11 dead, 6 injured as ‘anti-Semitic’ gunman strikes US synagogue
PITTSBURGH, United States – A heavily armed gunman opened fire on Jewish congregants during a baby-naming ceremony at a synagogue in the US city of Pittsburgh on Saturday, killing 11 people and injuring six, in what appeared to be one of the worst anti-Semitic attacks in American history.
The shooter — identified by police as Pittsburgh resident Robert Bowers — reportedly yelled “All Jews must die” as he burst into the Tree of Life synagogue, where dozens of people were gathered for Sabbath services. He was taken into police custody and transferred to an area hospital.
US President Donald Trump dubbed the attack “a wicked act of mass murder,” hitting out at climate of “hate” in America and beyond — while his daughter Ivanka, a convert to Judaism, denounced a “depraved” attack.
“There must be no tolerance for anti-Semitism,” Trump told a rally in Indianapolis.
“This wicked act of mass murder is pure evil, hard to believe,” he said. “Our minds cannot comprehend the cruel hate and the twisted malice that could cause a person to unleash such terrible violence during a baby naming ceremony.”
Wendell Hissrich, Pittsburgh’s public safety director, told a news conference that 11 people were killed, and six people injured — not including the gunman. No children were among the casualties.
Authorities, who are investigating the attack as a hate crime, said Bowers was armed with an assault rifle and at least three handguns.
Hissrich earlier described the scene of the shooting as “horrific.”
“One of the worst that I’ve seen, I’ve been on plane crashes. It’s very bad,” he said.
Stephen Weiss, a member of the congregation who was inside the building, told the Tribune-Review newspaper he heard dozens of shots coming from the front lobby.
“We had services going on in the chapel when we heard a loud noise in the lobby area,” he said. “I recognized it as gunshots.”
The gunman Bowers, described by US media as a white 46-year-old man, appeared to be the author of a rash of anti-Semitic online posts, notably on the Gab.com website, where conspiracy theories — like a discredited report linking Hillary Clinton to pedophiles — are common.
A person identified as Bowers posted on Gab just hours before the shooting: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people” — a reference to a refugee resettlement group. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
‘Our hearts break’
Saturday’s attack comes at a time of sharp tensions in the United States — a day after a Trump fan from Florida was arrested for mailing explosive devices to a series of Democratic figures, setting the country on edge ahead of close-fought elections on Nov. 6.
Trump — who has been accused of fueling tensions with divisive rhetoric — briefly considered scrapping a campaign rally later Saturday over the Pittsburgh attack, but finally decided to maintain it.
“We can’t let evil change our lives and change our schedule,” he said. “You go with a heavy heart but you go.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced his grief and solidarity, saying he was “heartbroken and appalled.”
“We stand together with the American people in the face of this horrendous anti-Semitic brutality,” Netanyahu said in a video message.
“We are devastated,” tweeted Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights group, which said it was “likely the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States” and certainly the deadliest since 2014.
“Jews targeted on Shabbat morning at synagogue, a holy place of worship, is unconscionable. Our hearts break for the victims, their families, and the entire Jewish community,” Greenblatt said.
The Pittsburgh attack comes with the United States witnessing a sharp spike in anti-Semitic incidents, having surged 57 percent from 2016 to 2017, to 1,986 from 1,267, according to the ADL.
Trump’s daughter Ivanka, in a tweet, vowed that “America is stronger than the acts of a depraved bigot and anti-Semite.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply shocked,” calling for a united front “to roll back the forces of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hatred, bigotry, discrimination and xenophobia gaining strength in many parts of the world.”
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered solidarity with the victims while German Chancellor Angela Merkel slammed an act of “blind anti-Semitic hatred,” saying: “We all have to stand up against anti-Semitism, everywhere.”
The Tree of Life Synagogue, whose congregation was founded more than 150 years ago, is in a residential neighborhood about 5 miles (8 kilometers) east of downtown Pittsburgh.
Squirrel Hill has historically been the center of Jewish life in the greater Pittsburgh and is home to 26 percent of all Pittsburgh-area Jewish households, according to a study from Brandeis University.
More than 80 percent of neighborhood residents said they were concerned about rising anti-Semitism, found the 2017 study. /cbb