Not all shocks should surprise us. When political leaders summon up the dark forces of racial hatred and xenophobia, violence is bound to follow, whether or not they order it directly. The murder of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue may have seemed like a throwback to the bloody chapters of the past, but it carried an unmistakable, present-day stamp of presidential influence.
Shortly before the accused assassin, Robert Bowers, entered the Tree of Life synagogue Saturday morning, he posted a message on social media identifying HIAS, the Jewish agency that resettles refugees, as the immediate source of his fury: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Where would Bowers have gotten the idea that refugees are “invaders” who “kill our people”? That is hardly a random thought today in the United States, nor is it confined to the political fringes. It’s an idea being promoted by Donald Trump and other Republicans, especially in the past few weeks, when for transparent political purposes they have stoked anger about a caravan of immigrants from Honduras making their way through Mexico.
Before Saturday, I hadn’t heard of HIAS (originally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), and it hadn’t occurred to me that Jews had a connection to the current, Trump-inspired furor over refugees, even though right-wingers have been falsely accusing George Soros of financing the Honduran immigrant caravan.
But the Pittsburgh slaughter was a wake-up call. It was a reminder that Jews and refugees continue to be connected even at a time when the refugees themselves are not Jewish. And it was personal wake-up call for those of us who owe our very existence to the welcome that America gave to refugees in the past.
HIAS traces its origins to the efforts to help Jews fleeing imperial Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As I read about the organization, I realized that it may well have helped my maternal grandparents come to America in 1905. They were refugees, too, fleeing anti-Semitic violence in a city called Kishinev—now Chișinău, the capital of Moldova—at that time part of the Russian empire.
A new book, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History, by Steven Zipperstein, a historian at Stanford University, provides a powerful account of the riots that took the lives of 49 Jews over two days, April 19 and 20, 1903. This was not a spontaneous event. Relations between Jews and their neighbors in Kishinev had not been fraught until a rabid anti-Semite named Pavel Krushevan began publishing a local newspaper. Krushevan, Zipperstein notes, would later go on to publish the original edition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the central texts of modern anti-Semitism. His followers were at the center of the pogrom. And Robert Bowers is only one of many anti-Semites descended from them.
Protests over the Kishinev pogrom, along with groups offering help to Jewish refugees, sprung up as far away as New York. The media of the time, reviled by anti-Semites, played a role in that response. Shortly after the pogrom, the Hearst newspapers commissioned Michael Davitt, a radical Irish journalist, to go to Kishinev to investigate, while a Jewish group in nearby Odessa sent a young writer named Haym Bialik. Davitt’s articles contributed to the international uproar, and Bialik wrote a poem, “In the City of Killing,” which became a literary classic.
This is still the vocation of journalists and artists: to report on injustice, to memorialize it, and to stir protest and resistance by identifying those who are responsible.
In this case, the line of responsibility goes back to President Trump, as a Jewish group in Pittsburgh, Bend the Arc, has made clear in an open letter to the president, saying he is not welcome in the city until he denounces white nationalism and stops his assault on immigrants and refugees. Trump cannot continue to incite fear and hatred without being held accountable for the consequences.