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Pittsburgh synagogue trial: Expert says antisemitism and white supremacism, not delusions, spurred shooter

PITTSBURGH (JTA) — The gunman who murdered 11 Jewish worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue did not suffer from delusions but was spurred by white supremacist radicalization, a storied forensic psychiatrist testified for the prosecution.

Park Dietz, who has for decades provided expert testimony in some of the highest profile insanity defense cases, was the final witness in the first part of the death penalty phase in the federal trial of Robert Bowers, who committed the deadliest attack on American Jews in history on Oct. 27, 2018.

Dietz, a witness for the prosecution, countered defense testimony that Bowers suffered from schizophrenia and delusions. Bowers got his ideas about Jews not from his twisted imagination but from the antisemitic writings online that radicalized him.

“The difference” between himself and experts brought forward by the defense is “whether we regard the defendant’s beliefs as delusions on the one hand or subcultural beliefs on the other,” Dietz said Monday on his second day of testimony. His testimony began last Thursday.

The defense experts, Dietz said Monday, “simply mistook every ordinary widespread white separatist beliefs as delusions because they were not familiar with them.”

Dietz placed Bowers’ crime in the context of decades of American right-wing extremism. “When you see this promoted for 20 years or 40 years promoted in books and online forums it is clear they are subcultural beliefs,” said Dietz, who in May examined Bowers for 15 hours.

Dietz, who has conducted substantial research on far-right extremism, said that Bowers’ thinking could be traced to a number of late 20th-century writings that have underpinned white supremacist ideology, including the “White Genocide Manifesto” authored in 1985 by David Lane — the leader of The Order who killed Jewish radio host Alan Berg.

“There were sources for all of this,” he said. “The ‘White Genocide Manifesto’ was the principal one from which much of this flows.” He also cited the “Great Replacement” theory which posits that Jews are organizing mass immigrations of immigrants of color into western nations to replace whites. 

Replacement theory, which has gained significant traction in right-wing media and politics in recent years, has inspired multiple antisemitic and extremist attacks, including the 2019 attack on a New Zealand mosque that killed 51 and the 2019 massacre at a Texas Walmart that targeted Hispanic immigrants.

Dietz is the final witness in the first part of the death penalty phase, which mostly has focused on whether Bowers’ intent meets the requirement for the death penalty. If the jury determines that the crimes meet that threshold, the second phase will consider the defense’s arguments that mitigating factors in Bowers’ life make him ineligible for the death penalty. The prosecution would be expected to present victim impact statements in that phase.

The federal jury of five men and seven women found Bowers guilty of all 63 government charges on June 16, including 22 capital charges — two for each of the 11 slain at the Pittsburgh synagogue complex known as Tree of Life. 

The Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, June 26, 2023. (Ron Kampeas)

The defense has sought since the launch of the death penalty phase on June 26 to show that Bowers’ beliefs about Jews were delusions caused by schizophrenia and epilepsy.

Dietz, under cross examination by defense lawyer Michael Burt, was immovable: Bowers did not have an original thought that would qualify as a delusion. “The entire area of disagreement in this case, is does he have delusions or not,” he said. “That’s the critical fulcrum in this case.”

Bowers did not have delusions, Dietz said. “I’m talking about his white supremacist and antisemitic beliefs — those are all fixed,” he said.

Bowers, Dietz said, remained unrepentant. His regrets included not bringing more ammunition into the building, calculating that he would head to another location after committing the massacre at Tree of Life. The second intended target is believed to be the Jewish Family and Community Services office, which was nearby.

Another regret, Bowers told Dietz, was that “there wasn’t dozens of dozens more in there” when he arrived at the synagogue that Saturday morning.

Bowers was proud nonetheless of the number of Jews he did kill, Dietz said. “They can kill me” with the death penalty, Dietz quoted Bowers as saying, “if they want but the score will still be 11-1. That’s not winning the war but I won that battle.”

