Five years after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, the painful echoes of history: A perspective

Andrew Goretsky, Philadelphia Regional Director for the Anti-Defamation League, says the painful anniversary is a time to reflect.

The Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. (Capital-Star photo)

By Andrew Goretsky

Next week marks five years since the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh. An incident that remains engraved in our hearts, this was the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history. As we approach this somber anniversary, the Jewish people reel from another devastating loss of life: a horrific massacre of more than 1,000 civilians in Israel by Hamas terrorists. 

The Monday after the attack in Israel, I had the profound and heart-wrenching opportunity to visit “Shadowlight: The cattle car experience,” which is currently available in Philadelphia’s Holocaust Memorial. This immersive program seeks to shed light on the Holocaust, during which Jews were inhumanely transported in cattle cars to their grim fates in concentration and death camps. In a video segment, I watched as Nazi soldiers heartlessly forced individuals into these suffocating confines. The visual was horrifying, a sharp reminder of a past that’s too painful to fully grasp. 

However, what struck me even more was the chilling parallel between this traumatic past and the present. Watching Hamas terrorists on TV, forcing innocent people – as many as 150 – into cars and motorbikes to be kidnapped to Gaza, brought back the raw emotions and fears of those historical injustices. For me, a Jew, it felt as though history was tragically repeating itself. 

The Hamas massacre was the deadliest day for the Jewish community since the Holocaust, and one of the largest global terrorist attacks since 1970. And the death toll is still rising. The numbers and the stories behind them devastate: the memories, the moments lost, the lives that could have been. The echoes of these tragedies in our collective conscience bear haunting similarities to the darkest chapters of Jewish history. 

The 2021 Israel-Hamas Conflict taught us a painful lesson to we Americans: that acts of violence abroad can breed hatred and animosity at home. The rise of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments, including on college campuses, has been a disturbing trend. But the safety of our Jewish community remains paramount. The urgency to protect Jewish institutions and students has never been clearer. 

We stand firm with Israel, our siblings who face adversity and peril. Their fight is our fight. Their pain is our pain. The U.S., as Israel’s staunchest ally, needs to have an ambassador in place. We call on Congress to confirm Jack Lew immediately as a testament to our commitment to Israel in its gravest crisis in 50 years. 

While the Anti-Defamation League continues its critical work documenting extremists and antisemitic acts, it’s vital to note the distinct ideologies driving these acts of hatred against Jewish individuals. Take, for instance, the ideology of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, rooted in white supremacy, and compare it to the ideology of Hamas terrorists, influenced by militant interpretations of religious doctrine.

While they were motivated by different agendas, the source of their ideologies was essentially the same. The notion that Jews are a problem and violence is the only solution to the “Jewish Question.” It’s a chilling echo of the past, as this very belief fueled Hitler’s regime in its genocidal campaign against six million Jews. 

I want peace, dignity and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians, and I want the Hamas terrorist threat to be eliminated. I want safety and equity for people of all identity groups, whether it is race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or any identity, and I want all extremism to be eradicated. In this journey of hope and resilience, we draw from the lessons of our painful past, stand firm in the face of present adversities, and pave the way for a harmonious future. 

As we remember the victims of the Pittsburgh massacre, the fallen souls in the recent Hamas attacks, those individuals held captive in Gaza, the millions who perished in the Holocaust, and all individuals who are suffering, let’s pledge to stay united. Let’s educate, advocate, and fight against the forces that seek to terrorize communities. Only in unity can we find strength, and only through understanding can we hope for a better future. 

Together, we can fight hate for good.

Andrew Goretsky, EdD, is the Philadelphia Regional Director for the Anti-Defamation League.

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