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Fight the Scourge of Antisemitism—but Take Hope from Pittsburgh’s Righteous Gentiles

There are some hate criminals whose motives are well-disguised behind reams of obscure or contradictory web ramblings. Robert Bowers, the 46-year-old suspect in Saturday’s Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, would not fit in that category. Before allegedly killing 11 people in and around the Tree of Life, he declared online that “Jews are the children of Satan.” He also claimed the Holocaust was a lie, and that “it’s the filthy EVIL Jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!” Like James Alex Fields Jr., the alleged Charlottesville car-attack killer, and Cesar Sayoc, the hate-addled bodybuilder and status hound who’s been charged with mailing pipe bombs to Democrats this month, Bowers was a confused, pathetic failure looking to blame his problems on others.

But in the age of Trump, it’s hard not to suspect that a seemingly deranged hate criminal is actually channeling something more universal than his own inner demons. In a plaintive Washington Post column entitled What Is Happening To Our Country?, Max Boot argues that while “extremism has been present in America for a long time…Trump is applying a match to the kindling.”

“When Trump talks about ‘globalists,’ the far right hears ‘Jews,’” Boot argues. “There is so much anti-Semitic filth online now. I see it every day on Twitter and in my email inbox. Normally I tune it out. Just background noise. But others are listening.”

That is no doubt true—even if it is difficult to disentangle the strands of viciousness and agitation that lead any one hate criminal to act. But I also would urge that this laudable American tendency toward political introspection not give way to fear. Despite sporadic episodes of horrific anti-Semitic hatred such as this, the modern West remains, by historical standards, a safe environment for Jews—something worth acknowledging, even as we join Tree Of Life in a collective act of mourning.

In the shadow of a tragedy such as the Pittsburgh massacre, I realize, it’s hard to take comfort from broad historical trends. In part, this is because the issue of anti-Semitism has been strongly politicized on both poles. Since 9/11, conservatives often have pointed to the (very real) anti-Semitic strains within militant Islam—and sometimes have overreached by conflating generalized criticism of Israel with Jew hatred. Since Trump was elected, likewise, Antifa and other radical leftist voices often have attempted to tar broad swathes of conservatives as heirs to Nazi ideology. But a single murderer shouldn’t have the power to terrorize a whole community. And the history of Pittsburgh itself helps show that the United States is not an anti-Semitic country.

* * *

Although the Jewish population of Pittsburgh always has been relatively small, the city has an outsized role in the history of North American Jewry thanks to the “Pittsburgh Platform” of 1885, a landmark in the emergence of Reform Judaism and the broader pattern of Jewish assimilation. Drafted at the city’s Concordia Club (which now serves as a student center for the University of Pittsburgh), the document urged that Jews renounce national aspirations and promote inter-religious bridge-building. While the document has lapsed into obscurity, its signatories’ vision of modern, liberal, assimilated Judaism was prescient:

We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state. We recognize in Judaism a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason. We are convinced of the utmost necessity of preserving the historical identity with our great past. Christianity and Islam, being daughter religions of Judaism, we appreciate their providential mission, to aid in the spreading of monotheistic and moral truth. We acknowledge that the spirit of broad humanity of our age is our ally in the fulfillment of our mission, and therefore we extend the hand of fellowship to all who cooperate with us in the establishment of the reign of truth and righteousness among men.

The timing of the Pittsburgh Platform came at a terrible time in Jewish history. The assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 had set off waves of pogroms against Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine. Tens of thousands were slaughtered, and millions of Jewish survivors fled west, swelling Jewish communities across North America and beyond. Between 1880 and 1900, the Jewish population of the United States jumped by a factor of six, from 250,000 to 1.5-million.

Most of the Jews who came to the West didn’t want a new Pale of Settlement, and instead created a new, free kind of Jewish life within majority Christian countries. The vision of co-existence embedded within the Pittsburgh Platform has come to pass—notwithstanding horrific but isolated acts of violence from the likes of Robert Bowers.

