciding to come, and that he should not come “while we are burying the dead.”

Still, the president chose to come yesterday afternoon. Crowds of protesters came out in opposition.

For Tree of Life’s rabbi, Jeffrey Myers, this was a moment to look past the president’s contribution to the rising discord and build bridges. At the community’s memorial service on Sunday, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he said, “My cup overflows with love. That’s how you defeat hate.” He “called on politicians to lead the way by avoiding hateful rhetoric,” according to Amy Harmon of the New York Times. For him, this was not a time to confront the president. According to Harmon, he told CNN, “The president of the United States is always welcome. I’m a citizen, he’s my president. He is certainly welcome.”

Lynnette Lederman, a former president of the congregation, saw the moment very differently, telling CNN, “I do not welcome this President to my city,” calling him a “purveyor of hate speech.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh finds it difficult to balance competing visions of what must be done. In a statement reported in the Post-Gazette, the Federation, speaking of the Presidential visit, 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. We are in the unusual position of representing all Jewish Pittsburgh. We are doing the best we can to make this not a political issue. We should also be united against terrorism, racism, anti-Semitism and any kind of hatred. This is a moment where we’re all Americans.”

The president’s visit was met by those who thought his language needed to be confronted directly. According to CNN, “Outside the synagogue, angry neighbors formed a march near where the President was paying his respects. Several carried signs objecting to Trump’s visit, bearing slogans like ‘Words Matter,’ ‘Strength through Unity,’ ‘Watch Your Words’ and ‘Hate does not work in our Neighborhoods.’”

According to the Forward, the Jewish refugee aid agency HIAS, which was named by the suspected shooter in a series of posts on social media, chose to focus on the immediate events and not take on the larger context. While they had actively opposed President Trump’s Muslim ban and anti-immigrant rhetoric, they saw this as no time to take up an advocacy role. In a statement, they said,

There are no words to express how devastated we are by the events in Pittsburgh this morning. This loss is our loss, and our thoughts are with Tree of Life Congregation, our local partner Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) of Pittsburgh, the city of Pittsburgh and all those affected by this senseless act of violence. As we try to process this horrifying tragedy, we pray that the American Jewish community and the country can find healing.

Around dining room tables and in boardrooms, the tug between values and pragmatics, between immediate needs and long-term consequences, must go on. It is time to organize, to consistently speak truth to power if we are to act in league with all of those who are in the crosshairs and whose lives are at risk.—Martin Levine