Several interfaith community leaders spoke out against Republican gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Doug Mastriano at an Aug. 17 virtual press conference, just two days before a scheduled campaign rally in Pittsburgh featuring Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“United and Win,” the Aug. 19 Mastriano rally, is organized by Turning Point Action.
Jewish Pittsburgher Meryl Ainsman opened the press conference by saying that Pittsburgh is “no place for hate,” and decrying Christian nationalism and Mastriano’s use of the social media site Gab.
“We believe in equality among races, among ethnic groups,” Ainsman said, “and we feel the two of them [Mastriano and DeSantis] represent the exact opposite of that.”
Gab is widely recognized as an online home for extremists and conspiracy theorists. The man charged with killing 11 Jews at the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2018, posted antisemitic messages on the site before the massacre; in his Gab bio, he described Jews as the “children of satan.”
It was revealed several weeks ago that Mastriano not only maintained a presence on Gab, but that he paid the site $5,000 in “consulting fees,” leading all new accounts on the platform to automatically follow him. His page was littered with scores of antisemitic comments left by people following him on Gab, many of them targeting his Jewish opponent, Josh Shapiro.
After criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, Mastriano released a statement saying, “I reject anti-Semitism in any form,” and closed his Gab account. Notably, he has not specifically condemned the antisemitic comments on his page or the social media site.
Jewish community member Jeffrey Letwin said that as a 62-year member of Tree of Life, he considers the gubernatorial race “personal.”
The shooting at the Tree of Life building may not have happened “but for these online havens that embolden neo-Nazis and white supremacists and other hate groups,” Letwin said.
“Make no mistake, these groups are a direct threat to the Jewish community, to communities of color and all religious minorities. Mastriano’s ties to Gab are alarming. They’re disgusting.”
Rev. Richard Freeman of the Resurrection Baptist Church in Braddock said that even growing up in southern Georgia during the civil rights movement, he “did not experience the type of vitriol in Georgia that I have experienced now.”
Freeman said the notion of Christian nationalism is “an affront” because “it is totally inconsistent with the gospel that I preach,” adding that his teachings are based on those “of a Jewish guy named Jesus.”
Christian nationalism, according to the Associated Press, is the idea that God has destined America for greatness and will give the country a “divine blessing.” It’s the belief that Christian values should dictate the country’s politics.
Noting that Thomas Jefferson kept a copy of the Quran in his book collection, Brother Mizanoor Biswas, chair of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, said America became a beacon of hope because of its inclusivity. He called the journey toward religious nationalism by some in the country “a great tragedy and disappointment” and noted that there have been several incidents of violence against Muslims in the last few years.
“The idea that one religion is better than the other should be excluded from Pennsylvania,” Biswas said. “The ideology is a direct threat to Americans.”
Temple Sinai Rabbi Emeritus Jamie Gibson said he decided to speak at the press conference because of several troubling statements by Mastriano — including that the separation of church and state is a “myth.”
Gibson noted that Gab CEO Andrew Torba recently stated that America is an explicitly Christian country, and that there is no room for Jews in his Christian movement.
“We have seen the fruits — or lack thereof — of our nation being led by Godless pagans, nonbelievers, Jews, and fake Christians-in-name-only,” Torba said in a statement last month, NBC reported. “If we are going to build a Christian movement it must be exclusively Christian and we can’t be afraid to say that out loud.”
In an interview in May, Mastriano praised Torba for creating Gab.
“I am teacher of text, and the sacred text of America is called the Constitution,” Gibson said. “These people who promote this exclusivity should be informed that God, as a word, is found nowhere in the Constitution and that the First Amendment guarantees my right by saying ‘Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’”
Ainsman, who served as board chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh at the time of the massacre at the Tree of Life building, said she is concerned about the possibility of violence and further extremism if Mastriano is elected.
“We have learned that rhetoric can promote violence within a community or against a community,” she said. “I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I do have concerns that if he were to be elected and continues to speak the way he does and have the followers he does, that it could incite violence.”
Gibson said as long as Mastriano’s campaign is framed in the rhetoric of Christian nationalism, Muslims, Jews and liberal Christians are all under threat.
“When people say they want to harm us, we now believe them,” Gibson said. “I’m extremely concerned that people will act on that nationalism in ways that harm actual human beings —Muslims, Jews and even liberal Christians.”
Ainsman said the press conference was not organized by the campaign of Mastriano’s Democratic opponent, Shapiro; rather, she said, it was organized by a nonpartisan group of people who have expressed concern to each other.
“We’ve individually sent out emails to contact lists trying to engage people, so I suspect this group will grow, but it is not an official group of any sort,” she said. “It is just folks, people like us.”
While the interfaith community members who spoke at the press conference are not part of an organized effort, a new group, PghJewsUniteAgainstExtremism, has been formed.
Marla Werner, a member of the group, said it was created by some leaders in the local Jewish community “to work arm-in-arm with the interfaith community.”
More than 200 people, who have learned bout the group via informal emails, have joined, she said.
“We are focused on the one issue of religious freedom and the one race of Mastriano versus Shapiro,” she said. “That is the entire purpose of PghJewsUniteAgainstExtremism. Because we feel our religious freedom is at risk.”
“Our goal,” said group member Sue Berman Kress, “is to educate the public about [Mastriano’s] history and where he stands. There seems to be a lot of people that don’t know about his association with Gab and how highly he has spoken of Torba. They don’t know he’s talked about how Christian values should be at the heart of governing. Our goal is to make sure, before people go to the voting booth, they know what is in his history.”
DeSantis’ appearance at the rally has been making waves in his home state of Florida, as well.
The Business Insider reported that Jewish Democrats in his state have called on him to pull out of the rally.
In the story, Rabbi Mark Winer, president of the Florida Democratic Party Jewish Caucus, accused the governor of providing “active comfort” to the worst elements of America.
“His going out of his way to campaign for Mastriano just underlines for all of us in Florida the extent to which Gov. DeSantis provides such comfort – such safe harbor – to bigots and racists of every kind,” Winer said.
In a Fox News poll conducted at the end of July, Shapiro was leading Mastriano by double digits, 50% to 40%.
The Chronicle has reached out to the Mastriano campaign several times for comments. As of press time, the Chronicle has been unable to schedule an interview with the candidate. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.