The sight of armed state agents swarming a synagogue is hardly a novelty within Jewish history. The difference in Pittsburgh—the aspect of this week’s tragedy that would have shocked many of the 19th century Jews who fled the Cossacks—is that these police officers came to protect besieged Jews, not attack them. There will always be outbreaks of criminal anti-Semitism. The question is what happens when the men in uniform show up.

Eleven Jews were murdered at the Tree of Life. But the casualties also included four wounded (but as yet unnamed) police officers who put their life on the line to defend a Jewish house of worship. That fact is no comfort to the dead and grieving, and the officers themselves no doubt would say they were only doing their jobs. But it’s the one aspect of this whole sad story that, I believe, my own Jewish ancestors would have found uplifting.

When taking the measure of a society’s values, there is an understandably strong focus on the words of its leaders. Max Boot is correct that Trump often says foolish and hateful things. But the murderous Jew hatred that flourished in Europe for centuries and reached its horrifying crescendo with the Holocaust was a mass cultural phenomenon, deeply rooted in anti-Semitic folklore and the darkest forms of Christian mythology. Some shadow of this was exported to North America, and has survived in Europe. But this Jew hatred no longer exists as a mainstream grass-roots phenomenon. Trump or no Trump, it speaks its name proudly only among isolated cabals of fringe haters and attention-seekers—who are regularly, and properly, treated with contempt and ostracism by mainstream politicians and media.

And while improved reporting methods would suggest that antisemitism in American society has increased in recent years, my own anecdotal experience as a Jewish journalist doesn’t support this. Antisemitism is more visible yes, because we can all go see it spill out on forums such as Reddit and Gab. But when neo-Nazis are called on to materialize in real life, their rallies usually are (thankfully) pathetically small.

* * *

Acting on what the Pittsburgh Declaration authors called “the spirit of broad humanity,” the officers of that city put their lives on the line to protect human life on Saturday. This was the true face of America before Trump took power. It remained the true face of America after Trump took power. And it will continue to be the true face of America once this president is removed from the office he has stained with his troubling rhetoric.


Jonathan Kay is Canadian editor of Quillette. Follow him at @jonkay 



  1. Morgan says

    This atrocity will be hyped like others are silenced. It is unclear which fair better.

  2. Circuses and Bread says

    This “age of Trump” line is really getting old. Trying to ascribe blame for “troubling rhetoric” to one specific public figure when there are so many public figures who are engaging in hate-filled rhetoric is silly and frankly disingenuous. The tone of public discourse is not going to markedly improve because Donald Trump leaves office. That train left the station long before him, and will most assuredly continue on well after him.

    So readers might be wondering why this hate filled rhetoric exists in the first place? And that’s an easy question to answer: because it works. From the politicians perspective, the name of the game is power. Accumulating it, using it, and abusing it. They figured out long ago that nothing spurs action like hate. So as long as hate filled rhetoric allows them to gain and maintain power, they’ll continue down that path.Comity, kindness, and good end results don’t enter into the equation.

    Now we do have choices. We can continue to give our consent to this sort of tomfoolery, and by most indications that’s exactly what will happen in the short term. But it won’t continue forever. At some point hot words and hot rhetoric will become hot actions, and indeed we’ve seen some of that this week and this year. At a certain point civility goes completely out the window and you have people literally, not figuratively, at each other’s throats.

    But it needn’t be that way. Again, we do have choices. We can demand this foolishness stop. The politicians won’t listen of course. And then we can do the hard thing and walk away from politics entirely. Figure out solutions to our problems and implement them notwithstanding what the politicians are doing. Not easy, but doable.

    Petty tyrants and two-bit revolutionaries crave and need parades to lead. Don’t give them a parade.

    • dellingdog says

      Although I don’t agree with your call to abandon politics, I think that Trump’s tweets are a dangerous distraction from important conversations that need to take place. Many people (including myself) become fixated on national politics while ignoring what’s happening in their state, city and neighborhood.

