Shooting victim Melvin Wax remembered as ‘sweet, sweet guy’
By CLAUDIA LAUER and ALLEN BREED
Sunday, October 28
Melvin Wax was the first to arrive at New Light Congregation in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood — and the last to leave.
Wax, who was in his late 80s, was among those killed when a gunman entered the synagogue Saturday and opened fire at Sabbath services. Fellow members of the congregation, which rented space in the lower level of the Tree of Life Synagogue, says Wax was a kind man and a pillar of the congregation, filling just about every role except cantor.
Myron Snider spoke late Saturday about his friend who would stay late to tell jokes with him. He said “Mel,” a retired accountant, was unfailingly generous.
“He was such a kind, kind person,” said Snider, chairman of the congregation’s cemetery committee. “When my daughters were younger, they would go to him, and he would help them with their federal income tax every year. Never charged them.
“He and I used to, at the end of services, try to tell a joke or two to each other. Most of the time they were clean jokes. Most of the time. I won’t say all the time. But most of the time.”
Officials released the names of all 11 victims during a news conference Sunday, all of them middle-aged or elderly. The victims included a pair of brothers and a husband and wife. The oldest was 97.
New Light moved to the Tree of Life building about a year ago, when the congregation of about 100 mostly older members could no longer afford its own space, said administrative assistant Marilyn Honigsberg. She said Wax, who lost his wife Sandra in 2016, was always there when services began at 9:45 a.m.
“I know a few of the people who are always there that early, and he is one of them,” she said.
Snider said Wax, who was slightly hard of hearing, was a pillar of the congregation, filling just about every role except cantor.
“He went Friday night, Saturday and Sunday, when there were Sunday services,” said Snider, a retired pharmacist. “If somebody didn’t come that was supposed to lead services, he could lead the services and do everything. He knew how to do everything at the synagogue. He was really a very learned person.”
Snider had just been released from a six-week hospital stay for pneumonia and was not at Saturday’s services.
“He called my wife to get my phone number in the hospital so he could talk to me,” Snider said. “Just a sweet, sweet guy.”
Lauer reported from Philadelphia and Breed reported from Raleigh, North Carolina
By Tom H. Hastings
We are now moving past “mere” voter suppression and voter intimidation. We have arrived at voter assassination.
It was almost exactly 80 years ago that the Nazis made their first serious move against their own citizens who happened to be Jewish. It was November 9 and 10, 1938.
The Sturmabteilung, that is, the paramilitary Brownshirts, sort of like the Proud Boys plus Robert Bowers plus Cesar Sayoc, ideological killers of Jews and other targets, pulled off the 1938 Kristallnacht, the attack on synagogues and Jewish businesses. They were far more prolific than Trump’s crew, destroying some 267 synagogues located in Sudetenland, Austria, and Germany. Estimates of murders of Jews were 91 at the time but that figure rose later, with more investigation.
Trump’s invective, identity attacks, slurs on his critics, and tolerance and even encouragement for physical violence against his opponents are one big permission slip to his more rabid supporters, Sayoc most obviously and Bowers (Tree of Life synagogue attacker) in all likelihood.
Cesar Sayoc’s van is plastered with pro-Trump posters and stickers, which is a more-or-less normal position of favor for a politician, but it’s his other signage, his hate posters for Hillary Clinton and Michael Moore and others—all with crosshairs over their faces—that really set him apart. The rage is palpable, visible, and sure enough, he acted on it, sending pipe bombs to that Jew, George Soros, and others.
Meanwhile, Trump equivocates, as usual, hinting with no respect for the truth that it’s all the fault of the media, and of Democrats. After the synagogue shooting he was even more outrageous, directly and insanely blaming reporters for the attack. That darn media keeps quoting him, reporting on his tweets, and playing actual recordings of the things he says. How biased! How uncivil! His handlers try to keep him on script and attempt to cage him into sounding momentarily presidential, but it’s buck naked obvious when he is reading someone else’s words—mostly because they are multi-syllabic and sensible to a degree. When he’s off script again he’s wildly spouting hate and nonsense, back to his affinity for Alec Jones Infowars derangement.
