Thoughts from a man who grew up at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue
Rabbi Eli Wilansky lights a candle after a mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Saturday. | Steph Chambers / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP

The horrific anti-Semitic attack that killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh had a special impact on me. I grew up in the heavily Jewish community of Squirrel Hill. I lived within walking distance of the synagogue, was a member of the congregation, attended Sunday school, and had my bar mitzvah there.

I am no longer religious, and I reject nationalism and the racist policies of the current Israeli government. But because of my background, I learned about fascism and the Holocaust and strongly identified with the liberal humanistic values that prevailed and, to a large degree, are still present in the Jewish community.

Those values and the fear and hatred of fascism also were decisive in making me outraged and intensely active in the fight against the genocidal, racist war conducted by the United States against the people of Vietnam. It was clear that the same forces that fueled Nazism were alive and well in my own country and, in fact, drove its foreign policy.

The radicalism of the 1960s introduced me to the writings of Marxists and made me see the systemic corporate roots of both German and American imperialism and their use of racism to bamboozle, divide, and control people in the interest of maintaining the system of exploitation, profiteering, and oppression. So by 1970, it was natural for me to leave my career in biology and decide to work instead for socialism. I joined the Communist Party and immediately felt at home.

So, I can’t help feeling personal horror at what happened at Tree of Life, but I also have a more objective understanding of the forces that create and motivate the deranged bigotry of those like Robert Bowers, the man who gunned down worshippers there.

What he did was a terrible crime, and he deserves to be severely punished, but his actions cannot be separated from the climate of fear, hate, and racism that has been fostered from the first day Donald Trump began his sorry campaign for president of the United States with vile slanders against Mexican immigrants.

It cannot be separated from the pious hypocritical enablers in the Republican Party who claim to have the victims of every mass shooting in their “thoughts and prayers” but refuse to break ties with right-wing extremism and the profits and campaign donations of the gun lobby. The Republicans must be soundly rejected in the Nov. 6 elections at every level of government if we are to protect the safety and rights of the American people. As with Trump’s response to the murderous anti-Semitic attack in Squirrel Hill, they insist the answer to gun violence is more guns.

But they reject the real answers to the problem. Private ownership of weapons of war like the AR-15 used by Bowers must be outlawed. People, like him, who post and propagate hatred of ethnic, racial, and religious minorities, immigrants, women, and LGBTQ people must be denied the right to own guns of any kind. The arms manufacturing industry, like the banks, big pharma, and the energy corporations that depend on reckless attacks on the security and democratic rights of the American people to maximize profits must be nationalized. These measures will open the door to the ultimate solution—the complete end of private corporate power and its replacement by the will of the working people—socialism.


Rick Nagin
Rick Nagin

Rick Nagin has written for People's World and its predecessors since 1970. He has been active for many years in Cleveland politics and the labor movement.