On Saturday morning, a 46-year-old white man from the suburbs of Pittsburgh wrote on a right-wing forum popular with white supremacists that HIAS (formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” This was only his most recent screed against Jews, whom he often referred to using the old anti-Semitic slur “kikes,” and immigrants, whom he referred to as “invaders.” A short time later, he entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood with four guns, and during the Shabbat service, he massacred 11 people.
As the sound of gunshots and sirens filled the neighborhood, my father’s synagogue, which is a few blocks from Tree of Life, locked its front door. The woman who brings in the cookies and kichel for the Shabbat Kiddush ceremony had a cell phone, which my father borrowed to call home to ask my mother if my sister was at her synagogue, Tree of Life. My sister was married at Tree of Life, and she attends the weekly Saturday services there with her husband and 14-year-old son. Her husband took his conversion classes at Tree of Life, and my nephew went to the Sunday school at the synagogue. My childhood congregation, New Light, now meets each Saturday in the basement of Tree of Life.
This week, like all weeks, my sister and her family should have been at Tree of Life, but my nephew had a tutoring appointment, so they decided to go to the Jewish Community Center (JCC) instead. As they sat in lockdown at the JCC and heard the initial reports that someone was actively shooting members of their small congregation a few blocks away, they realized that, but for timing, they would have been there. It’s a feeling that’s haunted many in our community these last two days.
In the hours following the shooting, one could see the shock and horror on peoples’ faces in Squirrel Hill. The neighborhood and the Jewish community of Pittsburgh are tight-knit, and though the names of the victims had not yet been released, we all knew that they’d be familiar to us. In the evening, hundreds, perhaps thousands of residents took over the main intersection of the neighborhood at Forbes and Murray Avenue and held a vigil hastily organized by local high-school students. Outside, as the sun set, we all sang the Havdalah prayers, blessing the wine, the spices, and the fire, and marking the end of the Shabbat.
All day long, the familiar clichés were dispatched by all the familiar sources. Local sports teams told us that their thoughts and prayers were with us. Politicians turned to words like “evil” to denounce the act and tell us that their hearts go out to us. Law-enforcement officials promised swift and exacting justice. Though well-meaning, none of these sentiments help when a community is in crisis.
But the worst responses have been those that instruct us to not “politicize the tragedy.” When those of us who are justifiably angry and horrified demand meaningful change so that this shooting is the last of its sort, we are told that it dishonors the victims. That it disrespects their lives. It is time to recognize this response for what it is: It is not a call for respect and decency, but rather a demand that we shut up, demand nothing from our elected representatives, and ultimately find a way to accept this tragedy, the next tragedy, and the next tragedy on our own. It is, in other words, a demand that we depoliticize this massacre and relegate it to an incomprehensible act of evil.
But we have the capacity to comprehend it—if we see it for what it was: the inevitable murderous result of a war on immigrants, waged by right-wing politicians and pundits, including our president, combined with this country’s toxic love affair with guns. And these two forces exploded inside the heart of Tree of Life on Saturday not by accident but by design.
The Jewish story is one of being a refugee and a stranger. Among the most important holidays in Judaism are Passover, which commemorates the Jewish experience of being enslaved in Egypt, and Sukkot, which requires that we live in thatched huts for a week to remember our time as refugees. We are asked to never forget our time as strangers in strange lands—an experience, which for many of us, is as recent as our parents and grandparents. Indeed, when God instructs Moses on the rules of morality in Leviticus, he says: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”
It is hard to watch images of the caravan of refugees from Central America and not think of the stories that populate Jewish history. For this reason, many Jews and Jewish organizations are deeply involved in assisting immigrants and welcoming them into our communities. The Tree of Life shooting was in direct response to this.
And yet, in response to this political act, we are told to depoliticize our response. We are told to wait to demand a political solution to the rising bigotry against immigrants and the growing problem of mass shootings in houses of worship, in schools, at work, and in so many other sites of civil life in America.
Behind this invocation is a cynical calculus that there is a narrow window of time when our demands for real change will be heard. Behind the calls against demanding political change is the keen awareness that Americans have short memories, that a new crisis or outrage will occur, and that we will move on. We are being asked to withhold our voice until such time as the media and the politicians and the American public have moved on. Those making this demand know that a nonpolitical response is a hollow response, filled with feel-goodisms about strength, community, and hope—but ultimately meaningless.
As a long-time member of the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, who has deep connections to Squirrel Hill and Tree of Life, I demand that we not depoliticize what is being reported as the deadliest attack on Jews in American history. Our response must be political, and we should not allow ourselves to be silenced by those that try to leverage the idea of honoring the victims to trick us into living in a world of rabid anti-immigrant hostility and mass uncontrollable gun violence.
If we don’t speak up now and demand an end to the scapegoating of immigrants and a reduction of guns in our communities, then it simply will not happen. Few politicians have the political courage to act when not in the shadow of a tragedy. If we don’t demand meaningful political change while there is attention being paid to this shooting, then we will find ourselves on our own. We will be told that our safety from gun violence is our own responsibility, that we should be wary of strangers, lock our doors, buy a gun. In short, we will be told that we should expect no political changes that will lessen gun violence in this country, and that we should find a way to live in this new normal.
The insistence that we not speak up about what we all know to be the problem—the absurd amount and easy availability of guns in America—honors no one. It is a trick that we keep falling for, in the hopes that basic decency and civility will win out of its own accord. The growing history of mass shootings in America shows that our silence takes us in an increasingly deadly direction. And this is precisely the point. Those telling us to be quiet have decided that the Second Amendment is supreme, above the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They believe that the unfettered right to bear arms trumps the right of free speech, right to associate, and even the right to practice one’s religion. If we stay silent, then we tacitly accept this bloody political reality.