      • Circuses and Bread says

        @dellingdog and @michael kupperberg

        Saying that politics isn’t the solution is not going to be popular at a mostly political website. Anti politics? The gall of some people! 😆

        We spend a whole lot of effort trying to validate this hypothesis that politics in some way and some fashion achieves beneficial ends in society. We’ve had something like 5,000 years of recorded history to show that politics is worthwhile. Yet here we are talking about political hate which is slowly but surely becoming political violence. But I guess this time will be different? This time hate and violence will be solved by politics rather than be exacerbated by it?

        How many times do we run the experiment before we decide a hypothesis is false?

    • This is unfortunately, the latest outbreak, of what has been a small but sustained undercurrent in American life. It has not risen to this degree since the Neo-Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois, in 1973, I believe.
      I supported their right to march back then, in my view, it allowed the American public to see and hear them, and thus inoculate themselves from such hatred. Today, we have a culture of limited speech, especially anything that can be labeled as hate speech, that the avenue of public abhorrence, sending the denizens back under their rock, is not as easily done today. The cure for hate speech, is more speech, not less.
      The cure for what is wrong with our politics, is getting more involved with it, not leaving it to those who would ignore, or limit it. A response to such acts, must be more than only words.
      It is all well and good to proclaim that the actions in Pittsburgh were an assault on American life, culture, and civility. If our leaders, our teachers, our clergy, do not step forward, and show why this was wrong. What was wrong with his theology or reasoning, more will come.
      Leaving the scene, only leaves it those with an interest in moving it in their direction, that is not a safe or wise tact, better to stay the course, continue one’s input, and work for a better life, and a better world, it will not come any other way.

      • Keep drinking your koolaid about what he says. The Left-wing puppeteers keep spoonfeeding BS. OMG! Trump is a RACIST! Even though prior to running on the GOP ticket, as a Dem supporter in NY he received awards from the NAACP. He opened previously restricted golf courses to the public.

        OMG! Bannon is a WHITE NATIONALIST! So is TRUMP!!!! Yeah, well, he’s white, he’s America First, so yes, he’s a White, Nationalist. Guess what, I am so tired of that B-CRAP from the same Moonbats crying “Buy American, Buy Local, Evil Walmart !!!” for the past decade. Every white, left winger who was buy local/buy american, stop buying chinese junk at walmart — they’re all White Nationalists too now and they vote DEMOCRAT.

        OMG! Trump is trying to ban MOOOSSLIMS! Simply because he goes to stop folks from a handful of countries who refuse to work w/ the State Dept. on identities before visas are granted. They aren’t even all Islamic states, NOR are they even the MAJOR source of Islamic visitors. But that’s ok, keep following your lemming playbook.

        The “Trump is RACIST!” is the same as all the BS claiming John “The Left’s new Hero” McCain a racist back in 2008. Or the Mitt Romney paid no taxes. Or Brett Kavanaugh ran a rape-train in college. The illiterate Left buys into that garbage and guess what, the Right knows it’s bogus, it’s fake news, and the Dem’s now leaving the party are waking up to it as well. It’s only time before Google bans all search results that tell the TRUE story.

        Fake news? Like that NBC withheld the story PROVING Kavanaugh’s accusers (Avenetti) made stuff up because “it wasn’t news worthy?” Or the Roy Moore stuff where the accusers Mother even pointed out the holes in the woman’s accusation (like the phone in her bedroom–or the mall security chief who pointed out the “banned from the mall” was all BS)? Oh, i’m afraid to travel (world traveler), I had to put in a second door to my home (renovation was to create an apartment hey could rent), the oh so long polygraph (examiner later says it was 2 questions), the “no, I never coached my friend about polys” friend who she was with, when she wrote out here letter alleging attempted assault — the same friend who the FBI now reveals tried to tamper with other “witnesses” from the story?

