By Michal Rose Friedman
This piece is part of the second 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.
Since we published our first installment of “Speaking Justice to Power: Pittsburgh Scholars respond to the Tree of Life Shooting,” national and global events have served as painful reminders that the forces which led a man to walk into a Pittsburgh synagogue on October 27th, 2018 during a Shabbat service and murder 11 Jewish individuals with precision and cold blooded cruelty, have been amplified. In fact, they are louder than ever.
On several occasions in recent weeks, people from outside of Pittsburgh have commented to me that “given the news cycle,” discussion of the Tree of Life massacre has quite understandably fallen into the backdrop. I fully disagree with the sentiment of such statements. The massacre at Tree of Life must be understood and analyzed as an event with long-lasting and far reaching implications—as something of a watershed moment in U.S. and Jewish history, as well as in the history of how communities respond to acts of violence against minorities and engage in acts of resistance. We would be remiss if we were to relegate such events to a list of “senseless acts of hate”, or to the statistical data on mass killings or hate crimes. Taken together with other local initiatives, and the first installment of this series, the pieces published here serve to initiate important discussion and analysis in considering the shootings at Tree of Life as an event, as their authors reflect on their engagements with the historian’s charge in the wake of the massacre and resist interpretations confined to a reductive or exclusively presentist lens.
Taking inspiration from Marc Bloch’s “The Historian’s Craft”—a work Bloch conceived of during WWII when he was no longer “doing history,” but forced into hiding as a Jew in Vichy France and became an active member of the French resistance—Avigail Oren was moved to challenge her own earlier historical findings which led her to “dismiss any and all arguments that antisemitism was a major issue for Jews in America.” Heeding Bloch’s caution that “in history, as elsewhere, the causes cannot be assumed. They are to be looked for…”, in her piece, she turns to methodology to find an answer “for how activist historians could speak truth to power without cutting their own legs out from underneath them.” Such a reading of Bloch’s message transcends national borders and specific time periods, while also featuring resistance (to persecution)—an optimistic antidote to the enduring lachrymose conception of Jewish history (a view of Jewish history as consisting of a series of persecutions) and one which nonetheless does not dismiss the history and persistence of antisemitism.
Indeed, the now painfully evident endurance of antisemitism in the U.S. and its centrality to white nationalist ideology, as well as its alarming prominence in remerging right wing nationalism in Europe, forces those of us engaged in the study of the Jewish past to find ever new ways of confronting and challenging the lachrymose conceptions of Jewish history bequeathed to us. Searching for messages of optimism and a basis for action, as Oren does in Bloch’s canonical work, is certainly one way to start.
One such way in which the pieces in this installment inspire a more forward looking and optimistic reading of Jewish history and activism, is by their implicit revisiting of the axial paradigm of vertical versus horizontal alliances, first noted by historian Salo W. Baron and later elaborated on by Yosef H. Yerushalmi, in governing the structure of Jewish diasporic history. Although vertical alliances form an undeniably important aspect of Jewish history in that Jews as a diasporic minority historically often depended on their relationship with rulers to guarantee their basic rights and protection, this paradigm nonetheless overlooks Jews’ horizontal alliances as significant in shaping minority histories. As all of the pieces in this installment illuminate, the local response in Pittsburgh allows precisely for the kind of imaginative optimism that a focus on Jews’ and other communities’ horizontal alliances past and present could offer scholars of Jewish history and all activists fighting against white supremacy.