Yes, deranged. That is uncivil but accurate. Who besides a seriously sick individual would claim that schoolchildren were not shot at Sandy Hook, and that the pipe bombs discovered addressed to Trump opponents are “fake”?
The only case for criticizing “the media” if we are interested in facts is to take much of what is coming out of Fox News with a block of salt. They routinely hint at the sort of disinformation that Trump more actively promulgates. While they are far more sophisticated than Alec Jones the thrust is pretty similar and, since they reach so many, actually much more dangerous to women, to Jews, to elected officials who prefer a social safety net, to Muslims, to patrons of nonviolent resistance, to Mexicans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans in flight from horrific violence, and so many others.
For many years many of us have been warning about the deadly potential for political violence when we have more than one gun for every American and political rhetoric in social media is unrestrained hatred and violent ideation. Now we see it.
Your vote for anyone who can help slow, stop, and reverse this decline in decency and erosion of democracy was never more important than right now.
Dr. Tom H. Hastings is PeaceVoiceDirector and on occasion an expert witness for the defense in court.
What history reveals about surges in anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiments
October 28, 2018
Associate Director of Jewish Studies, Lecturer, Arts & Sciences Writing Program, Boston University
Ingrid Anderson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Boston University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
The shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in American history. Eleven people were killed when the gunman burst in on the congregation’s morning worship service carrying an assault rifle and three handguns.
The suspect, Robert Bowers, is reported to be a frequent user of Gab, a social networking site that has becoming increasingly popular among white nationalists and other alt-right groups. He is alleged to have regularly reposted anti-Semitic slurs, expressed virulent anti-immigrant sentiments, called immigrants “invaders,” and claimed that Jews are “the enemy of white people.”
The magnitude of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre may be unprecedented, but it is only the latest in the series of hate crimes against Jews. In February 2017, more than 100 gravestones were vandalized at a cemetery outside of St. Louis, Missouri, and at another Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia. Indeed, hate crimes have been on an increase against minority religions, people of color and immigrants. In the 10 days following the 2016 presidential election, nearly 900 hate-motivated incidents were reported, many on college campuses. Many of these incidents targeted Muslims, people of color and immigrants, along with Jews.
This outpouring of anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiment is reminiscent in many ways of the political climate during the years between the first and second world wars in the U.S. or the interwar period.
America as the ‘melting pot’
In its early years, the United States maintained an “open door policy” that drew millions of immigrants from all religions to enter the country, including Jews. Between 1820 and 1880, over 9 million immigrants entered America.
As a Jewish studies scholar, I am all too aware that by the early 1880s, American nativists – people who believed that the “genetic stock” of Northern Europe was superior to that of Southern and Eastern Europe – began pushing for the exclusion of “foreigners,” whom they “viewed with deep suspicion.”
Fifty German-Jewish refugee children, ranging in age from 5 to 13, salute the American flag, June 5, 1939. AP Photo
In fact, as scholar Barbara Bailin writes, most of the immigrants, who were from Southern, Central and Eastern Europe, “were considered so different in composition, religion, and culture from earlier immigrants as to trigger a xenophobic reaction that served to generate more restrictive immigration laws.”
In August 1882, Congress responded to increasing concerns about America’s “open door” policy and passed the Immigration Act of 1882, which included a provision denying entry to “any convict, lunatic, idiot or any person unable to take care of himself without becoming a public charge.”
However, enforcement was not strict, in part because immigration officers working at the points of entry were expected to implement these restrictions as they saw fit.
In fact, it was during the late 19th century that the American “melting pot” was born: Nearly 22 million immigrants from all over the world entered the U.S. between 1881 and 1914.
