Center for Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Studies

HGHR Center Statement on Antisemitic Terrorist Attack in Pittsburgh

October 28, 2018

The Center for HGHR Studies expresses its deep sorrow and grief over the murder of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh yesterday. We will redouble our efforts to combat antisemitism, racism, xenophobia, and other social ills while promoting human rights and solidarity among peoples.

This is the work that Tree of Life has long been engaged in. The synagogue was targeted not only because of its faith but because of its efforts to assist refugees. In keeping with the noble Jewish tradition to “welcome the stranger,” Tree of Life has devoted itself to welcoming refugees, working with HIAS (originally named the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and others.

The morning of his attack, Robert Bowers posted on a far-right website "HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered." Earlier this month he had posted: "Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us?”

Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out yesterday that synagogues were firebombed during the civil rights era and have retained “an enormous symbolic importance” for white supremacists. The main intention in attacking them, she said, was to terrorize Jews. “The thing about hitting a house of worship is that you make everyone in that community frightened,” she said. “If you’re a white supremacist, you can’t hit a better target.”

Squirrel Hill, where Tree of Life is located, is “home of a dozen synagogues. For more than a century and a half, it not only is the spiritual center of Pittsburgh Judaism but also a vital landmark in the history of Jews in America, along with New York’s Lower East Side and Boston’s Blue Hill Avenue.”

Some of us in the United States have contented ourselves to believe that, because antisemitism is not as visible or virulent as it once was, it has evaporated. Yesterday’s horrible crime provides shocking evidence that not only is it alive and well: it was growing stronger, as documented in recent studies by the ADL and by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Another report, six months ago, showed that “Nearly every metric of intolerance in the US has surged over the past 18 months, from reported anti-Semitism and Islamophobia to violent hate crimes based on skin color, nationality or sexual orientation.”

Conspiracy theories amplified by powerful politicians in the US and elsewhere provide fertile ground for antisemitism to fester and expand. As Jeffrey Herf, renowned historian of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, noted this weekend: “Trump’s contribution to the revival of anti-Semitism in American politics lies in his penchant for conspiracy theories — evident, for example, in the disgusting closing commercial of his 2016 campaign,” which focused on Soros and two other well-known Jews. “Through his support for conspiratorially minded right-wing media figures, Trump has lent legitimacy to a paranoid and dangerous mode of thinking.”

Saturday’s massacre came at the end of a disastrous, destructive week:

  • Sunday October 21: The New York Times reported a significant attack by the Trump Administration on transgender people that “would mean that the federal government would effectively stop recognizing the very possibility of a person being transgender or intersex.”
  • Monday and Tuesday: Pipe bombs were sent to George Soros, Barack Obama, the offices of CNN, and other targets of right-wing rage.
  • Wednesday: After first attempting to enter an African-American church—probably to carry out a Dylan Roof-like massacre (a witness saw him attempting to break through the front doors of the church, which like Charleston’s “Mother Emmanuel” AME church is a historic fixture of the Black community)—a 51-year-old white man shot and killed two African Americans in Jeffersontown, KY, in an extraordinarily vicious and calculated fashion.
  • Throughout the week we were subjected to hysterical propaganda directed at the so-called migrant caravan, whose members were commonly termed “invaders.” Last Sunday, the President described the slow-moving group of a few hundred desperate people as an “onslaught of illegal aliens,” and on Wednesday he invented the doubly offensive and reckless allegation that the caravan included “Middle Easterners,” i.e., terrorists, in his worldview.
  • Friday: Right-wing terrorist Cesar Sayoc was arrested after sending pipe bombs to numerous high-profile liberals and critics of President Trump.

These appalling trends are, in part, the predictable backlashes to historic progress, and are rooted in patterns that while encouraged by Trump long predate and will survive him. It is part of our mission to hasten the demise of white supremacy and all its offspring, such as the murderous, racialized antisemitism that produces people like Robert Bowers.

“The people killed on Saturday were killed for trying to make the world a better place, as their faith exhorts them to do,” wrote Adam Serwer today. “The history of the Jewish people is one of displacement, statelessness, and persecution. What groups like HIAS do in helping refugees, they do with the knowledge that comes from a history of being the targets of demagogues who persecute minorities in pursuit of power.”

In concert with friends and partners in Charlotte and beyond, our Center organizes annual Holocaust-themed Study Abroads; is involved in multiple endeavors to assist and advocate for immigrants and refugees; offers a Minor in genocide & human-rights studies; and next month is co-organizing (with UNCC’s Africana Studies) a field trip to the new museum and memorial in Montgomery, AL, which offers powerful and indelible lessons about the history, human consequences, and persistence of racism in this country.

Through this work we attempt to rise to the challenge posed two thousand years by Rabbi Hillel, whose injunction resonates through the centuries:

If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?

And if not now, when?

Contact: Dr. John Cox, Director, Center for Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights [HGHR] Studies, jcox73@uncc.edu

 
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Information about our 6th Holocaust-themed Study Abroad, June 14-24, 2019. Led by Prof. Judy LaPietra; visiting Berlin, Krakow, and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

 

 

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Information about our 6th Holocaust-themed Study Abroad, June 14-24, 2019. Led by Prof. Judy LaPietra; visiting Berlin, Krakow, and Auschwitz-Birkenau.


Professor emerita recounts Holocaust experience

"Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz shares story with students"
 | FEBRUARY 26, 2018  |  Niner Times

“You didn’t have very much time for God. What God would be there?” Students shifted in their seats, uncomfortable and saddened by the words of Holocaust survivor Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz. On February 20, the UNC Charlotte professor emerita of German literature gave a lecture that ensured that students would never forget the atrocities of that period. She sat almost hidden behind a table that held a microphone and a dimly lit lamp that would set the somber mood of the hour....

In May of 1942, Cernyak-Spatz and her mother were deported to Theresienstadt, the “special ghetto,” where people were held before transport to concentration camps. Once they arrived, her mother was sent to the Sobibór camp where she was murdered — a death, as Cernyak-Spatz put it, “probably more merciful than Auschwitz.”....

And what does Cernyak-Spatz want to see in the world now? “Please stay human,” she said, seeming to lock eyes with each audience member as she asked them to learn from the atrocities of the powerful SS officers and the Nazi regime.

“Please try not to forget and please stay human.”

FULL TEXT