Jewish stars are everywhere in Pittsburgh. At first, you notice only one or two, a bit limp by now from the winter weather. But soon you are seeing them everywhere. Crocheted or made of sparkly paper they hang from every available surface.
A scrawny tree in the parking lot of the Squirrel Hill Giant Eagle supermarket on Murray Avenue, for instance, was decorated with the Jewish stars like a Christmas tree, giving me a strange sense of cognitive dissonance. At the same time, I was moved to bits to see this neighborhood-wide expression of support for its Jewish population. The entire neighborhood was in mourning for the Squirrel Hill of once upon a time, before a monster shot dead 11 Jews in a synagogue.
My impression is of a city still reeling from the impact. Everyone has a story. My mother told me about her recent hospitalization. How the patient in the room next to her had a heavy police presence outside his door. She asked who was in there, no one would say. She remains convinced it was Bowers.
My mother’s helper and friend Linda told me what that day was like. She happened to be driving in Squirrel Hill at the time. But suddenly there were road blocks everywhere. Drivers were diverted from a several block radius around Tree of Life. Rumors were flying. People were scared (which is what happens when something is going on and there is very little or sketchy information). Linda was scared. Everyone was, that day.
Today, signs reading Stronger Than Hate are in every storefront on Murray Avenue, and hanging in many windows on many homes. The signs are thickest the closer one gets to the vicinity of Tree of Life. A friend brought me a t-shirt with the slogan along with a photo of the victims. He was sure I’d have a million of those t-shirts. But actually, it is the first I’ve received.
Stronger Than Hate says something important about Pittsburgh, about resilience. Pittsburgh isn’t ashamed of what happened. It repudiates what happened. Squirrel Hill is saying loud and clear, “We won’t let this shooter change our way of life or our neighborhood.”
And yet, other than this stated resolve, I fail to see practical steps to prevent antisemitism from taking another crack at Pittsburgh, or indeed take hold of America. I see a failure to prevent a second Bowers, God forbid, from repeating the deeds of the first. People don’t want guns in the synagogue. Understandably so. But what is the alternative? What plan do they have going forward?
Meantime, my Facebook feed is filled with allegations of Ilhan Omar’s antisemitism. There is article after article on the Democratic Party’s failure to name and shame Omar in their watered-down resolution that lumps antisemitism together with every other kind of hate and bigotry. But I heard about none of this on any news stations during my two-week stay in Pittsburgh. Not locally and not at the national level. The Jews, moreover, except for the orthodox, remain staunch Democrats, who look the other way at the institutionalized antisemitism in their own party.
Like Nancy Pelosi, and a million other talking heads, they make excuses: Omar is inexperienced. She grew up in Somali, so what can we expect? Criticism of Israel is not antisemitism. Lobbying needs a closer look. AIPAC needs a closer look. The tropes, they say, are based on reality. Jews are powerful and wield too much influence.
This is shocking to me, well-versed as I am in the history of the Jews, and what these excuses and allegations have always meant in past times.
When I show evidence, in a Pittsburgh discussion group on Facebook, of an Imam in Pittsburgh who spouts antisemitic rhetoric from the pulpit, they call me a troublemaker and remind me that Muslims raised money for the victims of Tree of Life. When I explain my intent is only to disseminate information, they say, “That’s okay then. But be aware that others are attempting to cause trouble. We don’t want any trouble.”
To be frank, the attempt to stifle unpleasant truths frightens me. I fear for Pittsburgh in spite of its strength and resilience. I am scared because Pittsburgh will not look at what I see for fear of mirroring Bowers’ hatred and bigotry. They will not look at the fact that antisemitism is rampant in America, distributed as it is in coursework in universities, shouted from pulpits in mosques, and veiled as polite dinner discussion at political fundraisers.
It is not just the crazy white supremacists like Bowers. He is, rather, the trickle-down effect of the antisemitism masquerading as anti-Israelism that pervades the entire country. Bowers is the result of the propaganda that says that the Jews stole another people’s land, that Judea and Samaria are really the West Bank of the Jordan River where Jews have no right to build homes, and that American Jews have divided loyalties.
An acquaintance mourned the fact that his daughter had been brainwashed on a college campus, poisoned against Israel. “How do you get them back?” he asked.
But she’d already done a Birthright trip. She’d been fine back then. But since that time, she’s been to college. Everything she knew before she entered the ivory halls of academia was gone, all of it replaced by anti-Israel propaganda and hatred.
On the right, in the orthodox world, they think Donald Trump is the savior of the Jews. They think he will save Israel. But rumor has it that Jerusalem is to be divided in the soon-to-be-aired peace plan. And in this disturbing video, we learn that eight years after 9/11, the government body tasked with monitoring sermons in mosques in the United States, still had not a single employee who understands Arabic.
The Tree of Life massacre has left its mark on Pittsburgh. The stars are everywhere. So are the signs with their message of strength. This tells me that Pittsburghers understand that antisemitism is real. I worry, on the other hand, about the communal sense of invincibility embodied by the message of Stronger Than Hate. A feeling of invincibility is never a good thing where the Jews are concerned.
Will such city-wide declarations of strength take pride of place over identifying and eradicating hatred? Will Stronger Than Hate become just another jingoistic saying along the lines of Never Again? Or will Americans at large learn to shove aside group-think and grow the courage to see and confront what is really out there: the very real threats to the Jews who live in the heart of Squirrel Hill and in America?