A 19-year old opened fire in a synagogue in Poway, California, on Saturday morning and the last day of the Jewish holiday of Passover, killing one congregant and wounding three others. The attack was six months to the day after the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and six days after a series of church bombings in Sri Lanka that killed at least 253 worshippers. The congregant killed has been identified as Lori Gilbert Kaye, a 60-year old woman who was shot when she tried to protect the rabbi from the gunman. The suspect in the attack is thought to have posted a violently racist and anti-Semitic manifesto on the internet forum 8chan hours before the attack, describing his plans for the attack, as well as claiming to have recently set a mosque on fire. The shooter’s gun jammed after he shot his first few rounds, and he then fled out of the synagogue and was apprehended by police.
The congregants were in synagogue celebrating the final day of Passover, in a service honouring deceased relatives, when the gunman entered the synagogue’s lobby, killing Lori Kaye as she sought to protect the rabbi. “Lori took the bullet for all of us. She died to protect all of us. She didn’t deserve to die,” the rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was shot in the hand, said of her. “She’s such a kind, sweet-hearted human being. She didn’t deserve to die right in front of my eyes.” Jonathan Greenblatt, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, an NGO which seeks to fight anti-Semitism, said of the attack that it “was a pointed attack on Chabad, on the visible Jewish community here, and this is a collective attack on all Jewish communities — this is anti-Semitism unleashed.”
The attack’s timing, exactly half a year after the Tree of Life shooting in which 11 Jewish worshippers were murdered, emphasizes its intent of terrorizing the Jewish community. The recent attacks on churches in Sri Lanka, and on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, also underscore that this is not a singly American issue, nor a question only of anti-Semitism, but of upholding white supremacy through terror and the insufficient attention paid to the online forums that have built a culture around encouraging such horrific acts. The disgustingly anti-Semitic manifesto the shooter wrote also expressed hatred for Muslims, using racist slurs against Arab people as well as Jews. This was distinctly anti-Jewish violence, a fact which must not be minimized, but the white supremacism the shooter was seeking to uphold is a threat which extends beyond the Jewish community. Racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism are absolutely separate issues in their institutional structure and social impacts, but they stem from the same abhorrent and deeply rooted white supremacist agenda, one long present in a world whose modern economic system was founded on the enslavement of Africans and global imperialism. This white nationalism has roots that run deep, though the election of Donald Trump, supported by neo-Nazis and the KKK, has stoked such violence even further, through coded rhetoric that demonizes marginalized groups alongside insidiously racist policy changes.
Anti-Semitism is not racism, and Donald Trump’s relation to it is certainly different from his relationship to Islamophobia, but the kind of white supremacy that his presidency endorses, and his administration allows to fester online, is absolutely related to this shooter’s motivation and ability to carry out this attack. Take a long history of white supremacy, add a president who only a day before defended the violent neo-Nazis who marched on Charlottesville, and give a 19-year old essentially unregulated access to a semi-automatic weapon that can kill people as quickly as the shooter pulls the trigger, and Saturday’s events begin to take shape. We must mourn Lori Gilbert Kaye, and stand with the Jewish community in recognition of the horror of this moment, on the last day of Passover, the holiday of freedom. But we also must know that this tragedy will recur, targeting Jews and others, until we undertake the long overdue reckoning with the evil of white supremacist ideology, implicit and explicit in so many facets of our society.
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