        So yes, the President isn’t just any voice, but neither is JOURNALISM. Who do you think has the bigger voice? The President or the 10,000 copies of total bogus news reports? Can we blame all of them for the 170+ death threats STILL on Twitter? For all the ricin sent in the mail to the President, his family, and others in the Executive branch? If you want to blame Trump for the bomber (who was pro Trump) or the shooter (anti Trump) then I guess we can in fact declare some of the MSM “enemies of the people” then can’t we?

  3. marms says

    Thanks Jon Kay.

    By the way, re the pipe bomb suspect: he had been threatening feminists on Twitter for some time. When frightened women complained to Twitter their complaints were dismissed.

  4. Ya ya…it’s all Trumps fault. Good thing it wasn’t Obama’s fault when churches got shot up. Or Obama’s fault when all the hoax racism things were pulled immediately after the election.

    Sorry, this was just more drivel about “omg Trump!” refusing to place any responsibility on the Left for inciting a tremendous amount of hatred. How mighty White of the Left to also insinuate that “black folks” who don’t vote democrat are uneducated or Uncle Tom’s. They’re one losing election away from calling for literacy tests again at this point. OMG, the Russian’s meddled in 2016 with 100,000$ worth of ads on Facebook! Yet it’s ok for California “elites” to spend millions on elections in Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia. Trump is inciting all this violence! Shouts the Dems calling for antifa-mobs to shout down their opponents and harass them and their families in public whenever they are seen. It’s obviously Trumps fault that a Trump-hating Nazi shot up a synagogue just the same as it’s Trumps fault that a Trump supporter sent mail bombs. Sounds suspiciously like climate alarm-ism where good weather/bad weather, hot/cold, ocean death/ocean overpopulation — it’s all man-made climate change! Non-falsifiable, but then, I don’t vote democrat so clearly i’m a racist, homophobic, fascist, jew-hating rapist, right?

  5. How is it that after spending trillions to violate every US citizens rights in the name of fighting terrorism and our security, the authorities never stop these bad actors before they act?

    • The cynic in me says it’s because they don’t want to. Especially now, when something happens the political pundits are slobbering with glee about the talking points and the news media execs are jumping for joy about the impending click counts.

      The reality is, we are a country that does not permit “future crime” type arrests/conviction/incarceration. Can you imagine if we did? We’d have 100% black male incarceration in Chicago! Our laws and form of government require enforcement in reaction to actual breaking of a law. Like it or not, saying racist crap on social media is not a crime in the US, it is in Europe. And for anyone suggesting it should be i’d say fine…let’s let the GOP led House, Senate, and Presidency decide what is hate speech…like that idea Antifa? Water, Schumer, Pelosi…what size prison orange would you like for your “hate speech” against the Right?

      The war on terrorism is focused on finding and defeating threats against he US and our allies from external. We can do things (apparently) like targeted assassinations of foreign nationals as demonstrated by Obama and Bush, and likely Trump. Although Obama targeted and killed Americans, it is disputed as to whether that was illegal.

  6. I must agree with some of the other commenters on this thread. It’s sad that one can hardly find a comment on these murders that doesn’t seek to instrumentalize them in favor of whatever ax the author has to grind. In this case, as in so many others, Trump is the whipping boy. According to the author, “Trump is applying a match to the kindling.” Seriously? Let’s see, Hillary Clinton has called for an end to civility until the Democrats regain power. She notoriously referred to his supporters as “deplorables.” Eric Holder suggests that, if the Republicans go low, Democrats should kick them. Joe Biden called people who don’t share his “vision” the “dregs of society.” Maxine Waters advises her followers, “And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” Persons who work for the Trump Administration and Republican members of Congress are hounded out of restaurants and other public places. Congressman Scalise is shot and nearly killed by a fanatical leftist, and other Republicans would certainly have been killed at the time if they were not accompanied by armed guards. Those who attend Trump events and other conservative gatherings are regularly attacked by the Left’s “Antifa” stormtroopers, often sustaining severe injuries. These incidents are never reported in the mainstream media. I could go on and on, and yet we are to believe that “Trump is applying a match to the kindling!” Allow me to suggest that claims of this sort are somewhat one-sided.