They included approximately 1,500,000 million European Jews hoping to escape the longstanding legally enforced anti-Semitism of many parts of the European continent, which limited where Jews could live, what kinds of universities they could attend and what kinds of professions they could hold.
Fear of Jews and immigrants
Nativists continued to rail against the demographic shifts and in particular took issue with the high numbers of Jews and Southern Italians entering the country.
These fears were eventually reflected in the makeup of Congress, since the electorate voted increasing numbers of nativist congresspeople into office who vowed to change immigration laws with their constituent’s anti-immigrant sentiments in mind.
Nativist and isolationist sentiment in America only increased, as Europe fell headlong into World War I, “the war to end all wars.” On Feb. 4, 1917, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917, which reversed America’s open door policy and denied entry to the majority of immigrants seeking entry. As a result, between 1918 and 1921, only 20,019 Jews were admitted into the U.S.
The 1924 Immigration Act tightened the borders further. It transferred the decision to admit or deny immigrants from the immigration officers at the port of entry to the Foreign Services Office, which issued visas after the completion of a lengthy application with supporting documentation.
The quotas established by the act also set strict limits on the number of new immigrants allowed after 1924. The number of Central and Eastern Europeans allowed to enter the U.S. was dramatically reduced.
The 1924 quotas provided visas to a mere 2 percent of each nationality already in the U.S by 1890. They excluded immigrants from Asia completely, except for immigrants from Japan and the Philippines. The stated fundamental purpose of this immigration act was to preserve the ideal of U.S. “homogeneity.”
Congress did not revise the act until 1952.
Why does this history matter?
The political climate of the interwar period has many similarities with the anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic environment today.
President Trump’s platform is comprised in large part of strongly anti-immigrant rhetoric. A Pew Charitable Trust survey shows that as many as 66 percent of registered voters who supported Trump consider immigration a “very big problem,” while only 17 percent of Hillary Clinton’s supporters said the same.
Moreover, 59 percent of Trump supporters actively associate “unauthorized immigrants with serious criminal behavior.”
President Trump’s claims about the dangers posed by immigrants are not be supported by facts; but they do indicate increased isolationism, nativism and right-wing nationalism within the U.S. All over again, we see anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-Semitism, going hand in hand.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on April 2, 2017.
Terror isn’t always a weapon of the weak – it can also support the powerful
October 28, 2018
Director of Security Studies and Professor, University of Massachusetts Lowell
Arie Perliger does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
University of Massachusetts provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
People often believe that terrorism is the weapon of the weak.
In other words, terrorism is practiced by marginalized groups that cannot influence government’s policies through legitimate means. However, developments on the violent far right since the victory of Donald Trump, I’d argue, present a different reality.
The attack at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, as well as the sending of pipe bombs to critics of the current administration are just the latest examples of the consistent increase in the violence on the margins of the political camp currently controlling all branches of government. Because these acts were perpetrated by individuals with clear political agendas, I’d call them terrorism. While neither of these men were part of a named terrorist organization, and the synogogue shooting is being investigated as a hate crime, I’d argue that they are part of a virtual community that supported their political worldview.
The nonprofit Anti-Defamation League found that anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. rose by 57 percent in 2017, the largest single year increase since it started recording such statistics. My own data set documents all far-right violent incidents since 1970 – not just anti-Semitic ones – and was first published in 2012. It reveals that in 2017 the United States experienced a 70 percent increase in violent attacks perpetrated in the name of far-right ideology.
Could a victory at the ballot box actually facilitate violence? Examples from other countries indicate that this may not be such a rare phenomenon. The two most brutal terrorist groups which emerged from the settlers’ movement in Israel – the Jewish Underground in the early 1980s and the Bat-Ayin Group in the early 2000s, operated in times when right-wing governing coalitions dominated the Israeli political system. Both groups were engaged in a campaign of violence against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank in order to undermine any policies designed to promote conciliation between the two sides.