Trump’s visit to Pittsburgh shortly after the shootings, despite city officials’ request that he postpone his visit out of respect for the victims’ families and widespread sentiment that he was not welcome here, begs attention to such horizontal alliances. As several of the authors in this series describe in their pieces, when Trump visited Pittsburgh, thousands of Pittsburghers of all backgrounds joined the protest march organized jointly by two local Jewish organizations, Bend the Arc and IfNotNow Pittsburgh. Following the lead of the organizers, marchers continuously chanted the words of a Hebrew prayer. When the march encountered the convey escorting the President’s motorcade away from the synagogue, a moment that many of us later recounted as one of tremendous tension and which made our hearts race, someone at the front of the march yelled out: “Turn your backs” followed by a call to “take a knee”! We turned our backs to our president and kneeled in unison as if the motions had been choreographed, all the while continuing to sing, in Hebrew. As the convey left and we approached the synagogue, march leaders led thousands of Pittsburghers in the ancient Jewish mourning ritual of Kriah, involving the rending of fabric. The way everyone effortlessly joined in Hebrew singing and symbolic Jewish ritual, embodied what I experienced as a community bound in the most vulnerable sort of solidarity. This was a neighborhood and city which allowed itself to mourn together, to stand in solidarity together and be vulnerable together. I then understood that this is what solidarity felt like.
Crowds taking a knee at the march, video by Brandon Blanche Cohen. A still from this video is used on this website’s homepage.
In her essay in this installment, Rachel Kranson, reflects on her role in writing Bend the Arc Pittsburgh’s public letter asking Trump to fully denounce white nationalism and in organizing this protest, as well as how such activism intersects and parts ways with her academic training. The experience made her more cognizant of the many safeguards the academic process affords us, a process which did not prepare her for the vulnerability that planning such an urgent and delicate response to the shootings would entail. The vulnerability, passion and commitment she experienced leads her to a reevaluation of what future scholarship on the topic might entail, and offers fresh insights into academic practice and the ways we “do history.” I would add that although no one could have possibly imagined the great success of the march and the astounding display of communal support for it from across the city, and despite some dissenting voices, the horizontal alliances Bend the Arc Pittsburgh, in particular, as well as other local Jewish organizations had labored to build in the city, not only bore fruit, but were in themselves a safety net allowing for the strong embrace of the protest and its explicit Jewish, yet inclusive, character.
Given Trump’s repeated catering to white nationalists and deployment of classic antisemitic tropes, vertical alliances appear to have lost any purchase, at least in the present day United States. On January 25th, 2019 the President delivered his State of the Union address in which he cynically used Pittsburgh’s recent tragedy and Jewish history, as a way of deflecting accusations of his and his government’s employment of anti-Semitic tropes, an attempt to drive a wedge among Jews and to legitimize his racist and xenophobic remarks about Latin American migrants. With a Pittsburgh SWAT officer who had been a first responder and a Pittsburgh Holocaust survivor and Tree of Life member, as well as another Holocaust survivor who survived Dachau and a veteran who was among the U.S. soldiers who liberated the concentration camp at his side, Trump touted the U.S.’s role in defeating fascism and liberating Jews during the Holocaust, obscuring the fact that the U.S. openly turned away many Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism and did not join the war until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. This thinly veiled attempt to ‘restore’ any such vertical alliance was met with harsh responses by local Pittsburgh Jewish activists who authored another damning letter to the President:
…If we are to really change the world for the better, the lessons we should take from the Holocaust are not only how Americans liberated the camps, but also how they refused entry to many Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. Americans may have liberated Dachau, but they also turned away the MS St. Louis.
The Jews of Pittsburgh know that the violence plaguing our country does not come from refugees and undocumented immigrants. According to the Anti-Defamation League, right-wing ideologues were responsible for 98% of the domestic “extremist-related” killings in 2018, with white supremacists accounting for 78% of those murders…
President Trump, your failure to denounce white nationalism led to the deaths of our friends and neighbors, and continues to endanger us…President Trump, we once again call upon you to commit yourself to compassionate, democratic policies that recognize the dignity of all of us.
In Pittsburgh, the local response—broadly conceived, and which incorporates the insights gleaned from all of the essays in our blog series—in fact serves as a powerful antidote to the anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant vitriol expressed by the shooter and enabled by the president, as well as to the limitations and perils of the exclusive vertical alliance paradigm.
