Pittsburgh head: 'Trauma still a dark cloud over us'

2 years on, MKs seek ways to remember Pittsburgh massacre, prevent another

Head of Knesset Committee for Immigration David Bitan tasks roundtable to envision a memorial to the fallen at Tree of Life synagogue and implement an annual national ceremony

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

MK and Chair of the Committee David Bitan, Chair of the Jewish Agency Isaac 'Boogie' Herzog, Secretary-General of the Jewish Agency Josh Schwartz, and MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, at the Knesset Aliya Committee's observance of the anniversary of the Pittsburgh terrorist attack, October 27, 2020. (Becca Wertman)
MK and Chair of the Committee David Bitan, Chair of the Jewish Agency Isaac 'Boogie' Herzog, Secretary-General of the Jewish Agency Josh Schwartz, and MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, at the Knesset Aliya Committee's observance of the anniversary of the Pittsburgh terrorist attack, October 27, 2020. (Becca Wertman)

To mark the second anniversary of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs held a roundtable discussion on anti-Semitism in the United States for MKs and representatives of leading US Jewish organizations.

Joining in the discussion moderated by committee head David Bitan were a handful of MKs, Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog, Israeli desks of several US-based Jewish organizations and, via Zoom, the heads of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Anti-Defamation League in the US. The meeting also served as the Knesset’s observance of Aliya Day, which was marked in Israeli schools this week.

Bitan, who himself immigrated to Israel from Morocco as a child, opened the meeting by reading out the names of the murdered Jews from the recent attacks in the United States, including the 11 murdered at Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018; the April 27, 2019, attack at the Chabad of Poway in Poway, California; and the twin December 2019 murderous attacks on Orthodox Jews in New Jersey and Monsey, New York. Bitan tasked those present to envision a memorial to the fallen and implement an annual national ceremony in Israel.

Pittsburgh Jewish Federation head Jeff Finkelstein told the committee, “In 2.5 hours it will be exactly two years since I found myself at the Tree of Life shooting.”

“The trauma still presents a dark cloud over all of us,” Finkelstein said, noting that the coronavirus crisis is doubly difficult for the three now-homeless congregations that had been housed in the synagogue, given temporary accommodations elsewhere, and now find themselves scattered online.

A memorial for the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. (Hane Grace Yagel via JTA)

Emphasizing that the security in the city’s Jewish communal institutions is stronger than ever, Finkelstein said, “We must do what we can to not only make sure that everyone is safe, but that everyone feels safe.”

Finkelstein said that in the wake of the largest terror attack against Jews in the US, the Pittsburgh community is even more engaged and enrollment is up at the communal day schools and synagogues.

“Anti-Semitism is still here, but any time it shows its evil face it has the unintended consequence of [strengthening us] and building our resilience as a Jewish community,” said Finkelstein.

In a brief ADL film screened at the meeting, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said that the real strength of the city “comes from the kindness and empathy we’re able to share… in a community that would not allow itself to be divided by hate, but instead showed that the true way to beat hate is through love.”

The Knesset meeting came a day after the release of a new, dire survey of anti-Semitism trends in the United States completed by the American Jewish Committee, which found that Jews feel increasingly unsafe even while the general US population is losing touch with the definition of anti-Semitism.

AJC Managing Director of Global Communications Avi Mayer presents the findings of a new survey of anti-Semitism in the US to the Knesset Aliya Committee, October 27, 2020. (Screenshot)

“That nearly half of all Americans do not know what anti-Semitism is or have never even heard of it was as shocking to the legislators as it was to us,” AJC managing director of Global Communications Avi Mayer told The Times of Israel following the meeting. “As we mark the second anniversary of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack and remember the 11 lives lost that terrible day, it is imperative that we recommit to combating anti-Semitism in all its forms and no matter its source, and we appreciate the Israeli government’s partnership in eradicating the scourge of Jew-hatred throughout the world.”

MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, who grew up in Canada, said that even Israeli students are at risk for misunderstanding or not fully grasping the three Ds included in the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism — Delegitimization of Israel, Demonization of Israel, Subjecting Israel to Double standards — even as it is increasingly adopted internationally.

“It is imperative that the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is utilized, in its entirety, to address this gap in knowledge and to educate all on what anti-Semitism is and its various manifestations. This consensus definition has been adopted by over 30 countries and we must ensure that within these countries and everywhere, that students and the general public learn about anti-Semitism, as defined by IHRA, for we must define the problem in order to combat it,” said Cotler-Wunsh.

Blue and White MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh (Avishai Finkelstein)

Stating that the Pittsburgh shooter was incited toward violence online, Cotler-Wunsh pushed for stricter measures against anti-Semitism and white supremacy on social media, a sentiment that was echoed by ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt in his remarks from New York.

“I am sad to say that anti-Semitism has increased in in the US in ways that would have once seemed unthinkable… the evidence is indisputable,” said Greenblatt. He said that the “evil of right-wing extremism” cannot be underestimated and that the violent anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic rhetoric are equally disturbing on the far left, even as the leftist hate speech “may be clothed in the language of academia.”

Citing recent steps taken by social media giants, including Facebook, Tiktok, Twitter, and YouTube, to reduce the spread of online hate and Holocaust denial, Greenblatt asserted that “anti-Semitism can be beaten” if all segments of the Jewish community works in cooperation with the private sector and government.

“We are all in this together,” said Greenblatt. “Our enemies seek to divide us, they separate us with politics… [but] in the end we must remember that family comes first.”

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