Pittsburgh now a hub for white supremacists
(JTA) In the days after the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history, Pittsburgh became a symbol of the enduring dangers of hatred as well as the Jewish communal solidarity that followed the synagogue shooting.
Two years later, the city has become a symbol and pilgrimage site of a far more insidious sort: for white supremacists who see the Tree of Life gunman as an inspiration.
In just the past several weeks, a white supremacist group held a march down a main boulevard there. About 100 people attended a white supremacist music festival in the area. A vocal white supremacist who had posted a call online to murder local Jews was released from prison. And flyers with white nationalist slogans have papered the city.
“We have, since 2018, seen a dramatic increase in white supremacist-related violent incidents and in the overall presence of white supremacists within our [area],” John Pulcastro, a supervisory intelligence analyst at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), said at a symposium last week at Duquesne University’s Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law.
“Having worked this for more than 20 years, I can tell you this area is worse than any that I have seen throughout the entire country,” he said.
Mass shooters have long aspired to imitate previous high-profile attackers. The “Columbine effect”, in which school shooters seek to follow the example of the two teens who opened fire on a Colorado high school in 1999, has been observed more than 100 times, according to Mother Jones, a progressive magazine that documented the phenomenon.
White supremacists follow the same pattern. In their manifestos, the shooters in the attacks in El Paso, Christchurch, and Poway, California, all referenced previous far-right attacks and the ideas that motivated them.
Security specialists in the Pittsburgh Jewish community say white supremacists have come to the western Pennsylvania city in part because of the synagogue shooting, which killed 11 people. The far-right, they say, views the shooter as a role model — something that has already been apparent in white supremacist forums online, where they refer to the gunman by name as a “saint”.
And he’s not alone. A T-shirt celebrating the Boogaloo anti-government extremist movement features a picture of the Poway synagogue assailant.
“The shooter is typically revered in some of these white supremacist neo-Nazi organisations,” said Shawn Brokos, the local Jewish federation’s director of community security. “So for that very reason, Pittsburgh was placed on the map and became synonymous in many ways with white supremacy, solely based on the events of 27 October,” the date of the attack.
Analysts all cited the recent white supremacist demonstration as particularly concerning. A Texas-based extremist group called Patriot Front brought more than 100 members to march down the city’s Boulevard of the Allies on 7 November, according to the FBI, blasting a smoke machine and carrying a banner reading, “Two parties, one tyranny” in capital letters.
The group has a relatively small presence in Pittsburgh, said James Pasch, the region’s director for the Anti-Defamation League, which means they brought in members from across the country.
Patriot Front, which espouses violent white nationalism and evolved from a group that was active at the 2017 far-right Charlottesville rally, has also embarked on a flyers campaign in Pittsburgh. Its red, white, and blue propaganda bears slogans like “America first” (a slogan also favoured by President Donald Trump) and a map of the United States alongside the words, “Not stolen, conquered.” The Ku Klux Klan has also posted flyers across the city that tend to be densely typed pages of racist invective.
The flyers and antisemitic graffiti have been seen in the Jewish neighbourhood of Squirrel Hill, where the synagogue shooting occurred, and elsewhere. In early September, Brokos also received multiple reports of someone yelling antisemitic profanity at Jews in Squirrel Hill.
Pasch said the flyers weren’t limited to Pittsburgh. In neighbouring Ohio, they increased more than fivefold from 2018 to 2019.
“[The Patriotic Front] is marking its territory, just like old gangs used to,” Pulcastro said at the symposium. “They’re recruiting. They’re trying to push for individuals to come to the fold who also find this material and ideology appealing.”
The Patriot Front demonstration happened about a month after a white supremacist concert called “Won’t Say Sorry: A night for the white working class.” Days earlier, a white supremacist who had posted a call online to murder Jews in Squirrel Hill was released from prison.
Day to day, hate doesn’t feel like it’s in the atmosphere in Squirrel Hill, said Ellen Surloff, who was president of one of the congregations in the Tree of Life building, the Reconstructionist Dor Hadash, at the time of the shooting. But she’s worried about white supremacist violence — especially amid the current political tension.