    As for the author’s claim that anti-Semitism is not really increasing in this country and other western democracies, he seems to be looking at the world through Pinkeresque glasses. I don’t think what we’re seeing is a mere increase in the visibility of the anti-Semitism it is now so easy to find on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. There is a constantly increasing incidence of anti-Semitism itself. Internet visibility isn’t a recent phenomenon. It’s been there for many years now. Hatred of outgroups is a universal human trait, and the Jews have always been a most convenient outgroup. Today we see increasingly open and brazen attacks on Jews, often thinly disguised as “anti-Zionism.” If nothing else, they make it perfectly clear why the existence of a Jewish state is necessary. In the past, Jews have seldom had a fighting chance of defending themselves. Now they do.

  7. Farris says

    This was a nice well written article until it became infected with T.D.S. (Trump Derangement Syndrome).
    Obama’s Iran nuclear deal was a direct slap at Israel. Obama and others failure to denounce Farrakhan and seeking counsel from Al Sharpton are some glaring omissions, the author might wish to consider. Here are just a few articles documenting Obama’s antisemitism.

  8. Pingback: Pittsburgh’s Jewish community « Quotulatiousness

  9. Andy Espersen says

    Are we not now in the western world confusing anti-Semitism with anti-Israel sentiments? Logically we must clearly differentiate between these these two concepts – which have nothing to do with one another. Traditionally, in the Americas anti-Semitism was never apparent – Jewish ghettos never existed here. And (as pointed out in the article) Anti-Semitism has been on the wane since the 2nd World War.

    Yes, anti-Semitism is certainly behind this particular killing – but let me point out that this was probably not the real reason for the murders. This was a senseless killing – and, like virtually all irrational, senseless killings, this was “caused” by the workings of a demented mind. Robert Bowers was almost certainly suffering from a type of paranoid schizophrenia – probably a late-onset type where one finds intellectual deterioration much diminished (even absent at times). Beginning to get all worked up about increasing anti-Semitism in the world should be resisted – if, in fact, we really mean anti-Israel.

  10. The hatred of Jews implicit in about 99% of all “anti-Israel” sentiments is easily detectable by virtue of the grotesque double standard applied to judge the actions of Israel versus those of her enemies.

  11. TarsTarkas says

    So a rabid anti-semite Never Trumper (read his deranged blog posts) walks into a synagogue and commits a massacre, and it’s Trump’s fault? What’s next? Keith Ellison beating up his girlfriend is also Trump’s fault? Gillum campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime Trump’s fault? Global warming? The heat death of the universe? It gets tiresome. And the MSM complains when people call their reporting Fake News?

  12. Constantin says

    Jews will have a future despite the President that kept the promise of recognizing the capital of the Jewish state and has Jewish grandchildren because he “stained his office” with troubling rhetoric. Or something…? Take a break Mr. Kay. We already know you do not like the US President, but you can spare us of forced reiterations of the same old idea in various odd contexts.

  13. Jaike says

    When I hear the word globalist, said by Trump or anyone else, I understand it not to mean the word Jew. The authors claim to the contrary is not correct.

    This is why the left is becoming irrelevant to rational discourse. It becomes impossible to contemplate their thoughts. So their thoughts are disregarded.

  14. Eric Olson says

    This was the most biased and narrative based article I have read on Quillette so far. By the end of the article, I was honestly starting to wonder if I was accidentally reading an article on CNN by Jim Acosta. Shows you you can find low quality articles even in good quality websites I guess.

    • Andy Espersen says

      I am inclined to agree with you. In his opening remarks Jonathan Kay insists that Robert Bowers “does not fit into the category of hate-criminals whose motives are well-disguised behind reams of obscure, contradictory web ramblings”. I am afraid that is exactly where he belongs. Bowers is mad, he is a lunatic – which is why we should not even worry about him, or write long, learned discourses about him or “his motives”.

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