Similarly, the electoral successes of European far-right parties in recent years, especially in local elections, were followed by increasing activity of related violent far-right groups and movements. The success of the AfD in Germany since 2016 was followed by acts of violence which were not seen in Germany since the times of the Nazi Party, such as the two days of violence against Jews and immigrants at the town of Chemnitz.
How can these trends can be explained? A research project which I’m currently conducting with two of my Ph.D. students at the University of Massachusetts Lowell tests three possible explanations.
Potential perpetrators of violence may assume that the new political regime that they perceive to be supportive of their views will be more tolerant of politically motivated violence or illegal acts. These expectations are not without some basis.
Research I published in 2012 in the journal Security Studies showed that Israeli governments tended to use milder counterterrorism measures when they responded to the violence from groups that were ideologically close to them.
Similarly, studies focusing on the rise of left- and right-wing terrorism in Italy, and white supremacy groups in the American South, further confirmed that political officials are more reluctant to operate against groups which are located on their side of the political spectrum.
In the context of the U.S., individuals and groups that adhere to far-right ideology may interpret signals from government official as acceptance of their actions – or, at least, a sign that they can expect more lenient treatment from law enforcement. The Trump adminstration’s decision to focus its counterterrorism efforts on Islamic terrorism, and defund programs focusing on domestic radicalization may be one such signal. Another example is Trump’s reluctance to single out and criticize far-right groups and activities. His attitude was manifested after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville with Confederate battle flags, anti-Semitic placards and torches – activities Trump seemed loath to condemn. Lastly, conspiracy theories presented by some far-right pundits about the left’s involvement in the recent sending of pipe bombs, and the president’s decision to put the word “bomb” in quotation marks when addressing such incidents in his Twitter account may be read as tacit defense of such acts.
Another possibility we are testing is that perpetrators of violence feel empowered by Trump’s electoral victory in 2016. They feel his winning the election means their actions and ideology are gaining growing public legitimacy. In other words, they feel a sense of duty to continue to be engaged in political participation to ensure the implementation of their political ideology, as well as to attain a more visible position within the political arena.
A third explanation is based on political scientist Ted Gurr’s classical theory of relative deprivation. Gurr’s theory is that political violence often results from a gap between constituencies’ expectations and the actual goods provided by the government.
The reasoning here would go that the election of Trump led to high expectations in the American far right that the federal government would adopt at least some of their militant views and policy ideas. If, in the eyes of far-right activists, these expectations were not met, some of them may express their frustration via violent activities.
The difficulties of the current administration in implementing some of its immigration policies, as well as some willingness to compromise on the issue of gun legislation, may have frustrated activists who may feel the need to express their concerns via violent or illegal acts. For example, the Pittsburgh shooter felt Trump was a globalist not a nationalist, and influenced by his Jewish family and close associates.
Countering the violence
While our study is still ongoing, some initial findings can provide insights about the applicability of the above mentioned explanations.
The fact that the rise in the level of violence occurred immediately after the 2016 elections, and the relative success of the administration in delivering on many of its election promises – the travel ban, electing two justices to the Supreme Court – indicate that empowerment rather than a sense of deprivation may be responsible for the rise in the level of violence. The fact that the violence hasn’t increased since its peak in 2017 also suggests that the root causes of the violence are related more to the election results than subsequent policy developments. Moreover, the administration’s reluctance to delegitimize violent manifestations further enhance this sense of empowerment.
It is important to note that historical dynamics also support these insights. A study I published in 2012 shows that anti-abortion violence actually tends to increase following pro-life decisions of the Supreme Court. For example, between 1989 and 1992, a series of pro-life Supreme Court decisions upholding increased state supervision of abortion procedures empowered pro-life activists. Anti-abortion violence increased.
Coming back to today, the growing polarization of the American political system and the tendency to see elections as a zero sum game encourages each of the political parties to maximize the benefits of electoral victory. That, in turn, involves disregarding norms of cooperation and consensus building. What I would argue is that this need to exploit the fruits of victory may also encourage a few supporters of the winning political camp to use violence.