“My reaction is that in this political climate, this is like a tinderbox. You’re just waiting for the match to strike,” she said.
Pasch said the heightened activity in and around Pittsburgh mirrored a rise in white supremacist activity nationwide and on extremist websites.
“My largest concern remains the growth of white supremacist ideology and hate online,” he said. “It knows no geographic boundaries, and people can cross state lines to commit acts of hate.”
Brad Orsini, Brokos’ predecessor, said that even as Pittsburgh Jews continued to processes their trauma from the 2018 shooting, the community had remained prepared for hate to strike again.
“I think there’s a higher level [of risk] in Pittsburgh because of what happened,” said Orsini, the senior national security advisor of the Secure Community Network, which co-ordinates security for Jewish institutions nationwide. “However, I do see the Pittsburgh Jewish communal programme doing everything it can to keep that community safe.”
World news in brief
Antwerp mayor warns rule flouting triggers antisemitism
The mayor of Antwerp, a city in Belgium where about 15 000 haredi Orthodox Jews live, warned that their failure to comply with COVID-19 measures has triggered some antisemitism, and it could turn into a wave.
“In the Jewish community, not everyone realises this, they have their own logic, but the backlash of public opinion that I see in my inbox, it’s terrible,” Bart De Wever, a right-wing politician who has enjoyed good relations with his city’s Jewish community, told the ATV station on Sunday, 24 January. “If we really want to move towards a wave of antisemitism, this is the way to go.”
His statement followed the two-week shutdown of a Belz synagogue by the Hasidic sect’s leaders in Antwerp. Police had determined that the shul on Van Spangen Street was twice in violation of emergency measures that forbid group prayer but allow individual worship.
Antwerp police have tolerated minyans, but have intervened when they were exceeded.
Legislators criticise Israel for not vaccinating Palestinians
Joaquin Castro, a top foreign policy Democrat in the United States House of Representatives, has joined a handful of other Democrats in criticising Israel for not supplying Palestinians with the coronavirus vaccine.
“I commend Israel for leading the world on vaccinating its people, but I’m disappointed and concerned by its government’s exclusion of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation from these vaccination efforts, despite making COVID-19 vaccines available to Israeli settlers in the West Bank,” Castrol, of Texas, told Ha’aretz this week.
A number of other Democrats, including Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Jamaal Bowman of New York, and Marie Newman of Illinois have also criticised Israel for excluding the Palestinians.
Israel says it isn’t required to vaccinate West Bank Palestinians under international law and prior agreements with the Palestinians.
Israeli museum accused of smuggling artifacts out of Warsaw
The City of Warsaw has accused an Israeli Holocaust museum of smuggling Jewish prayer artifacts out of Poland that the museum said were found inside an old bunker in the Polish capital.
The Shem Olam museum near Hadera announced this week that it had obtained 10 sets of tefillin found by construction workers in Warsaw near the entrance to a bunker dug by Jewish fighters in preparation for the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
The City of Warsaw has no knowledge of the find, said spokesperson Karolina Gałecka. If Shem Olam was telling the truth about what it obtained and where, “a crime has occurred” because Poland requires anyone who finds archaeological items to report their discovery to the authorities.
Rabbi Avraham Krieger, Shem Olam’s director, said Judaica artifacts, including from the Warsaw Ghetto, are widely available for sale in Polish antique stores and online.
Leifer finally extradited to Australia
Malka Leifer has boarded a plane from Israel en route to Australia where she faces 74 charges of child sexual abuse.
Leifer fled to Israel from Australia in 2008 amid allegations that she had sexually abused students when she was the principal at the Adass Yisroel School in Melbourne. In 2014, Australia filed a formal extradition request, but Israeli authorities deemed her unstable and unfit for extradition.
After an investigation showed she was living a normal life, she was rearrested in 2018, and last year, an Israeli panel cleared her for extradition.
