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Daniel Burston: Remembering the Tree of Life Massacre

“Justice, justice shalt thou pursue . . .” (Deuteronomy 16:20)

“You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21)

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:49)


        On August 11-12, hundreds of White Supremacists and neo-Nazis converged on Charlottesville, VA for a Unite the Right rally, chanting “The Jews will not replace us!” What on earth did this chant mean? Evidently, Right wing extremists believe that Jews are behind a nefarious plot to undermine “White” America and “Western civilization” by bringing people of color to the USA and undermining the (steadily dwindling) White majority.

           The belief that Jews plot to flood America with immigrants and dramatically transform American society is not new. On the contrary, it was commonplace in the 1930s and 1940s, when far-right zealots like Father Charles Coughlin, Rev. Gerald L.K. Smith, William Dudley Pelley, and Elizabeth Dilling frequently made such claims. So did Merwin K. Hart, the head of the National Economic Council, who voiced fierce opposition to admitting Jewish refugees into the United States and maintained that “alien” influences in the Roosevelt administration— code for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who was Jewish—were undermining American culture. As a result of the anti-immigrant policies championed by Hart and prominent Americans like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, many European Jews, who had no place else to go, perished in Hitler’s concentration camps.

In Masks of Privilege: Anti-Semitism in America (McWilliams, 1947), Carey McWilliams – founder of The Nation magazine – noted that Hart and his allies believed that liberal and socialist Jews were actually behind the New Deal and the ensuing transformation of American society. Not content with preventing Jews from entering the USA before WWII, they opposed permitting Holocaust survivors into the United States after World War II as well, saying this would be the first step in dismantling the Immigration Act of 1924, which was expressly to designed to preserve the racial character of America. By contrast, most American Jews supported easing immigration restrictions, and founded the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), becoming the bogeyman of the far Right. And since right-wing nativists subscribed to Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy theories, as the Nazis did, opposing Jewish immigration was their way to strike a blow against communism and Judaism simultaneously, and thereby preserve the White Christian character of the of the United States.

But for Pittsburghers who do not know this history, the real meaning of the Charlottesville chant was brought home to us on October 27, 2018, when Robert Bowers, a 46 year old “lone wolf”, massacred 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Because of misinformation he gleaned from Alt-right chat rooms and websites, Bowers was convinced that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which met regularly at the Tree of Life that day, was taking money from George Soros (and/or other Jewish liberals) to bring immigrants and refugees in the United States to dilute and, in due course, to destroy “America” – or rather, his White Supremacist fantasy of it.

Needless to say, his actions left the citizens of Pittsburgh reeling. I myself knew two of his victims, Irv Younger (z’l) and Cecil Rosenthal (z’l), for more than 20 years. And by a strange twist of fate, my Rabbi was approaching the sanctuary when the carnage commenced but had the courage and presence of mind to stay standing on the threshold, waving and shouting to other congregants to stay away. Later that night, my daughter, who worked at The Children’s Institute, directly across the street from The Tree of Life, joined me and hundreds of people who thronged the junction of Forbes and Murray to chant, sing and pray for solidarity and strength.

To their lasting credit, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Governor Tom Wolfe refused to greet President Trump at a memorial ceremony convened on October 30 on the site of the massacre. After all, this was the President who said that there were good people “on both sides” of the Charlottesville demonstrations; who vilified Muslims, Mexicans and other vulnerable minorities during his run for the Presidency and for many months afterwards; whose defense of Confederate monuments and dog whistle politics have given solace and encouragement to White Supremacists in a way no other President has before; who awarded the Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, a latter day avatar of Father Coughlin, who knowingly spread lies and fomented hatred over the radio.

Meanwhile, before Trump’s arrival, Bend the Arc Pittsburgh, a progressive Jewish organization, organized large demonstrations in Squirrel Hill to protest Trump’s visit, and produced an open letter signed by 70,000 (mostly Jewish) Pittsburghers demanding that the President refrain from visiting Pittsburgh altogether until he had 1) denounced White Nationalism altogether, 2) stopped vilifying and endangering minorities, 3) stopped attacking immigrants and refugees, and 4) embraced democratic values.

The Tree of Life massacre left many Jewish Pittsburghers wondering whether – or when – another act of White Supremacist terror would shatter an American Jewish community. And six months (to the day) after the Tree of Life massacre, 19 year old John Earnest entered  a Chabad synagogue in Poway, CA, hoping, like Bowers to kill as many Jews as possible. Why? Again, because he believed that Jews are trying to “replace” Whites with immigrants of color. In his manifesto, Earnest cited the Bible, lamented the decline of white European civilization, and railed against “cultural Marxism,” which he of course blamed on the Jews. He also alternated between charging the Jews with responsibility for the death of Jesus and the early Christian saints to declaring that Jews fund “ . . . politicians and organizations who use mass immigration to displace the European race.”

