“All Jews had to die” – synagogue terrorist’s comment to a police officer at the scene
The Tree of Life Synagogue massacre – the deadliest attack against Jews in the U.S. – stands as one of the darkest moments in recent American history. The shooting shocked the nation, bringing to light the ongoing struggle against religious intolerance and violence. The terrorist killed 11 Jews and forcefully shook the American Jewish community. He was found guilty of 63 federal charges.
On the same day the jury delivered its verdict, FBI agents arrested a Michigan man accused of planning a mass killing at a synagogue in East Lansing, Michigan. The would-be terrorist discussed the attack on social media, where he frequently posted remarks about hating Jews. Law enforcement discovered numerous firearms and a Nazi flag in his home.
Andrea Wedner and her 97-year-old mother, Rose Mallinger, laid head to head on the ground in an attempt to escape death. Andrea testified in court how “we were filled with terror; it’s indescribable, we thought we were going to die.” Both women were shot. Andrea “saw my right arm get blown open in two places.” She a felt a faint pulse in her mom’s wrist and knew the end was near; Rose didn’t survive.
Survivor Daniel Leger remembered hearing gunfire echoing within the synagogue and thought, “This can't be gunfire. It must be the furnace blowing up.” Realizing that it was, in fact, rapid-fire bullets, Daniel, a nurse, instinctively ran towards the gunfire to help treat any wounded worshippers. He was shot in the abdomen and feared he was dying. Daniel started praying, and later stated, “I was ready to go.”
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman first heard shattering glass followed by gunfire. He instructed three worshippers, “We're in danger, and I want you to follow me. We're going to hide in this storage closet.” Rabbi Perlman led the three congregants to safety. Unfortunately, when Melvin Wax peered out of the closet, he was fatally shot.
Police officers bravely risked their lives to end the shooting spree. Pittsburgh SWAT Officer Timothy Matson was shot seven times, including in the head: “The bullet fractured my skull and my jaw.” He has endured 25 surgeries to repair the damage, but testified he would go through the synagogue’s door again to save lives.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette printed the first five words of the Jewish mourner’s prayer (kaddish) in Hebrew as the front-page headline spread on the Friday following the attack. The newspaper’s editor, David Shribman, wanted to “bring our readers to the heart of the incident” following “the modern day shots heard ‘round the world.”
The terrorist, Robert Bowers, a then 46-year-old truck driver with a history of expressing anti-Jewish views online, repeatedly attacked Jews on social media and praised the Holocaust before massacring Jews. The shooter called Jews “public enemy number one” and ranted that “Jews are the children of Satan.” The white supremacist calmly explained to responding police officers that “the Jews are killing our women and children so I had to do this.”
Bowers spread many conspiracy theories on social media. He hated immigrants and refugees, a popular belief that is heavily promoted in extremist movements. He became fixated on HIAS – formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – provider of services to immigrants and refugees worldwide. He railed against HIAS’s National Refugee Shabbat program in his online posts. A Jewish congregation that rented space at the Tree of Life Synagogue participated in the HIAS program. This was a significant reason for why he targeted Jews for murder at this synagogue.
During Shabbat morning services on October 27, 2018, in Pittsburgh, the terrorist entered the synagogue armed with multiple firearms. The attack lasted 20 minutes. In the days following the massacre, vigils, memorials and interfaith gatherings were organized to honor the victims and provide support to the affected families.
The surge in recent years of anti-Jewish attacks is attributable to various factors, including proliferation of extremist ideologies online, rise of far-right movements and polarization of American society. Jews have historically been targeted for their beliefs, becoming scapegoats for societal problems and resulting in the creation of conspiracy theories. Deep-seated prejudice and belief in conspiracy theories often culminate in attacks against Jews, most notably in the Holocaust.
Remembering the victims:
Joyce Fienberg – Richard Gottfried – Rose Mallinger – Jerry Rabinowitz – Cecil Rosenthal – David Rosenthal – Bernice Simon – Sylvan Simon – Daniel Stein – Melvin Wax – Irving Younger