Leifer’s departure from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport came shortly before the country was due to ground all flights for at least a week to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Israelis torch bus in protest against COVID-19 restrictions
A mob of Orthodox Jews torched a bus in Israel after beating the bus driver amid ongoing riots protesting the country’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Police officers in other cities were also injured during riots in Orthodox neighbourhoods, where COVID-19 rates have spiked but residents object to lockdown restrictions.
The bus burning in Bnei Brak on Sunday, 24 January, a largely haredi or ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv, came days after rioters there injured seven police officers in clashes last week. Police have sought to close haredi schools and other institutions, which has sparked a violent backlash from protesters.
Index cards of Dutch Holocaust victims to be made public
(JTA) Sonja Levy was a positive person who made an excellent first impression and whose important position exempted her from deportation, according to the personal card that the Jewish Council of Amsterdam made for her during the Nazi occupation.
But the accolades on the card weren’t enough to save Levy, a kindergarten teacher who was in her early 20s when the Germans invaded.
Like more than 100 000 Dutch Jews, she was eventually put on a train to the death camps in occupied Poland, and murdered there in a gas chamber.
On Monday, the ownership of her personal card – it turned out to be her first epitaph – was handed over to the main museum of the community to which she belonged.
Ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Wednesday, 27 January, the Netherlands branch of the Red Cross has transferred to the Jewish Cultural Quarter of Amsterdam ownership of more than 140 000 personal cards of Dutch Jews that are to be displayed to the public for the first time. The Jewish Cultural Quarter is an umbrella organisation of several Jewish institutions including the National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands.
The entire index of the Jewish Council of Amsterdam, a body that the Nazis set up to have Jews oversee preparations for the extermination of their own minority throughout the Netherlands, is among the most comprehensive and best-kept registries of its kind anywhere in Europe.
It’s unusual in that it includes references to status and personal traits, reflecting how this registry, unlike most other Nazi lists, was made by for Jews by Jews.
In more than 75% of the cards, the Red Cross after World War II added the date of deportation in red ink, a rare tangible reminder of how in the Netherlands, the Nazis achieved their highest death rate anywhere in occupied Western Europe. Of about 110 000 Jews deported, only a few thousand survived.
The Red Cross has transferred its entire wartime archives to the Dutch National Archives, except for the Jewish Council’s index card archive. On Monday, the Red Cross transferred ownership of the archive to the National Holocaust Museum, which is undergoing renovations. The index will go on display next year when the museum reopens, the Red Cross said.
The index “is of great value not only as an archive, but also as a museum monument and a tangible reminder of the Holocaust”, the Red Cross wrote.
The cards were digitised in 2012, and made available for viewing online upon request for a name or other identifying details. But browsing the cards hasn’t been possible. The National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands is now designing the cards’ display ahead of the reopening, but they will be visible for all to see, according to Emile Schrijver, the director of the Jewish Cultural Quarter.
Bernie Sanders has his most viral week ever
(JTA) Bernie Sanders was everywhere on James Corden’s late night show set on Thursday, 21 January.
Life-sized cardboard cut-outs of the Jewish senator in his now famous inauguration ceremony pose – hands and legs crossed, slightly crumpled in his chair, wearing a pair of fawned-over mittens – sat behind a synthesiser next to the house band, behind the bar for guests, and scattered throughout the practically non-existent audience.
“Speaking of breakout stars of the inauguration, we have another one with us in the studio,” Corden said, barely holding in his laughter.
It was a fitting indication of just how ubiquitous Sanders’ image was in pop culture and for the eyeballs of social media this week. No regular Instagram or Twitter user could have scrolled through their feeds since the presidential inauguration on Wednesday, 20 January, without seeing the mittened Sanders, usually in meme form, with humorous accompanying text, often comparing him to cranky relatives and the like.
Many employed Jewish humour along the way.
Then came the photoshop phenomenon. Social media users began splicing the Sanders’ silhouette into other photos of people and places all over the world, even into screen shots from movies and TV shows.
