By Heath Cabot
This piece is part of the first installment of Speaking Justice to Power: Local Pittsburgh Scholars Respond to the Tree of Life Shooting, a series edited by Heath Cabot and Michal Rose Friedman.
The shooting that took place on October 27, 2018 in Pittsburgh, at the Tree of Life Synagogue, (home to three congregations), leaving eleven people dead, was the largest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. The attack, like most unspeakable events, was almost immediately coopted into larger debates unfolding on national and global scales and diverse political agendas. Not an hour after the shooter was caught, President Trump attempted to claim the event for a specific conservative platform, speaking in defense of the death penalty and, later, of bearing arms, suggesting that the presence of armed guards in the synagogue might have dissuaded the shooter (commensurate with his earlier proposal for schoolteachers to hold guns). On the more left-leaning side of things, it was noted how this attack had not only targeted Jews but, specifically, Jews who had shown support for migrants and refugees through practices of inclusion. Meanwhile, media sources spoke of how the Jewish Community in the US was reacting to this event, which had resurrected the threat not just of hate and discrimination, but also bodily harm that many knew had never really gone away.
Here in Pittsburgh, where I arrived just a little over two years ago to teach at U Pitt, my own encounters with these larger-scale discussions and debates was marked by a feeling of profound alienation as well as a sense that, fundamentally, the aftershocks of this event were irreducibly immediate and local. And even though I was myself “local,” I knew that I remained very much on the margins of understanding their implications. The messages I received from friends overseas asking if I was OK were appreciated, but somehow felt deeply misplaced; it seemed almost fraudulent to be prompted to “mark myself safe” on social media. The shooting had happened just a couple of miles from my house. But as I live in Bloomfield (Pittsburgh’s historic “Little Italy”), I felt far away from my many colleagues and friends in Squirrel Hill who had spent their Saturday in lock-down or in their houses. As I did not hear gunshots or sirens, if I had not turned on the radio I would not have known what was taking place. Moreover, I am not a native Pittsburgher or long-time resident. A great many of my friends here knew some of the victims, or at least knew someone who knew them; for instance, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz had his practice in my own neighborhood and was well-known by many of my neighbors, but I had never met him. Finally, I am not Jewish, and so no amount of proximity to this event would have allowed me to understand the full implications of such an attack on safety and community.
And yet, discussions originating outside Pittsburgh regarding the “the Jewish Community” seemed somehow monolithic, even as the shootings had wide and terrible resonance for Jews everywhere in the US. Such characterizations risked eliding, yet again, the layers and textures of the local: the enormous diversity of Jewish residents who have called Squirrel Hill home, and who demonstrated profoundly differing responses to the event. Squirrel Hill has long been famed as a community in a deeper sense of the term (it was, after all, Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood), where people are closely connected and find ways to mediate their differences; a space where new arrivals also feel notably welcome (not just those who share the Jewish faith).
In short, the cooptation of the shootings for wider political agendas, while understandable and perhaps unavoidable, seemed in part to be an affront to the micro-textures and deeply local traumas of something that I, physically proximate though I was, could not understand.
The dilemmas and debates that emerged in Pittsburgh after the shooting were immediate, personal, and presented themselves at the level of the everyday. The city was lucky to have a sober and thoughtful set of religious and political leaders and activists who were crucial in the aftermath. At vigils held in Pittsburgh in the days after the event, a sense of both breathtaking sorrow as well as powerful solidarity held sway. But this sense of solidarity was challenged when President Trump decided to make a visit to the Tree of Life Synagogue on the very day when many of the victims’ funerals were being held. Was Trump’s visit an insult to their memory and to a community still reeling, given his ties to white supremacy? Or was it appropriate and presidential? A gathering in honor of the dead, organized by local groups Bend the Arc Pittsburgh and IfNotNow Pittsburgh, was held at the time of Trump’s visit. Many participated explicitly to show their frustration with the president; others to show solidarity and mourn the dead. Others found such a gathering itself to be disrespectful and distracting. There was, of course, no easy response; after all, the tasks of adequately mourning, repairing, and healing in the wake of such violence are, in many ways, impossible.
The need for a more local, textured set of insights into the Tree of Life Shootings is what spurred this latest intervention in the APLA/ PoLAR blog series Speaking Justice to Power. On national and global scales, the shootings, recent though they were, have already begun to fade into the increasingly saturated inventory of gun violence and hate crimes in the US. This makes it all the more necessary to call up the, still raw, open-ended struggles that many in Pittsburgh are carrying out in the aftermath. As recent PoLAR editor, I was privileged to be able to team up with Michal Rose Friedman from Carnegie Mellon University whose networks in Pittsburgh, knowledge of the subtleties of the local landscape, and academic training in Jewish history laid the ground for these contributions.
The topics taken up in this series are both urgent and enduring. How to mourn, honor, and memorialize the dead (as illustrated in Jay Aronson’s piece, and in Laurie Eisenberg’s piece in the forthcoming second installment)? How to support students, friends, and colleagues? As Lara Putnam’s piece highlights, how do we talk about this event? What other issues does it link up with, and what are the responsibilities of educators? The role of politics and “the political” remain a profound issue. What can and should protest look like, and what productive possibilities for politics are there in such a context (as Michael Goodhart’s piece analyzes)? And as Avigail Oren, one of the organizers from Bend the Arc as well as a historian, discusses in our next installment, how can one meld one’s engagement in academic work (itself an ethical and political task) with the imperatives of such an event?
There is nothing necessarily representative or unified in the voices that intervene here. But each of these pieces speak to the deeply personal, immediate, community-level ways in which some engaged academics in Pittsburgh are dealing with this encounter with violence.
Heath Cabot is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. She is a political and legal anthropologist whose research examines citizenship, ethics, and rights in Europe, with a focus on Greece. She is author of On the Doorstep of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece (Penn Press 2014). From 2014-2018 she was the co-editor-in-chief of PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review.
Michal Rose Friedman (Columbia University, PhD 2012) is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University. She has been a postdoctoral fellow at the seminars of Advanced Jewish Studies at Oxford University and the Herbert D. Katz Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the intersection of Jewish and Iberian History and particularly on Modern Spain’s relation to its Jewish past and its legacy of medieval inter-religious exchange or “convivencia,” as well as how this historical recovery connects to issues of tolerance and intolerance in contemporary Europe. She is the author of multiple articles and book chapters on these topics.