Bowers was proud that his handling of the ammunition was “flawless” and said he remained focused throughout the shooting. He told Dietz one moment of near sympathy for his victims, a man who he shot in the head and who spoke as he lived on for a second or so.

“I never heard a single person say a word except for one man who was slumped over and said ‘I think I’ve been seriously injured,’” Dietz quoted Bowers as saying of that victim, who was not identified. “I almost felt sorry for him.” 

Bowers, clad in a gray sweater and a collared shirt, did not look at Dietz, preoccupying himself as he has until now with writing notes.

Bowers targeted Tree of Life because one of three congregations in it, Dor Hadash, partnered with HIAS, the Jewish immigration advocacy group, in sponsoring refugee families. Dietz testified that Bowers at first intended to target only Dor Hadash but after hearing newscasters whom he believed to be Jewish express sympathy for immigrants, he decided “a Jew is a Jew.”

Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist at UCLA’s medical school, has evaluated defendants including John Hinckley, who attempted to kill President Ronald Reagan; mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, among many others. He also is listed on the Internet Movie Database as a consultant on hundreds of episodes of “Law and Order” and its franchises.

Burt, in his cross examination, appeared to anticipate arguments the defense will bring should the trial continue to the second death penalty phase. He asked Dietz to assess Bowers’ likelihood of suffering mental illness because of trauma. Dietz agreed with Burt that Bowers had suffered some of the requisite traumas, including losing his father to suicide and being raised by an alcoholic and neglectful mother.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial. Parts of the story are based on reporting by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.

The post Pittsburgh synagogue trial: Expert says antisemitism and white supremacism, not delusions, spurred shooter appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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An Eye for an Eye?

A page of Talmud. Photo: Chajm Guski/Wikimedia

JNS.orgI once heard a story about two Jews back in Russia who got into a terrible argument. Their blood pressure was rising fast. One fellow got so incensed that he shouted, “I am so angry at what you’ve done to me that I… uh… I uh… I know: I won’t go to your funeral!”

Whereupon the other guy very calmly replied: “I don’t take revenge. I will go to your funeral.”

While other cultures sanction and may even encourage revenge, in Judaism revenge is explicitly forbidden (Leviticus 19:18).

Some Muslim countries still practice amputation as a punishment for stealing. It seems anathema to the modern mind. Yet in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we find that famous line: “An eye for an eye … a hand for a hand … a wound for a wound.”


The Talmud in Bava Kama explains that never in Jewish history was “an eye for an eye” understood literally. It was understood as the value of an eye for an eye; a monetary compensation, rather than an act of pure vengeance with no positive purpose. The Talmud offers several logical proofs as to why this is so.

Besides, taking out the culprit’s eye will not bring back the victim’s eye. It does nothing for him. But financial compensation can help. It brings some relief to the victim and an element of atonement for the perpetrator.

In Judaism, there is no such thing as punishment that is purely punitive. A generation of teachers punished their ill-behaved students by making them stand in the corner, wear a dunce cap or write 500 times, “I will not throw spitballs at the teacher.” What rehabilitative effect did that have? Probably, it only made the students angrier and they behaved worse than they had before.

The concept of imprisonment does not exist in Judaism. We find it only in a handful of circumstances in which the penalty for the crime was not yet known and the guilty party was temporarily put in a holding cell.

In the Torah, besides monetary compensation, there are mainly two types of punishment: Lashes, which would no doubt serve as a very serious deterrent to repeating the crime, and capital punishment for extreme crimes like murder. Though rarely enforced, the death penalty was on the statute books. There are times when a person’s sin is so grave that their only atonement can be giving up their own life. But prison as a punishment didn’t feature at all.

How successful is our prison system today? In the U.S., they have been calling prisons “correctional centers” for many years now. But the number of rehabilitated prisoners whose way of life has been “corrected” is, sadly, very low. Most of those released become repeat offenders and end up right back where they came from.

