We are overwhelmed with deep emotions of grief, shock and frustration over the senseless attack last Shabbat at the Tree of Life building. The memory of the 11 victims of the worst mass murder of Jews in U.S. history haunts us, as does the knowledge that things outside have been getting bad for quite some time.
The horror here came the same week that Cesar Sayoc allegedly sent 14 pipe bombs to prominent Democrats around the country, including the Obamas and the Clintons. The first bomb discovered was in the mailbox of philanthropist George Soros, a Jew and a Holocaust survivor. (Soros is also the subject of a number of conspiracy theories, including the one in which President Donald Trump blames him for protests against Justice Brett Kavanaugh, followed by the charge that he is paymaster for the migrant caravan traveling in Mexico.)
According to investigators, suspected gunman Robert Bowers was concerned about those migrants in the minutes before he shot his way into Tree of Life. Indeed, standing outside the synagogue, he posted to the Gab.com platform popular with right-wing extremists, blaming the Jewish community for the migrant “invaders” heading to the U.S. southern border.
The vitriol and divisive political rhetoric in our country has gotten out of control and we fear that it is creating an environment that can fuel unimaginable and horrific events, such as the Tree of Life massacre. We agree with Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, who said Sunday night that our society’s overriding need is to end the hate speech that has become so prevalent. This prescription for the good of our country is a nonpartisan one and applies most to our political leaders, who set the tone for the rest of us.
We acknowledge Trump’s quick denunciation of anti-Semitism soon after the attack. But there is something very disturbing about the coarsening of political rhetoric — enabled, encouraged, exercised and heralded by this president through his deft use of Twitter and his gift for dramatic hyperbole to enflame the masses at his rallies.
We do not know what motivated Bowers or if he was directly influenced by anything our president has said or tweeted. But we do know that it is not healthy for our country to be inundated by inciteful and hateful rhetoric. Even if such rhetoric turns out not to have been a precipitating factor in this attack, we fear that it could very well lead to others.
We do not place the blame for the anti-Semitism that seems to have motivated Bowers at Trump’s feet, nor do we reflexively blame the proliferation of assault-style firearms or a lack of comprehensive security at houses of worship for the bloodshed. All, some or none of those reasons could account for the senseless deaths of worshippers at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha and at New Light Congregation and Dor Hadash, which shared the building. But words have consequences, and mean-spirited and hateful words have bad consequences.
To be sure, the bounds of “acceptable” political speech have been moving to the outer fringes of “polite” speech for quite some time. Trump is not the first president to denigrate opponents, and some on the left are just as prone to anti-Semitic dog whistles as those on the right.
But when the person with the largest bully pulpit in the world repeatedly rails against the press and his political opponents as “enemies of the people,” and campaigns using terminology and images popular with white supremacists, it certainly can lead to no good.
This should not be happening. Mass killings diminish our civilization, and rob organized society of essential freedoms. Our leaders are supposed to protect us. If they don’t, or if they feed threats to our safety and well-being, they are simply not worthy of their offices. PJC