How to account for these weird ravings? Eric Ward is an anti-hate activist and scholar with the Southern Poverty Law Center who studied White Supremacist groups intimately for 30 years. He points out that White Supremacists believe that

. . . Jews are a race of their own, and that their ostensible position as White folks in the U.S. represents the greatest trick the devil ever played. The bible for generations of White nationalists is The Turner Diaries, a 1978 dystopian novel by the White supremacist leader William Pierce, published under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald. The novel takes place in a near-future in which Jews have unleashed Blacks and other undesirables into the center of American public life, and follows the triumph of a clandestine White supremacist organization that snaps into revolutionary action, blowing up both Israel and New York City. 

Based on extensive experience with White supremacist groups, Ward concludes that

Contemporary anti-Semitism, then, does not just enable racism, it also is racism, for in the White nationalist imaginary Jews are a race—the race—that presents a direct, existential threat to Whiteness. Moreover, . . . as with every form of hateful ideology, what is explicit on the margins is implicit in the center, in ways we have not yet begun to unpack. This means the notion that Jews long ago and uncontestably became White folks in the United States—became, in effect, post-racial—is a myth that we must dispel. By insisting that Jews are “white,” and that anti-Semitism is a fringe prejudice, we are unwittingly aiding the White nationalist movement, by shielding their core beliefs from view, and protecting them from direct attack.

Ward’s words here are obviously directed to anti-racist activists who insist nowadays that Jews are “White” or “White adjacent”, and therefor intent on maintaining – rather than overturning – White supremacy, which oddly enough, is precisely the opposite of what White Supremacists believe to be the case.

But sadly, these opposing characterizations of the Jewish community have one important thing in common; the idea that Jews pose a potentially grave threat to a vulnerable group – Whites, on the one hand, African Americans on the other.

These reflections call our attention to an old but newly visible strain of anti-Semitic sentiment in the African American community; a kind of “replacement theology” propagated by Louis Farrakhan and some members of Black Hebrew Israelite movement, who claim that the Jews of the Bible were really black Africans, who are the real “Chosen People”, and that Ashkenazi Jews are mere pretenders; imposters posing as the real thing. According to them, White Jews have usurped the place of the “real” Jews, i.e. Blacks, in order to confuse and exploit them.

            Sadly, Black replacement theology also has potentially lethal consequences. On December 10, 2019, David Anderson, 47,  and Francine Graham, 50, killed a police officer and three civilians in a Kosher supermarket in Jersey City. The van that they drove to the scene of the crime contained enough explosives to blow up five football fields. Both of them were once affiliated with the Black Hebrew Israelites. Then, on December 28, 2019, Grafton Thomas burst into a Monsey, New York, Rabbi’s home during a Hanukkah celebration and hacked at people with a machete, seriously injuring five people. In his journal, he rambled on about “Ebinoid Israelites” and “Semitic genocide”, and his cell phone records contained references to Hitler, the Nazis and the Jews.            

         Remembering the Tree of Life massacre and the events of 2019, the Jewish community was alarmed and offended by anti-Semitic outbursts from a broad spectrum of African American and British entertainers, athletes and community leaders in 2020, including Ice Cube, DeSean Jackson, Nick Cannon, Larry Johnson, Wiley and Rodney Muhammad. Thankfully, many high profile African Americans, including Charles Barkley, Stephen A. Smith, Michael Wilbon, Zach Banner, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, criticized DeSean Jackson and Stephen Jackson for their anti-Semitic comments. But high profile exchanges between celebrities, which garner so much media attention, do little to slow the spread of Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic venom in the broader African American community. That being so, progressive Jews are puzzled and dismayed that so many movement activists downplay or dismiss their concerns on this score as trivial and unworthy of serious discussion, or worse yet, as a deliberate distraction from the really important issues at hand.

Let’s frame this issue a little differently. Though they embraced opposing ideologies, how different were the actions of Robert Bowers and John Earnest from those of David Anderson, Francine Graham and Grafton Thomas? Perhaps it is a matter of perspective. Obviously, the latter three are not White Supremacists. But their beliefs and actions are symptoms of a dangerous trend which deepens the fear and mistrust between two communities who should be natural allies, and who share a common enemy.

Thankfully, since October, 2018,  many interfaith and interracial groups in Pittsburgh and around the country emerged that try to heal the rifts between the Jewish and African American communities, and to restore a measure of the trust that characterized the Black-Jewish alliance before the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. However, these welcome developments (and the hopes they inspire) cannot dispel a lingering sense of dread. After all, according to the FBI, Jews comprise merely 2% of the American population, but are the target of 57.5 % of hate crimes nationally; a shocking percentage that has grown steadily since Donald Trump took office. And Trump may very well run again. Meanwhile, the Qanon conspiracy network, which is comprised of Trump supporters, and riddled with anti-Semitic tropes, grows steadily, while Tucker Carlson is openly preaching the Great Replacement Theory on Fox News almost nightly.

Finally, while the vast majority of hate crimes against Jews are committed by Right wing extremists, an increasing number of synagogue defacements and random street beatings in Jewish neighborhoods are committed by anti-racist and/or pro-Palestinian activists who hold all Jews equally responsible for the State of Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians – an anti-Semitic canard of relatively recent vintage.

