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A Tale of Two Massacres

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On the morning of 28 October 2018 Robert Bowers walked into a suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania synagogue filled with worshippers. He was armed with an assault rifle and several handguns. Bowers proceeded to kill eleven people and wound six. It was the deadliest attack on Jews in American history.

Bowers is a 46-year-old truck driver who lived alone in a small apartment in the Baldwin section of Pittsburgh. Though described by neighbors as “normal,” Bowers was clearly a loner. “He kept to himself and neighbors never saw him with visitors.” Posting an online picture of his three “glock”-brand handguns, he referred to them as “my glock family.”

His social life may have been largely restricted to social media, and there he freely expressed himself. He found his comfort zone on a rightwing websight entitled Gab. Gab promotes a concept of unfettered free speech. In theory this might sound like an admirable aim, but in practice it can just turn into an arena to vent hatred, conspiracy theories and incitement of oneself and/or others to violence. Apparently, that was the environment that attracted Robert Bowers.

Bowers used Gab to express classic anti-Semitic views. He wrote that “jews [sic] are the children of satan [sic],” and asserted that President Trump’s mantra of “making America great again” was impossible to realize as long as there is “a kike infestation.” Bowers hated Jews first and foremost because they were Jews. But he also hated them for what they were allegedly doing to “his people”—driving “white Americans,” and by extension “Western Civilization,” to extinction.

Specifically, the Jews were doing this by helping to bring immigrants into the U.S. Though he claimed that he did not like Donald Trump, there seems little doubt that Trump’s rabid hostility to immigrants expressed in provocative language created the context for Bowers’s acting out as he did. Against this backdrop, Bowers became focused on the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)—a not-for-profit group that aids refugees. Bowers convinced himself that the HIAS, “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people.” The Pittsburgh Synagogue he attacked supported HIAS.

It is worth repeating that Robert Bowers is an authentic anti-Semite. He hates Jews because they are Jews. That understood, he then went looking for alleged Jewish behaviors to rationalize acting out his hatred. I emphasize this point because there are Zionists who are now trying to conflate Bowers with an artificially manufactured category of alleged anti-Semites—people who are simply critical of Israel. For instance, following the Pittsburgh massacre the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, took the opportunity to equate real anti-Semites like Bowers with the ones the Zionists have simply manufactured. In a media interview he asserted that “to simply say that this [Bowers’s attack on Jews] … only comes on one side [the extreme right], is to not understand … the reality of anti-Semitism.” Dermer then asserted that “one of the big forces in college campuses today is anti-Semitism. And those anti-Semites are usually not neo-Nazis, on college campuses. They’re coming from the radical left.” It is to be noted that this so-called anti-Semitism on the campuses is almost completely based on opposition to Israel’s own racist policies and practices. Describing such opposition as the same as the behavior of Robert Bowers is obscene.

A Massacre of Arab Muslims

While anti-Semitism is very old, the sort of category-specific hatred it displays (in this case the category of all Jews) is not unique. Indeed, the same sort of irrational, violence-engendering hatred has been produced by homogeneous national groups that cultivate fear of stereotyped minority elements within their midst.

With this fact in mind we can identify another massacre similar to the one carried out by Robert Bowers. This one was perpetrated by the American-Israeli settler by the name of Baruch Goldstein.

On the morning of 25 February 1994 Baruch Goldstein walked into the mosque at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the Palestinian West Bank town of Hebron. Like the synagogue in Pittsburgh some 24 years later, the mosque was full of worshippers. Goldstein was armed with an assault rifle and 140 rounds of ammunition. He proceeded to kill 29 people and injure over 100 others.

Goldstein was a Zionist extremist and an active member of the anti-Arab Kach Party. Goldstein hated all Arab Muslims in much at the same way Bowers hated all Jews. His hatred was racially based and independent of the political or social behavior of any particular Arab Muslim individual. For instance, serving as a physician with the Israeli army and later in a civilian capacity, Goldstein “refused to treat Arabs, even Arab soldiers serving in the IDF [Israeli Army].”

Goldstein’s social circle was the Kach party, an ultra-nationalist orthodox religious organization founded by the American-Israeli Meir Kahane. The party’s doctrine called for the expulsion or subordination of all Arabs in Israel, including the Occupied Territories. There was an unquestioned assumption that all such people opposed the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. This assumption also justified the party’s advocating violence against Arabs and Muslims. Given this worldview, Baruch Goldstein, like Robert Bowers, saw a specific, racially and religiously defined group of people as a mortal threat—they were “invaders” who would “kill our people.” And here, both individuals acted in the same murderous way.

The Violent Culture

The two men shared something else—cultures that encourage violence. In Bowers case it is culture that has always valued guns as a symbol of liberty and individual potency. As such, unrestricted access to guns is, presently, more valuable than the lives of citizens. Isolated within the “virtual” social circle of Gab, and taking cues from President Trump’s anti-immigrant rants, Bowers, the anti-Semite, was simultaneously heavily armed and liberated from civil or moral inhibitions. The consequence was a massacre of Jews at prayer.

Baruch Goldstein’s cultural milieu also engendered violence. His was a culture shaped by an ideology that convinced its adherents that they were in eternal danger from the non-Jewish world. This sense of danger focused Israelis on the Arab and Muslim minority caught within the borders of their expanding colonialist state. These unwanted residents, who dared to resist Israel’s racist pretensions, were consistently demonized. This milieu liberated Goldstein of his civil and moral inhibitions. His was also a culture where Israeli Jews are heavily armed. The consequence was a massacre of Arab Muslims at prayer.

Conclusion

No doubt Robert Bowers is a hero to some who knew him through Gab and through his turning racist theory into murderous practice. Baruch Goldstein is still a hero to the religious radicals he lived among.There are yearly pilgrimages to his well-kept gravesite.

Such people as Bowers and Goldstein are always with us. The question is, do we maintain a culture that empowers them? In both the case of Israel and the United States the answer at present appears to be yes—though there is a noticeable difference here.

In the case of Israel, given that the exclusionist ideology of Zionism is the very basis of national culture, the empowerment of racist hatred against Arabs and Muslims is almost inevitable.

In the case of the United States, there are still millions of citizens who stand against the racist and white nationalist sentiments that presently poison the culture. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a national effort to humanize the nation’s laws and behavior within the public sphere. This was largely the product of the Civil Rights Movement. Today the U.S. is in the midst of a cultural civil war waged by those who would destroy that progress. In other words, here things are in flux and a culture infused with human and civil rights is still an option. Indeed, taking that option is the real way of “making America great again.”

 

 

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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