The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooter Wasn’t Acting Alone

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Amy Spitalnick

Amy Spitalnick

Last month, as the jury in Pittsburgh handed down the verdict in the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history, I found myself walking into Shabbat services at a Berlin synagogue that had been destroyed on Kristallnacht.

Despite the odds, the Fraenkelufer Synagogue reopened in time for the High Holidays in September 1945, turning the former youth sanctuary into its main prayer space for the small number of Jews that remained. The community never rebuilt the original main sanctuary that had been destroyed by the Nazis.


I sat there on that Friday evening, singing the same prayers to welcome Shabbat that I had grown up with; the same prayers that my grandparents and their families also sang not too far away, before their lives were destroyed by the Nazis.

The moment was especially poignant because I was in Germany on a visiting program that brings American civil rights leaders and educators to explore how best to use history and memory to fight modern hate and extremism. Certainly there are few better indicators of the urgency of this work than the Pittsburgh massacre and the broader rise in normalized extremism it represents.

When the shooter — who was convicted on all counts on June 16 — walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018, he wasn’t acting alone. He was part of a larger cycle of right-wing extremism in which each attack inspires the next, fueled by the same bigotry that claimed the lives of my grandparents’ families and millions of others. Motivated by age-old hate, this violent, antisemitic white supremacist massacred 11 Jews on a Shabbat morning because he believed that their congregation was helping immigrants “invade” the country and “replace” white people.

These beliefs didn’t come out of nowhere: He was radicalized online via social media sites like Gab, where he communicated with some of the neo-Nazis involved with the 2017 Charlottesville violence. The Pittsburgh attack was followed by similar massacres in New Zealand, Poway, El Paso and Buffalo, which deliberately targeted Muslim, Hispanic, Black and Jewish communities. Even on the day the Pittsburgh shooter was convicted, another apparent white supremacist was arrested for planning a mass shooting at a Michigan synagogue, explicitly inspired by prior attacks.

We must be clear: These acts of mass violence are simply the tip of the iceberg. In the five years since the Pittsburgh massacre, the white supremacist conspiracy theories and ideology that fueled it have been fully normalized in our politics and our society, deliberately pitting communities against one another and creating a feedback loop that continues to embolden the violent extremists.

Language of “invasion” and “replacement” is now espoused by right-wing elected officials, candidates and pundits, who use it to drive anti-immigrant policies, election-related disinformation and voter suppression. Dehumanizing policies and rhetoric targeting the LGBTQ+ community give license to neo-Nazis, who use anti-trans and anti-drag protests as recruitment opportunities. All the while, bans on education and curriculum seek to make it impossible for the next generation to learn the lessons of history.

Together, this represents an existential threat to democracy. And it underscores that my safety as a Jewish woman is inextricably linked with the safety of so many other communities under threat.

So what are we supposed to do? If we’re to break this cycle, accountability and truth-telling are critical. Trials like the one that reached a verdict in Pittsburgh put the facts of these hate-fueled attacks on record — especially at a time when extremists desperately try to subvert the truth. We saw the importance of this in Charlottesville, where I led the successful effort to hold accountable the two dozen neo-Nazis, supremacists and hate groups responsible for that violence.

But accountability and truth-telling are not solutions on their own: They must go hand-in-hand with preventative measures aimed at combating normalization, building resilience and protecting and advancing inclusive, multiracial democracy, such as media and digital literacy, effective antiracist education, voting access and much more.

More than anything, this moment requires rejection of those who seek to tear our communities apart through disinformation, baseless smears and the false idea that progress for one group comes at the expense of another. Rather, it requires recognition that one community’s safety and advancement is not zero-sum, but rather deeply connected to others.

Nearly 80 years after my grandparents survived the unthinkable and fled to the United States, their granddaughter was just chosen to lead a major Jewish American organization — the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, founded in 1944 to formally organize the Jewish American community and build cross-community coalitions in response to rising antisemitism and the failure to prevent the Holocaust.

At the core of this mission is a recognition that Jewish safety does not exist without other communities’ safety and a strong, pluralistic democracy. It’s particularly gratifying that the Biden administration heard this message loud and clear, making it fundamental to the recently announced national strategy to combat antisemitism.

As I begin this work, I find inspiration not just in the Jewish resilience inherent in the Fraenkelufer Synagogue’s story — but also in how its broader community has drawn from the past to fight modern hate.

Today, 85 years after it was destroyed on Kristallnacht, the Fraenkelufer Synagogue is finally rebuilding its main sanctuary in its original location.

In an unexpected twist, the effort is spearheaded by a Muslim German elected official who emigrated from the West Bank as a child, and who — in partnership with the local Jewish community — has embraced this cause in order to make a deliberate statement against rising antisemitism, Islamophobia and hate.

The partners in this effort recognize that our safety is always in solidarity, in how we show up for each other. If we can embrace that too, we’ll be that much better equipped for the fights ahead.

Amy Spitalnick is the CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. She is the former executive director of Integrity First for America, which successfully sued the neo-Nazis behind the Charlottesville violence in 2017.

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