Oct. 27 attack plays prominent role at Eradicate Hate summit
Fighting hatePittsburgh hosts international summit to combat extremism

Oct. 27 attack plays prominent role at Eradicate Hate summit

“What starts with the Jews,” Greenblatt said, “never ends with the Jews.”

Former President George W. Bush was a keynote speaker at the Eradicate Hate Global Summit Photo by David Rullo
Former President George W. Bush was a keynote speaker at the Eradicate Hate Global Summit Photo by David Rullo

Standing before a crowd of several hundred, Michele Rosenthal welcomed attendees to the Eradicate Hate Global Summit by remembering her brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal, who were murdered on Oct. 27, 2018, in the Tree of Life building.

Rosenthal’s voice cracked as she recalled her brothers and the events of three years ago.

Cecil and David, she said, were good men who lived good lives. She recalled how they were affectionately known as the “mayors of Squirrel Hill,” how they bought flowers for their mother, how they were treated as members of the local fire department and how they often shared a cup of tea with Tree of Life’s custodian.

“They did not judge anyone,” Rosenthal said. “Not by religion, color or ethnicity. They are my example, and they should be your example, too. They demonstrated the hearts and actions we want the world to show toward each other. Simple lessons, simple truths, simple love. Simply, let’s all love like the boys.”

The massacre at the Tree of Life building loomed large over the summit, which was conceived following the Oct. 27 attack, said University of Pittsburgh chancellor emeritus Mark Nordenberg. Nordenberg co-chaired the summit along with Laura Ellsworth, first partner in charge of global community service initiatives for the law firm Jones Day.

“Laura called and said, ‘We need to do something to make certain Pittsburgh becomes better known, not for being the site of this attack, but for its effective and constructive response to hate,’” Nordenberg told the audience.

The Eradicate Hate Global Summit 2021, which is running from Oct. 18 -20 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center downtown, hosted more than 100 experts on hate and extremism. They were charged not only with sharing their expertise, but with spending the next year working on specific “deliverables” which will be evaluated at next year’s summit, Ellsworth said.

Before the start of the various summit sessions, Tree of Life Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers spoke to the audience and offered an invocation. He said that if not for the massacre three years ago, which occurred in the midst of Shabbat services, he would have read that day’s Torah portion, which describes patriarch Abraham welcoming three unknown guests into his home.

“Imagine,” Myers said, “welcoming total strangers into your home. This passage has guided me, so permit me to welcome you, many who are strangers, to Pittsburgh.”

Attendees of the Eradicate Hate Global Summit chat between sessions on Oct. 18, 2021, at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center Photo by Lindsay Dill

Rita Katz, the executive director and founder of SITE Intelligence Group, explained to summit attendees how the man who attacked three congregations at the Tree of Life building became an emblem of extremism and violence in the years following the massacre. In her talk, “A Historical Perspective: The Tree of Life,” Katz shared a theory she called “the chain of ‘screw your optics,’” in reference to a social media post the alleged shooter wrote just prior to Oct. 27 attack: “All Jews must die. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

The Christchurch Mosque attack in New Zealand; the attack on a Chabad Center in Poway, California; a shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas; the attempted terrorist attack at a Norway mosque; and an attempted attack in Halle, Germany, she said, could all be directly traced back as inspired by the massacre at the Tree of Life building — which was widely promoted by hate groups online.

The Pittsburgh massacre, Katz posited, triggered other forms of violent extremism as well, including a planned attack on a hospital due to COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

“Every day,” noted keynote speaker Jonathan Greenblatt, national director and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, “you can open your phone, turn on your TV or pick up the paper and find instances of shocking antisemitism and hate.”

Greenblatt spoke about the role social media has played in growing antisemitism and other manifestations of hate.
“What starts with the Jews,” Greenblatt said, “never ends with the Jews.”

Greenblatt railed against the antisemitism of right-wing extremism as well as that coming from the political left, including the BDS movement on college campuses.

“Anti-Zionism is antisemitism, pure and simple,” he said.

Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO Jeff Finkelstein, who introduced Greenblatt, was on the planning committee for the summit.

“This is a nice way for our community to share with the world experts on hate,” Finkelstein told the Chronicle. “But this isn’t a program about Pittsburgh, although the program takes place in Pittsburgh. It is one way to remember what took place here.”

The objectives of the conference, Finkelstein said, extend beyond fighting antisemitism.

“Remember it’s ‘anti-hate,’” he said. “Antisemitism is one piece of hatred. This is about hate as a broad topic.”

The words of keynote speaker Gary Locke, former governor of Washington, proved Finkelstein’s point.

Locke was born in the U.S., but his parents were Chinese immigrants. He spoke about anti-Asian hate and recounted an assassination plot by someone who incorrectly believed Locke was an Asian immigrant and therefore unable to serve as governor.

Keynote speakers former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and former President George W. Bush both addressed the audience with prerecorded remarks. Ridge said the summit was important because there is not a spot on the map that hasn’t been affected by hate.

“While we understand we can’t eradicate every instance of hate around the globe, we can certainly weaken it at its sources,” said Ridge, who also served as the first U.S. secretary of Homeland Security.

Bush thanked those in attendance for taking up the important work of combatting hate.

“This is a bridge against our nation’s greatest divisions,” Bush said.

Brad Orsini, who served as director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh from 2017-2020, said he was pleased with the summit.

“This is the first step to get everyone together and see what deliverables come out of this and build really tangible results on the back end,” he said.

Not everyone, though, shared Orsini’s optimism.

Bend the Arc Jewish Action: Pittsburgh and Casa San Jose Latino Resource and Welcome Center issued a joint statement that expressed disappointment that Bush, Ridge and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas were keynote speakers at the summit.

“Their inclusion,” the statement said, “undermines the bold and admirable mission of the Eradicate Hate Global Summit, and turns a blind eye to the roots of the hatred that led to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

“If one of the summit’s goals is to ‘maintain broad public vigilance against hate crimes by highlighting the diversity of its victims,’ we need to acknowledge that the people targeted by the War on Terror and DHS are often themselves victims of hate. We need to acknowledge that elevating the voices of Bush, Ridge, and Mayorkas in a conference against hate instead whitewashes their roles in racially-based human rights abuses. We at Bend the Arc Jewish Action: Pittsburgh and Casa San Jose believe that the inability to see how centering these men contradicts the conference’s goals shows just how deeply embedded white supremacy is in our nation. Denying uncomfortable truths does not help us in our efforts to eradicate hate.”

Dan Leger, a member of Congregation Dor Hadash who was seriously wounded during the Oct. 27 attack, sees value in having more than one voice in the room, and said he was impressed with the various experts and perspectives brought together for the summit.

“As disturbing as it is to have some of the presenters representing themselves, I think it’s important that we not just talk to the choir, that we just always hear the voices in unison, because, if it does anything, it creates division,” Leger said. “We need to be able to hear each other, to listen to each other instead of just talk against each other.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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