In what has become a predictable pattern, Sabbath observers turned on cell phones and televisions on Saturday night to learn of another mass shooting. This one, which happened late Saturday morning, was perpetrated by a young, white male with a hatred of Hispanics in El Paso, Texas,who murdered 22 people.
By early Sunday morning, they learned that nine more people were killed in Dayton, Ohio.
This routine — the outrage, the statements and the finger pointing — has become a predictable event in modern American life, wearying the American news consumer and frightening regular customers of Walmarts, restaurants and shopping malls.
For Jewish organizations, the response is no less wearying.
“It’s actually embarrassing to put out public statements in the aftermath of a mass shooting because we’ve done so many before, expressing outrage each time and determination to pass meaningful gun laws,” said David Bernstein, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
“There’s no question that there needs to be real and practical responses from not only government but also from community leaders, to deal with both policy issues but also cultural issues to try to prevent these things from happening again,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s advocacy center. “It’s happened too many times.”
But what pierced the standard reaction this week are new, urgent calls in the Jewish community to lobby lawmakers in Washington to give law enforcement heightened tools to fight white supremacy as a form of domestic terrorism — specifically online.
The El Paso shooter has been linked to a virulently hateful anonymous chatroom site called 8chan — also frequented by the shooters in Poway, Calif., and Christchurch, New Zealand — which poses a unique challenge in tracking potential domestic terrorists. For now, 8chan has been taken offline by hosting and internet security companies like Cloudflare.
It’s happened too many times.
But nothing on the internet is ever truly gone. And the white supremacist ideology that inspired the El Paso shooting — echoing President Trump’s words, the shooter decried a Hispanic “invasion” of Texas — is incredibly widespread. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the Dayton shooter showed his girlfriend a video of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh on their first date. The accused killer in that attack, an avowed white nationalist, cited the work of the Jewish organization HIAS to help asylum seekers at the southern border as motivation.
Law enforcement is “being outgunned through social media and technology platforms,” said Michael Masters, CEO of the Secure Community Network, the national Jewish security initiative, “where individuals are able to spread hate, anti-Semitism and support violence. By sheer volume, the problem is overwhelming.”
In order to help, Masters says the Jewish community must exert pressure on lawmakers. “Law enforcement does a lot for us as a community,” he said. “If we can step up to the plate to work to serve and protect them, to give them the tools they need to do their job to protect us, it’s incumbent upon us.”
A concrete place to start is the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2019, which gives agencies like the Department of Homeland Security the resources to monitor domestic terrorism, said Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism. But the act has been languishing in Congress since its introduction in late March. Its passage would be a step toward fighting white supremacy with some of the same tools — passed into law in the wake of 9/11 to fight international terrorism — that law enforcement currently uses against al-Qaeda and ISIS.
“We need to know the data, the numbers … and we’re hoping that that act can help get us closer to that understanding,” Segal said. “From there, more specific remedies can follow.”
According to the ADL, every extremist-related murder committed in the U.S. in 2018, including the Tree of Life massacre, in which a gunman murdered 11 worshippers during Sabbath services, was connected to right-wing extremists. Last year’s extremist-related killings marked a 35 percent increase from 2017. The high number of extremist-related murders over the past decade constitutes a trend, according to the ADL, with 73.3 percent of such murders committed by right-wing extremists and 23.4 percent committed by Islamic extremists.
All of them have taken their toll on the nation and the Jewish community.
“I think the mood of the Jewish community is heavy,” said Ginna Green, chief strategy officer of Bend the Arc. “Since Pittsburgh and Poway and what we’ve seen in our own synagogues and communities, we recognize that this could be us, this could have been us.”
Democrats quickly turned to talk of gun control legislation. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer called for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to reconvene the Senate, despite the summer recess, to take up gun control legislation passed by the House earlier this year. The bills would enact stricter requirements for background checks, close a loophole allowing the sale of firearms at gun shows without background checks, and ban certain assault weapons.
