On Saturday morning, also known as the day of rest or the Sabbath, a white supremacist used an AR-15 assault rifle to take the lives of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA.
When I finally brought myself to look at my phone and see how the members of my community were dealing with this tragedy, I found a conversation had started about the normalization of white supremacist rhetoric and how that type of hate speech can turn into hate crime if unchallenged.
The Pittsburgh affiliate of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice wrote a letter condemning the violence and shunning President Trump from visiting not only the synagogue but Pittsburgh itself until he officially condemned white nationalism.
“President Trump, you are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you fully denounce white nationalism,” the committee wrote. “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.”
The families of the victims agreed with the Arc and did not want Trump to visit because he had initially said, “If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better. If they had some kind of protection within the temple it could have been a much better situation. They didn’t.”
There have been multiple expressions of white supremacy leading up to the shooting in Pittsburgh. The most recent example was the rally that took place in Charlottesville in August, 2017.
Marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us!” and a 32-year-old woman named Heather Heyer was killed when a car plowed down a street.
Since then, The Anti-Defamation League, a civil right organization that combats anti-semitism, created a mapping system to document hate-based incidents throughout the country.
In response, Trump said, “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now.”
With this history in mind, the mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, asked Trump not to visit before the victims’ funerals, according to The Washington Post. In addition, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) declined Trump’s invitation to join him to go to Pittsburgh.
When Trump and the First Lady visited the synagogue on Tuesday, protestors carried signs saying “hate has no home here” and “stop encouraging hate.”
Despite the overwhelming concern from multiple individuals, the Rabbi of Tree of Life synagogue, Jeffrey Myers, was not opposed to a visit from Trump.
“Hate is not political,” Myers said. “It is not blue or red, it’s not male or female, it doesn’t know any of those divisions.”
One thing is for certain: violence against Jewish people just for being Jewish has a long history with present-day ramifications that cannot be ignored.
After reading about the shooting in Pittsburgh, I said the mourners’ kaddish which is a prayer Jewish people say when their loved ones have passed away. Though I did not know any of the 11 victims who were murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue, I mourned them the same way I mourn Holocaust victims every year.
On Yom Hashoah, also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jews all over the world light six candles to represent the six million Jews that died in the Holocaust. They were victims of hate-surged violence unique to white supremacy and Nazism.
Though none of the 11 victims had been Holocaust survivors, many of them were old enough to have lived through that time of extreme anti-semitism, which has managed to bleed into 2018.
Rose Mallinger was 97 and described as the matriarch of her family.
Melvin Wax was 88 and known to be “always in a good mood, always full of jokes.”
Bernice and Sylvan Simon, 84 and 86, died in the same synagogue they got married in 50 years ago.
Just to name a few.
So on Sunday night, I mourned these grandparents, brothers and couples the same way everyone in my community has learned to mourn the six million Jews who died from the same brand of hate 70 years ago.
In modern times, the concern of the spread of hate speech extends to social media. The shooter, Robert Bowers, was active on Gab, a platform similar to Twitter but without any content restrictions, according to CNN.
Bowers posted frequent anti-semitic content from claiming that Jewish people were helping transport members of the migrant caravans to stating that Trump was surrounded by too many Jewish individuals.
“I have noticed a change in people saying ‘illegals’ that now say ‘invaders’,” read one post six days before the shooting. “I like this.”
Bowers also wrote, “Trump is surrounded by k**es (a derogatory term for Jewish people)”, “things will stay the course.”
Gab disavowed “all acts of terrorism and violence” and said its mission was “to defend free expression and individual liberty online for all people.”
The platform has been called “an Extremist-Friendly Site” by The New York Times and “morally bankrupt” by Slate.
Dylann Roof, another self-proclaimed white supremacist, was also active online before murdering nine black people at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in June, 2015.
According to CNN, Roof posted several photos of himself with a confederate flag and several guns on the website the Last Rhodesian. He also published a 2,000-word manifesto of white supremacy, written by an unknown individual, which claimed that white people are “superior” to other races and that “it was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right” in the Trayvon Martin case.
Modern forms of hate speech will continue to seep into social media, furthering the debate between freedom of expression and violence-inducing messaging. For marginalized communities often targeted for their differences, the idea of platforms for white supremacists gaining popularity is more than frightening – it’s life threatening.