Indeed, in the days and weeks after the massacre I found myself repeating the word “heartened” in writing or speaking friends about the local response to the massacre. Like many other Jews in the city, I was deeply moved by the outpouring of support from across communities, individuals and city officials for the Jewish community, a response that nonetheless stood out to me as highly unusual in the history of anti-Semitic violence, in which members of neighboring populations typically acted as bystanders or were directly involved in the violence.
In Pittsburgh, however, the response has been so impressive precisely in that it illuminates the centrality and importance of Jews’ local horizontal alliances in governing Jewish welfare, breaking with a long history of Jews standing mainly alone in the face of antisemitic violence, often beholden to the will and whims of governing authorities. That longer history remains for better or worse a part of a collective historical consciousness which never seems quite far away (enough). This historical consciousness, and confessedly my own family history as a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, in spite of intellectual efforts to challenge such a lachrymose view, rendered me unable to begin to even imagine such a powerful local response and embrace of the Jewish community, until I bore witness to such developments in the wake of the Tree of Life Attack.
I was particularly struck by the ways the response suggested an implicit understanding of the burden of the history of antisemitism and the dangers of its reemergence. I was also struck by the way this embrace by the Pittsburgh community never seemed perfunctory or forced: Not once did it resonate as a programmed or generic response of ‘liberal tolerance’ towards a minority group living in its midst. This was a grassroots response.
As the funerals began, the local Pittsburgh Post-Gazette chose to publish the Hebrew words to the Kadish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer as its headline. The local Muslim community began a vigorous fundraising campaign for the Jewish victims and their families and also offered to physically guard Jewish synagogues and schools. Speakers from CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) Pittsburgh and leaders of the Latino and immigrant rights community, unequivocally denounced anti-Semitism.
The windows of the business district of Squirrel Hill displayed Jewish symbols and other signs of solidarity with the Jewish community and most are still displayed to this day. On a day that happened to coincide with the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the non-Jewish manager of the Starbucks closest to Tree of Life decided to paint what has become a permanent display of Jewish symbols on the coffee shop’s windows. The Asian-American community in Squirrel Hill added its own more detailed sign, indicating its sorrow and explaining how it always felt at home and welcomed by its Jewish neighbors. Such gestures of solidarity signaled to me that Jews in Pittsburgh were not only valued, but seen as an integral part of the fabric of city, as neighbors, friends, and as Pittsburghers.
The “Stronger than Hate” logo which blended the Jewish Star and the Pittsburgh Steeler’s logo (the Steelers, Pittsburgh’s Football team, embody Pittsburgh patriotism around here), a symbol I found incredibly tacky yet also heartwarming because it was so very ‘Pittsburgh,’ was seen throughout the city on T-shirts, storefronts, and was prominently displayed at the Pittsburgh airport. When I arrived at a seminar which took place the week after the shooting at the University of Pittsburgh’s impressive Humanities Center, the director of the Center greeted us wearing a Stronger than Hate T-shirt.
I was not the only one overcome by this response, as some Jewish community leaders began to publicly question whether the Jewish community had been as supportive to other communities in the past and vowed that going forward, as Laurie Eisenberg notes in her piece, they would stand as strongly with other communities in moments of need. This too I found heartening.
I was heartened when the editors of The Volunteer, the paper founded by the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, today published by ALBA (The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives), reached out immediately and chose to open their editorial by expressing their shock about the “anti-Semitic hate crime at the Tree of Life Synagogue” noting that the previous Spring ALBA had presented a seminar “at another Squirrel Hill Temple just five minutes away,” followed by a quote from their “friends in Pittsburgh” about the hope and anger such an event espoused. This expression of solidarity particularly moved me, as it gave new meaning to the historical significance and legacy of anti-fascist struggle as having held particular meaning for Jews, while reaffirming the endurance of the bonds of transcultural and interclass solidarity such struggle entails.
Other responses from afar seemed to confirm the local aura many of us experienced: that of a community bound in steadfast solidarity. A colleague from Israel wrote to me that “We are here very impressed hearing about the diversity and strength of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh and I will even say that the openness and diversity is something that we in Israel are so much in need of!!!!” That Jews of different denominations, including ultra-Orthodox and unaffiliated Jews, habitually socialize in Pittsburgh, is something that indeed stood out to me as someone who grew up in Israel and NY, where this was certainly not the case.