The Jewish Democratic Council of America urged its members to write to senators in support of the House legislation. “We have identified a national security crisis in the form of both white nationalism and our lack of gun safety measures,” said Halie Soifer, executive director of the JDCA, asserting that House legislation was urgently needed to address the crisis.
Calls for gun control legislation rang out from most corners of the Jewish community. Several Jewish organizations issued statements, some calling for the usual “thoughts and prayers” for the victims, while others decried the inadequacy of that oft-repeated response.
“Yet again we turn our thoughts and prayers to a community grieving after another mass shooting potentially motivated by hate and extremism. But thoughts and prayers are simply not enough,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, in a statement.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, agreed, releasing a statement saying: “It is not enough for elected officials to muster their ‘thoughts and prayers.’ Like millions of Americans I’m sick of the pathetic excuses offered by too many lawmakers for not passing strong and effective common sense gun laws.”
The Latino Jewish Leadership Council at the American Jewish Committee issued a statement: “We strongly denounce the rise of anti-Latino/anti-immigrant hate in our public sphere. This hate, coupled with unbridled access to assault weapons allowing for domestic terrorism, fueled the El Paso massacre. We also express our solidarity with Mexico for the loss of life of several of its citizens.”
Some in the Jewish community saw parallels between the shooting in El Paso, in which the suspect was motivated by anti-immigrant hate, and the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in which the shooter chose the synagogue because of its connections to HIAS, the immigrant aid organization. The shooter in Saturday’s attack drove across the state of Texas to El Paso, a border town, because of the town’s large Mexican population.
“Obviously there was a shooter who shot his weapon into a crowd at Walmart and there was a president who has created the climate and the space for a white nationalist agenda, for white nationalists themselves to feel empowered and emboldened to conduct the violence that they have conducted,” said Bend the Arc’s Green.
This xenophobia-motivated shooting came just weeks after supporters of the president chanted, “Send her back!” about Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota who immigrated to the United States from Somalia and is a frequent opponent of the president.
But the shooting in Dayton, which took place less than a day after the one in El Paso, complicated the picture. While the El Paso shooter was motivated by anti-immigrant hate, the motives of the Dayton shooter were not immediately clear. While some pointed to the shooter’s history of making threats of violence in high school, others pointed to his political beliefs. According to the Washington Post, the shooter posted about his far-left political views on his Twitter account, which was suspended on the day of the shooting.
Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, lamented the partisan finger-pointing in the reactions to the two shootings. “I know there’s this great narrative on the left that somehow Donald Trump is enabling and causing this, and I think that’s offensive and wrong. The reality is we have a hate problem by the left and the right,” said Brooks.
In a speech on Monday, President Trump condemned white nationalism but focused on mental health and media influence rather than gun control in his proposed responses. “In one voice our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” said the president. “These sinister ideologies must be defeated.”
“This is why words matter, because we look to our president to lead and to heal,” Greenblatt of the ADL told MSNBC on Monday, criticizing the president’s focus on violent video games and calling for measures to prevent radicalization. In the wake of the El Paso shooting, the ADL called on Congress to authorize regular assessment of right-wing extremists by domestic terrorism offices and units in law enforcement agencies and to provide resources to assist state and local law enforcement to reduce these threats.
“To blame mental health or video games for the epidemic of gun violence and the rise of white nationalism is to deny the truth, including the facts surrounding recent mass shootings, in which the perpetrators have repeated the president’s own xenophobic rhetoric,” said Soifer. “Gun violence is an epidemic, it is plaguing our schools, our houses of worship, and our communities. And he needs to act.”
Despite the hopelessness that has long animated the national conversation in the wake of shootings, activists are looking ahead to next year to change the status quo. “No doubt, priority No. 1 for us is going to be defeating Trump and his enablers in 2020,” said Green.
Shira Hanau is a staff writer; Lev Gringauz is our editorial intern.