When my family and I went to Greece last June, we visited the Beth Shalom synagogue in Athens, only to find that the building was surrounded by a tall fence. We asked the security guard on duty if we could go inside, but he said that visitors were not allowed without an appointment and proof of identification. We tried to bargain with the guard, telling him that we’re Jews from America who just wanted to see a Greek synagogue and would only stay for a few minutes, but he wouldn’t budge. It wasn’t up to him, he told us: it was the synagogue’s security protocol.
Eleven bullets on October 27 unfortunately made their reasoning clear. That morning, Robert Bowers opened fire on services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, marking the deadliest attack on Jews in American history.
This shooting is not an isolated attack, but rather is emblematic of a heightened hostility towards Jewish people. The Anti-Defamation League reported that there was a 60 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents from 2016 to 2017, the largest such increase in almost 40 years. No Jewish community is safe, and even GDS has faced the effects of this onset of anti-Semitism with students finding swastikas around the building.
When President Donald Trump heard about the attack, he suggested that Tree of Life should have had security at the service. “If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better,” Trump told reporters in an interview.
Indeed, anyone would be safer with a gunman protecting them, but increasing security doesn’t address the root of the issue. For a religion centered around community, fences, metal detectors and armed guards shouldn’t have to prevent people from entering Jewish sanctuaries. Instead, strict laws should prevent potentially dangerous events from harming Jewish communities.
In response to the shooting, Trump should have spoken about implementing legislation to ensure that these kinds of events can’t happen again, not about what we can do when they do happen again.
One way that Trump could prevent attacks like these is by emphasizing that language of terrorism will not be protected under the First Amendment. Leading up to the shooting, Bowers made his views about Jewish people clear and public, posting messages on Gab, a website whose owners boast that they “champion free speech,” to promote his hatred of the religious group. Hours before the attack, Bowers announced in an anti-Semitic tirade that he was “going in”—a message that conveys obvious intent to incite violence that should have tipped off the government. In addition to Bowers, many other online goons use social media networks to spread their anti-Semitic beliefs, and these messages must be taken more seriously by people in power. Freedom of speech shouldn’t protect violent, racially charged expressions. Courts could use algorithms to search for offenses and charge the perpetrators with hate crimes, also flagging their accounts to monitor for dangerous activity in the future.
In his statement, Trump also neglected to address the true root of the shooting: an assault rifle that shouldn’t have been sold. Due to our country’s failure to protect weapons, Bowers was able to easily purchase the tool he would use to murder a group of Jewish people. America’s lack of gun control affects not only the Jewish community but also the country at large, as evidenced by shootings in nightclubs, bars, and schools. The recent midterm elections, though, will at least point our country in the right direction. With the influx of Democrats in the House of Representatives, hopefully our legislators can work to implement more comprehensive gun laws in our country.
Also, many small synagogues, like Tree of Life, rely heavily on donations and don’t have their own means of generating revenue. It would be implausible for many religious institutions to even implement the expensive security measures that Trump called for.
If Trump wants to make a difference, he should start with promoting reasonable and effective solutions to the rising threat of anti-Semitism. His refusal to address the real issue at hand only perpetuates the problem.
By: Zach Blank’19