After all, such a resounding response would have been impossible if horizontal relations between different communities in the city and even among different kinds of Jews, were not already on a somewhat sound foundation, despite recognizable imperfections which certainly demand our attention. The unique character and history of the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood which has remained interruptedly a Jewish neighborhood for the longest period in the U.S.—a topic studied by scholars of urban and US Jewish history—and which has continued to incorporate new groups of immigrants into the fabric of the neighborhood, might also have served as a factor in shaping this response. Finally, the mutual understanding that we are living in precarious times, and need to protect each other and speak up, surely appeared to have played a role. Even at the most official of the memorial services, in the stately Sailors and Soldiers Memorial Hall, inspired speeches from different clergy and city officials which referred to elected officials using words of hate were met with chants of “vote” “vote” “vote” “vote”!
This overwhelming pluralistic response was palpable at the various vigils, protest marches and the memorial that emerged almost immediately in front of the Tree of Life building. In what is perhaps the most intimate piece in the series, Laurie Eisenberg writes about her role as a curator of this unofficial Tree of Life memorial which continued to grow, until poor weather and concern for the artifacts led to it being moved inside the building. As a historian, Eisenberg was concerned with painstakingly documenting every single item left at the site of the massacre, its meaning and how the memorial as a whole reflected the compassionate and remarkable pluralistic response to the massacre by the wider Pittsburgh community. As a life-long member of the Tree of Life congregation, Eisenberg’s piece suggests how her dedicated role as curator also took on a nurturing and intimate quality, as engaging in such work formed part of her own process of healing from the events; a process in many ways encapsulated by the very memorial artifacts she so painstakingly worked to recover and preserve for future scholars who will study and analyze the events.
As I write this, we learned of the horrific Friday March 16th terrorist attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand which left at least 49 Muslims dead and scores of others seriously wounded. These attacks, carried out on the Muslim day of prayer, present disturbing similarities with the Tree of Life massacre. As Lara Putnam reminds us in her piece, the Pittsburgh shooter had entered the “Tree of Life” building on October 27th soon after posting on Gab that “HIAS 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.” In mid-October, her congregation, Dor Chadash (one of the three congregations housed in the Tree of Life building) joined the nationwide “National Refugee Shabbat,” part of a HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) initiative “highlighting our obligation as Jews to step forward for those fleeing persecution and violence.” It was precisely the building of such horizontal alliances, ones that have long inspired the entwining of antisemitism, nativism and anti-immigrant sentiments, that led the killer to target Jews.
In New Zealand as well, the attacks were committed by a white nationalist inspired by similar anti-immigrant sentiments and conspiracy theories, which over the last years have become increasingly normalized in his native country of Australia. As it emerges that the character of this recent violence is globalized, the response to Tree of Life must become part of a wider response. The kinds of local connections and alliances we have begun to build in Pittsburgh, including the recovery of shared histories of struggle and interethnic relations, must transcend local and national boundaries, as communities like those in Pittsburgh, Christchurch, Charleston and Quebec stand in solidarity in their grief and form new and deeper alliances. Pittsburgh’s Jewish community has already begun raising funds for the victims in Christchurch and has reached out to the local Muslim community. The continued building of such horizontal alliances across multiple ethnic, political and geographic boundaries, might be one way we might begin to address Lara Putnam’s daunting question of ¨what now¨?
 I emphasize the importance of such focus in a recent article on emerging and comparative trends in modern Jewish history which I titled “Beyond Exceptionalism,” in Dean Phillip Bell ed. The Routledge Companion to Jewish History and Historiography (NY & London: Routledge, 2018).
 For discussion of this longer history in the U.S. see for example Jaclyn Granick and Britt Tevis, “Why the Pittsburgh shooter raged about immigration before attacking a synagogue,” The Washington Post, October 28, 2018.
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.
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.