The outpouring of grief over last month’s massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue has sparked a degree of counterintuitive hope. Just maybe, the eternal optimists among us believe, this will prove to be the watershed event that sends all the craven anti-Semites crawling back into their caves for good. I doubt it.
The shooter, Robert Bowers, is now a household name around the world. Maybe that’s what he wanted. But Bowers is not the first lowlife to murder an observant Jew in Squirrel Hill. That dubious distinction belongs to Steven Tielsch.
On a Thursday night in April 1986, when Bowers was still a teenager, Tielsch murdered my childhood friend and neighbour Neal Rosenblum. Nuttie, as everyone knew him, was three years my senior. Growing up together in Toronto, we used to play hockey on the street outside his house. His mother was my kindergarten teacher.
Nuttie married a girl from Pittsburgh and had just arrived in town to spend Passover with her family. Walking home that evening from a different synagogue in the neighbourhood – and cutting the recognizable figure of an Orthodox Jew – he was hailed by two men, Tielsch and Kevin Ohm, in a black Corvette looking for directions. When Nuttie approached the vehicle to render assistance, Tielsch took out a .40-calibre pistol and shot him in cold blood. Neal was 25.
Sixteen years and four trials later, Tielsch was finally convicted of third-degree murder and sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison. (Federal records show that he was released last year. Ohm apparently was killed in 1991 in a traffic accident in a car driven by Tielsch.) His prolific rap sheet includes drug trafficking, tax evasion and homicide. Bowers follows in the footsteps of an equally bad seed.
Racists like Tielsch and Bowers are motivated by pure hatred. In the case of Tielsch, who bragged in 1991 that he “wacked some Jew f–k,” the district attorney declared plain and simple that “Rosenblum died because of his religion.”
It would be a mistake to think that Bowers and his ilk are motivated by any kind of rational impulse. Their antipathy blinds them. How else to explain why Bowers, who claims to despise President Donald Trump, would target American Jews, 75 per cent of whom actually oppose Trump and his policies?
The scourge of Jew-baiting exists independently of politics. But their interface becomes toxic when leaders demonstrate tolerance – or worse, sympathy – for anti-Semitic tropes and violence. Trump’s dismal response to the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where protesters chanted “Jews will not replace us,” is a case in point; celebrating “very fine people on both sides” empowers fanaticism. Politicians who would continue to embrace Louis Farrakhan after his recent comparison of Jews to termites are no less culpable.
The hearts of all civilized people go out to the Squirrel Hill victims and their families. The attack opened a gaping hole in the fabric of America’s most treasured values, and it will not easily mend. This needs to be an urgent time of introspection and healing. Americans on both sides of the political debate must stop pointing fingers at each other and join hands to defend the core freedoms of all their fellow citizens. Anti-Semitism must be combated resolutely, whether it emanates from the right or the left. And enhanced law enforcement will be imperative in order to ensure that criminals are prosecuted and law-abiding citizens are protected.
Too many historical precedents have taught us that anti-Semitism will likely persist as a feature of our society. Sadly, I don’t expect the tragedy in Pittsburgh to change that. But that doesn’t mean good people can’t put up a fight. If they don’t, the integrity and future of the Republic are as good as doomed. And the memories of Nuttie and the 11 souls taken at Tree of Life will be defiled.