Begin with the name of the synagogue in Pittsburgh he attacked, Tree of Life. This name is a metaphor for the Torah, Judaism’s foundational document. Every Shabbat, as the Torah scroll is returned to the ark, the congregation sings these words, in Hebrew: “It is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it . . . Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace. Help us turn to you, Lord, and we shall return.”
How awful that a synagogue whose name evokes this yearning for God’s protection instead found itself the scene of such carnage and such evil. Among the murdered: A 97-year-old woman. A husband and wife in their 80s. Two brothers, 59 and 54.
And why? Because their religion teaches tolerance and, more than tolerance, the obligation to welcome and care for those most in need. At least 36 times, the Torah exhorts us to embrace the outsider, the immigrant. I chanted this passage from Leviticus at my daughter’s bat mitzvah: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
That tolerance, it appears, incited Robert Bowers, the accused murderer. On Gab, the extremist haven social network, he attacked HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The group was founded in 1881 to help Jews, like my grandparents and great-grandparents, fleeing the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe. But its mission has broadened to fulfilling the biblical injunction to care for the stranger. As HIAS president Mark Hetfield likes to say, “HIAS was founded . . . to welcome refugees because they were Jewish. Today, HIAS welcomes refugees because we are Jewish.”
Hence Bowers’s rage. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” he wrote a few hours before the rampage. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” A few weeks earlier, he posted a link about the group’s National Refugee Shabbat, writing, “Why hello there hias! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us?” Another post he shared: “Open you Eyes! It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!”
Anti-Semitism is a disease without a cure and, seemingly, without end. It persists from generation to generation and society to society. People like Bowers have always been part of an ugly American fringe. Social media simply provides a powerful new mechanism for transmitting such long-standing venom and amplifying preexisting hatreds in an age of increasing tribalism.
Which brings us to our president. “It looks definitely like it’s an anti-Semitic crime. That is something you wouldn’t believe could still be going on,” President Trump said Saturday in Indiana. You wouldn’t? Only if you were willfully blind to what has been going on, from Nazi protesters in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” to ugly memes of Jewish reporters with Stars of David being thrust into ovens.
Just the day before Saturday’s massacre, Trump, at a White House event, attacked “globalists” — code-word alert — and chuckled as audience members called out “George Soros!”—code-word alert — and shouted “Lock him up” about the Hungarian-born Jewish financier. If Trump is not deliberately flirting with anti-Semitism and anti-Semites, he is regrettably oblivious to their presence.
But his administration’s animus toward refugees, exemplified by Trump’s own incendiary rhetoric, seems most directly linked to Bowers’s alarm about “hostile invaders” who “kill our people.” If there is not cause and effect between Trump’s language and Bowers’s alleged actions, there is moral culpability for creating this overheated climate of fear. From the supposed Mexican rapists of his campaign launch to his unsupported claims that the migrant caravan includes “very tough criminal elements” and “unknown Middle Easterners,” Trump has stoked the fears of the Bowerses among us.
To this, the only response can be to insist that what the Torah teaches about loving the stranger is true and right. And that this is not just Jewish wisdom — it is, Trump notwithstanding, an American value. Eleven Americans died for it Saturday. Do not forget them.