Our sister site Alma, not content with one long slideshow of Bernie memes on Instagram, posted three sets of Bernie photoshopped into everything from Fiddler on the Roof to When Harry Met Sally, to a Haim music video.
The meme deluge became so unrelenting, some were fatigued with the image by Friday.
An entire market of merchandise inspired by the image has quickly sprouted. The National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia is hawking “bundled up Bernie mugs” and more. Designers are incorporating it into their work on Etsy. Sanders’ own online store is now selling a sweatshirt with the image, and donating all of the proceeds to Meals on Wheels Vermont. Even the progressive magazine Jewish Currents has its own “Bernie merch”.
“The mug for a bris, a shiva, a long line at Zabar’s, a protracted and infuriating call with your insurance provider. This isn’t an endorsement of anything other than sitting like this,” the magazine tweeted.
As with most random internet phenomena, there’s no firm answer as to why the image went viral. Sanders has been a social media star before, most notably for the memes based on his December 2019 presidential campaign advert, in which the progressive legislator asks his supporters “once again” for donations.
But this photo seemed to capture the essence of Sanders’ public persona as the nation’s grumpy grandfather – and a Jewish one at that, with Ashkenazi features and an unmistakable Brooklyn accent. His homemade wool mittens, a symbol of Sanders’ Vermont style and his repudiation of anything fancy, also fit just a little too perfectly with a senator known for his rants about income inequality. (The gloves have a heartwarming backstory involving a public-school teacher that only helped fuel the fire.)
The intensity of the political moment, charged into a new gear after the deadly insurrection at the Capitol – especially for Jews, newly frightened by the display of antisemitism at the right-wing riot – probably had something to do with it too. The country, one could argue, was primed for a feel-good meme sensation. As a Refinery29 writer put it, the inauguration was, for the majority of liberal-leaning America, a “sigh of relief”.
Alma’s Emily Burack wrote, “As an Ashkenazi Jew with grandparents from Brooklyn, it’s hard not to feel a kindred spirit in Bernie. And in a year – well, in the past four years, really – when we’ve dealt with a rise in antisemitism, the worst antisemitic attack in American history, and an emboldened faction of white supremacists, the undeniable grumpy Jewishness of Bernie offers a real sense of catharsis.”
Writer Amanda Silberling tweeted that the memes “offered American Jews a chance to heal from the rampant antisemitism in the news cycle”.
A large part of Sanders’ appeal to his progressive fans has always been his stubborn focus on substantive policy debate and his impatience with the fluff of pop culture. As Refinery29 continued, the cross-legged Sanders photo captured that ethic perfectly.
“He has things to do and places to be. His demeanour is unsentimental, unmoved, and largely unbothered,” Michelle Santiago Cortes wrote.
Sanders’ comic response to the phenomenon was a TikTok video that expressed just that. Its caption, “Fashion? Let’s get to work.” The video showed a clip of him responding to a question about the photo on a news show and what he had “in mind” at the time of the shot.
“Two thousand dollars per adult. That’s what the Senate has got to do,” he replies, referring to the debate over how much money the next COVID-19 stimulus relief should include.
But Sanders eventually did have some sense of humour about the whole thing. The timing of the shot, taken as the country watched Joe Biden become president, prompted inevitable musings as to whether Bernie truly was cranky about the event, especially after coming so close to winning the Democratic nomination last year. Sanders, a long-time friend of Biden’s, dispelled those thoughts in an appearance on Late Night With Seth Meyers on Thursday night.
“I was just sitting there, trying to keep warm, paying attention to what’s going on,” he said to Meyers with a smile.
As the Biden era begins without the prospect of a President Sanders and subsequently no pressing need for Larry David to portray Sanders on Saturday Night Live, could this be the end of Sanders’ pop culture stardom?
As one Twitter user wrote, “If @nbcsnl doesn’t have Larry David dressed as @SenSanders in the background of every skit this weekend … then I don’t want it.”