Hate Crime Visits Pittsburgh, again.

April 28, 2000. I’m sitting in the lobby of the Gatwick Airport Hilton having a cup of coffee with colleagues. It’s early morning— it would be early afternoon back in my hometown of Pittsburgh. A co-worker walks over to me and says, “you need to call home right now”. I looked puzzled. She continued, “someone just shot up your synagogue. I just saw it on CNN”. What she heard was very much true. A white supremacist named Richard Baumhammers had gone on a shooting spree, driving to various locations around the city and killing people— a Jew, an African-American, two Indian-Americans, and two Vietnamese-Americans. On his very methodical and mapped out tour, he took time to stop at our little shul in the Borough of Carnegie and shoot out all the plate glass windows in the building entrance. No one was in the shul at that time of day. (Note: I prefer to use the Yiddish word “shul” instead of “synagogue”)

I have always held an opinion that this kind of crime was not really predictable or preventable (Baumhammers used a hand gun and had no prior interactions with police). To me they were like lightning striking. These horrific events were random in nature, occurring at various places around the country at various intervals. They’re horrific when they visit your doorstep, but you have no choice but to deal with it and move on. I subsequently argued against locking down the shul during services or having an armed guard. I’ve never wanted to live in a cage or avoid public life out of fear. After all, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. But. But. But. In just the past week we’ve had pipe bombs sent to 14 people including two former presidents, two African-Americans were murdered for no other reason than they were black, and 11 Jews were murdered here in Pittsburgh at Tree of Life Congregation. (Tree of Life is in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, not in my borough). White nationalist violence now clearly has a green light from President Trump and the Republican Party is solidly behind him. I’m afraid the violence is just getting started. Because the Tree of Life shooting occurred just two days ago, I don’t have a coherent message about what I expect in the future (other than more building security). But here are some thoughts that were going through my head this weekend.

  1. The shooter, Robert Bowers, didn’t just pick Tree of Life at random. He got the name from HIAS’ list of congregations participating in a special program to welcome and assist refugees. In one of his online postings, Bowers actually thanked HIAS for giving him a list of targets. HIAS is an old organization that does noble work. Living nearby to me are a young couple with a small child who are Syrian Kurd refugees. They are grateful to be here in America. I am a donor to HIAS and will continue to be.

2. Leaders of our neighboring Muslim community reached out to me immediately after the shooting. I value their friendship and camaraderie. Pittsburgh Muslims and Jews have a mutually supportive relationship. That might seem strange to some, but there are a lot of white supremacists in Western Pennsylvania. Jews and Muslims have learned to look after each other. Watch this clip to the end.

3. Too many Jews are under the impression they are white. Can we just stop that please? Just stop. If you know your history, then you know that “whiteness” was invented by the klan to establish the white power structure that we still live with today. Jews are not included, no matter how white your skin may appear. Robert Bowers obviously doesn’t think you’re white; that should be a clue.

4. Trump says he’s coming to Pittsburgh. I’m not sure that a white nationalist president will be welcome at a Jewish funeral. And Israeli PM Netanyahu says he’s sending Naftali Bennett to Pittsburgh as an outreach. I don’t think Israeli Trumpsters are any more welcome than Trump himself. But we’ll see.

5. The Tree of Life shooting reminded us that if you see news reports like, “active shooter. officers down. suspect under arrest.”, that means the shooter is white. Brown or black people do not survive shooting a police officer.

In peace and solidarity.

Denial and self-deception: how Trump’s fans defend his anti-Semitic use of the Star of David


I’ve been monitoring the efforts of Trump supporters (including some who are, or hint at being, Jewish) to dampen the controversy triggered by his July 2 tweeting of an image of the Jewish star (Star of David) and Hillary Clinton, with a pile of cash in the background. Although Trump aides have replaced the Jewish star with a circle, Trump himself continues to make arcane excuses (as, on July 4, that the star was just a sheriff’s badge or that it was just a “plain star”–see the Huffington Post). On July 6, he said in a Cincinnati speech that his aides should not have deleted the star. (“In Defiant, Angry Speech, Trump Defends a Post Seen as Anti-Semitic,” New York Times, July 7.)

Trump’s followers are repeating and elaborating on his excuses, either cynically or as part of their psychology of denial. You can see a sampling of their responses at the Facebook page of historian Ron Radosh, who incurred their wrath (July 3) by linking to a piece in the Forward blasting Trump on this issue.

First, Trump’s supporters try to narrow down the range of what needs to be explained away. They address only his one-time use of a single image, while (a) not mentioning the neo-Nazi/white supremacist source of the image as reported by Esquire and (b) not mentioning the many other tweets that Trump has lifted from neo-Nazi/white supremacist sites, as reported by Jason Easley in Politicus USA. In addition, Trump supporters mechanically separate out anti-Semitism (which they blame on the Left alone) and white supremacy (which they simply ignore), although, in fact, you cannot separate the two forms of bigotry either in the contents of the sites that Trump is borrowing from or in the character of the crowds attracted to his rallies. (David Duke, who hates both Jews and racial minorities, has endorsed Trump–and has also opined that the star in Trump’s tweet is definitely the Star of David.)