So, friends, as we remember the eleven victims of the Tree of Life massacre, and re-inscribe their lives and legacies in our hearts and memories, let’s also roll up our sleeves. For their sake and for our children’s sake, there is a lot of work left to be done.

(c) 2021 Daniel Burston

Daniel Burston has taught psychology at Duquesne University for three decades, and is the author of Anti-Semitism and Analytical Psychology: Jung, Politics and Culture (London: Routledge, 2021).

Tree of Life

4 comments on “Daniel Burston: Remembering the Tree of Life Massacre

  1. Daniel Burston
    October 27, 2021

    Thank you for this carefully considered comment, Emily. You are quite right about one thing. It was never my intention to imply that all anti-racist and Pro-Palestinian activists are anti-Semitic, or hold all Jews responsible for Israel’s misdeeds. But you are wrong to surmise that this is the last or most important thing I wanted people to take away from my reflections. After all, I say very clearly that the vast majority of anti-Semitic hate crimes are committed by Right-wing extremists.

    You also wrote: “Mis-identifying allies in the struggle against white supremacy as your enemies is a curious tactic.” This statement seems to suggest that ALL anti-racist and pro-Palestinian activists are free of anti-Semitism and are our allies in the struggle against White Supremacy, which is not clearly the case. Left-wing anti-Semitism is a real and growing problem in the UK, Europe and the USA, although people on the Left are generally loathe to admit it. Though this reluctance is rooted in deeply held beliefs and convictions, no doubt, the inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of a problem is the very best way to avoid having to deal with it in your own ranks. That is precisely what the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn did for many years, to cite merely one very recent example.

    Finally, the phrase “the coming onslaught of anti-Semitism from anti-racist and Pro-Palestinian activists” is yours, not mine. I never referred to (or even imagined) an “onslaught”, which suggests a concerted attack by an entire community against another one. But let’s be candid, shall we? Anti-Semitism has always existed on the Left, and needs to be acknowledged and addressed. In Living in the End Times, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek noted that

    “A disturbing sign of the failure of the radical Left is their uneasiness when it comes to unambiguously condemning anti-Semitism, as if by doing so one would be playing into Zionist hands. There should be no compromise here . . (Žižek, 2011, p. 136).”

    Žižek then goes on to lament the

    “. . . all too easy and uncritical acceptance of anti-American and anti-Western Muslim groups as representing “progressive” forms of struggle, as automatic allies; groups like Hamas and Hezbollah suddenly appear as revolutionary agents, even though their ideology is explicitly anti-modern, rejecting the entire egalitarian legacy of the French Revolution. (Things have gone so far here that some on the contemporary Left even consider an emphasis on atheism as a Western colonial plot.)”

    This is one way of saying that Left-wing anti-Semitism and vigorous support of Islamist organizations – like Hamas and Hezbollah – are often linked.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Emily De Ferrari
    October 27, 2021

    Anti-Semitism is as real as Daniel Burston describes. Human rights activists stand against it and include it in the crimes of all types against humanity.

    He ends however with this, as though it is the most important thing he wants us to remember:
    “Finally, while the vast majority of hate crimes against Jews are committed by Right wing extremists, an increasing number of synagogue defacements and random street beatings in Jewish neighborhoods are committed by anti-racist and/or pro-Palestinian activists who hold all Jews equally responsible for the State of Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians – an anti-Semitic canard of relatively recent vintage.”

    Perhaps an unfortunate construction, but it gives the impression that all anti-racist and pro-Palestinian activists hold all Jews equally responsible for the State of Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians. I am assuming that was not the intent of the sentence. Though I have not met the activists who hold those views, I understand that they may exist, and that they would be in need of education. But, the fact that there are people carrying Palestinian flags, and chanting slogans condemning Israel, and committing anti-Semitic acts, doesn’t identify those actors as anti-racist and/or pro-Palestinian activists. They sound more like racists using the Palestinian cause as an excuse for attacking Jews.

    At one of the more recent rallies at the corner of Forbes and Bigelow, in Pittsburgh, in support of Palestine, in response to one of the more recent Israeli bombings in Gaza, a small group led by a recognized white supremacist showed up with slogans identified as anti-Semitic by the rally assembled there. The intruders were surrounded, isolated and moved off the rally site by several of the real anti-racists and pro-Palestinian activists who were in attendance at the rally.

    Mis-identifying allies in the struggle against white supremacy as your enemies is a curious tactic. Daniel Burston might instead correct the state of Israel for insisting it speaks for all Jews world wide. Feeble analysis might take that canard to heart and surmise that all Jews are responsible for the subjugation of the Palestinian people. Which, or course does not justify anti-Semitism in all its ugly, fatal forms. It just unravels Daniel Burson’s concerns about a coming onslaught of anti-Semitism from anti-Racist and pro-Palestinian activists.

    Analysis means knowing what side of the fence you are on and knowing who is standing there with you. Anti-racist and Pro-Palestinian activists are standing with you, with those opposing anti-Semitism and with those who remember and are still healing from the horror that happened at the Tree of Life.

    Another point of view:

    Liked by 2 people

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