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Former President and convicted felon Donald Trump menaces at the camera during his hearing.
Opinion | Hold your elected officials morally responsible
By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • June 18, 2024

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Former President and convicted felon Donald Trump menaces at the camera during his hearing.
Opinion | Hold your elected officials morally responsible
By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • June 18, 2024

Five Years Later: A Squirrel Hill Jew looks back at Tree of Life shooting, and forward to collective liberation

Five+Years+Later%3A+A+Squirrel+Hill+Jew+looks+back+at+Tree+of+Life+shooting%2C+and+forward+to+collective+liberation
TPN File Photo

In the fall of 2018, after graduating high school that spring, I began my first semester at Pitt. I can’t remember if I started considering dropping out before or after the Tree of Life attack happened. 

But I remember passing through the bright and happy lobby of Litchfield Tower C on a Saturday morning. I was headed towards the elevator to go up to my dorm room when I passed a television playing the news. I immediately froze and turned my attention to the news anchors as they reported the ongoing situation at a Squirrel Hill synagogue. With my eyes glued to the screen, I lowered myself into one of the seats in front of the television. I must have sat there for over an hour as students came and went around me, seemingly no one taking notice of the scene that held my attention so raptly. Across the room, a man began having an obnoxiously loud phone conversation, his echoing voice bouncing around the room. I turned to glare at him, but he didn’t seem to notice.

A couple of days later, or perhaps it was even the next day, I passed by a long line that began inside the student union building and went all the way out the door.

“What’s this line for?” I asked one of the queued-up students. 

“It’s for ‘stronger than hate’ T-shirts! Don’t you want one?” 

“Not really.”

“Why not? It’s free, and it’s for a good cause!” 

I gave a half-hearted smile and continued on my way.

Eleven of my community members are dead. No, I don’t want a free T-shirt.

In the days following the attack I felt shocked, yet numb. I was not very surprised by the attack. The Unite the Right rally had occurred only a year prior. Gun violence and antisemitic hate crimes had already been on the rise, partly thanks to Donald Trump, and it was only a matter of time before they both collided somewhere. 

Why not here in Squirrel Hill, an old and vibrant Jewish community with plenty of synagogues, where if you drive just 20 minutes out of the city you can see confederate flags and “back the blue” bumper stickers? It’s as good a place as any for such a horrid thing.

 About a week or two before the attack, I attended an “undoing racism” weekend workshop, organized by Youth Undoing Institutional Racism and The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. The workshop was led by Felicia Lane-Savage and Martin Friedman, both of whom I came to admire and respect tremendously for their knowledge and care in leading the workshop. They are two amazing anti-racism activists. 

Having received two years of Holocaust education at my private K-8 Jewish day school, I was already somewhat aware of how Jews, even white Jews like myself, were racialized in the past and still are sometimes, even in the present. During the workshop we focused mostly on anti-Black racism, but also touched on antisemitism and how white American Jews have semi-successfully assimilated into whiteness. We are often able to pass as white, but it is a conditional whiteness, especially in a country like the U.S. where Christian hegemony reigns supreme. We learned how both racism and antisemitism are tools of white supremacy.

Perhaps it was because I had so recently attended this workshop and explored these concepts that the attack on the synagogue did not surprise me as much as it seemed to surprise others in my community. If the workshop illustrated for me how, even today, Jewish whiteness is conditional, then the Tree of Life attack brought the illustration to life.

A couple of days after the attack, Donald Trump came to Pittsburgh to pay his respects. Many of us Pittsburgh Jews were furious — people like him had incited this violence. It was Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric that led to the emboldening of white supremacists like the shooter, Robert Bowers, who shouted “All Jews must die” upon entering the sanctuary and opening fire. Bowers selected Tree of Life specifically because one of the congregations in the synagogue had recently hosted a HIAS National Refugee Shabbat. Bowers’ hatred for immigrants and Jews went hand in hand, and they were both sentiments that Trump emboldened.

At the time I was a member of IfNotNow Pittsburgh, a Jewish activist group that helped organize one of the two protests on the day of Trump’s visit. On a street corner in Squirrel Hill we organized a public shiva, a Jewish mourning ritual. My friends and fellow IfNotNow activists spoke what was on their minds and in their hearts — this attack was the result of white supremacy enabled by Trump.

So my friends and I marched in the streets. We sang songs and held each other. We tried to march to the synagogue, but police stopped us about half a block before it. We heard of Trump’s approach and pushed up against the police line, but they didn’t let us close enough for him to see us.

I look back on that day, and above all I remember chanting “safety in solidarity” with my friends. We wanted to emphasize how the struggle against white supremacy must unite us with other oppressed people. 

A year later and we still found strength in centering this message. We organized a song circle event and in the songbook wrote, “We know that our liberation as Jews is bound together with the liberation of all communities targeted by white supremacy, and we hope that this can be a powerful space of healing, collective liberation, and joyful community resistance.”

This is still the sentiment that I use to guide my heart today. To me, this means we must stand with other oppressed people and work together to fight the systems that try to break us down, turn us against each other, and assimilate some of us while segregating others. To me, this means Black Lives Matter. It means trans rights are human rights. It means resist colonialism and imperialism. It means free Palestine, because Jewish liberation is bound up in the liberation of Palestinians as well.

Of course, as I sit down to write this story, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flares up again and makes headlines. Israel has declared war on Gaza. It’s been almost ten years since Operation Protective Edge, it figures we were due for another war. Progressives and people all over the world continue to rightfully condemn Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the Gaza strip and the West Bank, and yet so many Jews still want to cover our ears with our hands and yell “antisemitism!!!” at any criticism of the Israeli state or its actions. 

But I’m sick of us using antisemitism as an excuse to violently oppress another people. I want us to take a good hard look at the state of Israel and ask ourselves, “does this government really represent Jewish values?” What Hamas did was abhorrent and unjustifiable, as is what the Israeli government has been doing to Palestinians for decades and what they are doing to them right now. If anyone learned anything from 9/11, I would hope it’s that fighting terrorism with more terrorism is not a viable solution. It only leads to more violence, despair and hatred.

So this is all to say that on Oct. 27, 2023, I will pray for liberation, then peace. I will pray for the Israeli government to use their power to stop the cycle of violence and begin walking a path towards peace. I will pray for Palestinians who need care, compassion and solidarity from their Jewish allies, now more than ever. I will hold close in my heart, with gratitude, all of my fellow progressive Jews who teach me how to fight for justice. I will recall that our safety lies in our solidarity with others. I will continue fighting for justice and dignity for all peoples.

About the Contributor
Bella Markovitz, Senior Staff Writer