Finally, even when Trump’s supporters address the sole issue they deign to recognize–the six-pointed star used in a single Trump tweet–they only compare the star to a sheriff’s badge while ignoring the pile of hundred dollar bills in which the star is embedded and the political corruption allegation that links the two together. The implication of their evasions is that the image is merely urging law enforcement (the “sheriffs”) to arrest Hillary Clinton. But the Star of David in the image refers not to Clinton but to the pile of money (representing Jewish influence, as anti-Semites see it) that supposedly has corrupted her. The image’s attack on Clinton resides in the suggestion that she has allowed herself to be corrupted by the Jews; thus, THE JEWS ARE THE MAIN TARGET.

One Trump supporter tried to invert this message by depicting the Jews as the victims. Hillary, he said, “uses liberal Jews for a voting block.” This statement may or may not be true to some extent (as with other voting blocs), but it is certainly NOT the statement embedded in the image that was being discussed.

As to Trump’s claim that the star in the image was just a sheriff’s badge, let’s put this excuse to rest once and for all. A sheriff’s badge is just that, a badge. It is not a Jewish star, which is depicted with sharp points (as in the image Trump tweeted). Sheriff’s badges, as portrayed in many Google images, have a round thingamajig (often a quite large one) at the end of each point as well as other identifying features. Furthermore, a sheriff’s badge may have five points (as in a star pentagon) or seven points (a heptagram, also known as a septagram), rather than the six points of the hexagram, or Jewish star; in other words, the sheriff’s badge is not universally identified with six points the way the Jewish star is. And if the star tweeted by Trump truly had been intended as a sheriff’s badge it would have been shown on a sheriff’s breast or in another clearly identifiable manner, not as a generic hexagram on top of a pile of cash. Note that in all the examples below, unlike in Trump’s tweet, the badge has information identifying itself as a sheriff’s badge.

Little balls on the edges are not included in Trump's tweet.

Little balls on the edges are not included in Trump’s tweet.

Some badges have only five stars.

Some badges have only five stars.

Some badges have seven stars, not six.

Some badges have seven stars, not six.

Trump also claimed that the star was just a “plain star.” I went to Google images and typed in “star images.”  The overwhelming majority of the stars displayed were five-pointed star pentagons, not the six-pointed Jewish star. Even most of the blue-colored stars (blue of course is the color of the outline of the Jewish star on the Israeli flag) were five-pointed. I typed in “plain star images” and got similar results. Thus another Trump excuse goes kaput.

Supporters of Trump are so hysterical over this issue that they are dredging up the crankiest of arguments. One supporter posted that everything is okay because a six-pointed star is used not only in sheriffs’ badges but also in the Great Seal of the United States. Now there is, at the top of the seal (above the eagle), a collection of small stars (five-pointed star pentagons, not hexagrams) that represent the 13 original states. The necessity of aligning 13 stars to fit into a circle that would express the unity of the 13 states meant there would be one at the top, one at the bottom and rows of four, three, four in between, which produces the appearance of six small bumps. 

To make these into a hexagram with characteristics comparable to the Jewish star is a stretch. There is a legend that the alignment of the 13 stars within the circle was ordered by George Washington out of gratitude to Haym Salomon, a Jewish businessmen who helped the Revolutionary Army. According to the Wikipedia article on Salomon (who in fact was a notable figure in the American Revolution), there is no evidence for this legend. Indeed, “legend” is too polite a word for what is really an anti-Semitic meme. The conspiracy-drenched website of James Japan, for instance, has suggested (a) that the arrangement of the Great Seal stars is evidence “that Zionists have secret control of the currency [of the United States]” and (b) that the Jewish star is linked to the “occult.”

Japan refers his readers to a Texe Marrs video for further information. Marrs is an anti-Semite and Flat Earther who runs the Power of Prophecy Ministries–and is a strong supporter of Trump, urging him to continue to challenge the Jews. Marrs has not only speculated about the Great Seal but he’s also written a book about a gigantic worldwide conspiracy symbolized by the Jewish star; he sells this tract on his website in tandem with the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch quotes him as saying, on the radio talk show of Jeff Rense (a promoter also of the ideas of Lyndon LaRouche, David Duke and Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel): “The Jews cannot administer a country, they don’t know how to run a country, all they are, well they’re just plain, well, you know, they’re parasites. They can get into a country and take over its financial system, and use the propaganda organs of a country, but they really don’t know how to administer for the good of the people. They cannot even administer the economy in the nation of Israel today.”

Flat-earther Marrs claims to give “Eye Opening Revelations…about Israel, the Jews, Zionism and the Rothschilds.”

Regardless of what the cranks and haters claim, the aesthetically pleasing arrangement of the stars in the Great Seal (rooted in the historical accident that the number of original states was 13) is not a plausible excuse for Trump’s trafficking in anti-Semitic hexagram images. If he had wanted to use the Great Seal for this purpose, he could just have taken a dollar bill out of his wallet and run the back side of it through a scanner. But then, his message of hate would have been diluted to the point of absurdity and would have lost its usefulness in whipping up his base.