The very same verse in Leviticus that forbids revenge also prohibits even bearing a grudge. But while Jews are not meant to practice revenge, Jewish law would hand down penalties that required the offender to atone for his offense. This was not punitive, but spiritually rehabilitative. Someone guilty of manslaughter, for example, would be exiled to a city of refuge. He did it accidentally, it wasn’t premeditated murder, but by going into exile the wrongdoer would atone for taking another’s life, albeit inadvertently.

“Sweet revenge” is sanctioned all too often in society today. On radio talk shows people are invited to share their stories of how they retaliated against someone who wronged them. We are even subjected to the shocking and shameful phenomenon of “revenge porn”  and many people consider it appropriate or, worse still, funny.

I remember that while I was growing up in my parents’ home in Brooklyn, I once overheard them discussing how to react to someone who had wronged them quite badly. In the end, they decided not to respond in kind, as they were not prepared to stoop to the level of the person who hurt them.

Indeed, it is the mark of a true mensch to do the right thing, even when others around you are not. As the legendary Hillel taught in Pirkei Avot, “Where there are no men, strive to be a man.” A “real man,” a true mensch, always does the right thing, whether it is popular or not.

Or, as a witty gentleman once put it, “Be nice to your enemies. It’ll drive them crazy!”

I think of Israel today. The IDF is not on any revenge mission in Gaza. It is conducting a campaign to prevent future massacres by unrepentant terrorists who promise to do it again and again unless they are stopped. This is not revenge. This is saving innocent lives. God bless them.

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Our Own Worst Enemies

PA President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting in Ramallah, in the West Bank August 18, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman/Pool

JNS.orgIt’s bad enough that we have real enemies who are attacking Israel; the last thing we need is “friends” who, perhaps with the best of intentions, are undermining Israel’s case in the United States. One example is an organization I have never heard of, the A-Mark Foundation, which erroneously believes “clear, concise and unbiased information on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is difficult to find.” Maybe, if you don’t bother to look. My publication, Myths and Facts, has only been around for 60-odd years (originally published by the founder of AIPAC), and the legacy Jewish organizations have produced plenty of material. My first impulse was to think, “Let a thousand flowers bloom,” but then I saw that the material is based on the work of UCLA professor Dov Waxman, a frequent critic of mainstream American Jewry and one of the signers of an anti-Israel screed published before Oct. 7 (another was Harvard University professor Derek Penslar, who Harvard naturally put on its antisemitism task force).

If the material A-Mark published, based on Waxman’s book, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know, is any indication of his scholarship, students at UCLA are in trouble, as are any readers of the A-Mark answers to the “10 Common Questions About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” Waxman exemplifies the worst of woke academia, where facts don’t matter as much as narratives, and their truthfulness or speciousness is irrelevant because everyone’s narrative is their truth. He says both sides dismiss the others’ narratives as myths. He doesn’t acknowledge that facts can be distinguished from myths. It’s a flypaper version of history where there are two sides, and it doesn’t matter which side the fly lands on.

The first paragraph in the “unbiased” answer to question one on what the conflict is about is misleading and inaccurate, reducing it to the two peoples fighting over one piece of land cliché. The religious dimension of the conflict is ignored completely; that is, the Islamic rejection of a Jewish presence on “Muslim land” from the days of the Mufti to Hamas today.

He dates Palestinian nationalism to the mid-19th century, which is untrue. People at that time identified themselves by clans and religion. In the 1920s, the Palestinians began to talk about wanting to be part of Greater Syria, not an independent state. The Jews wanted to return to their homeland and were willing to share it. Unhappily, they accepted the reduction of the size of the Jewish homeland.

Starting in 1937—and as recently as 2008—the Palestinians were offered opportunities for statehood nine times and rejected every one. The Palestinians’ disinterest in independence during the 19-year Jordanian/Egyptian occupation is not mentioned.

It is simply taken for granted that the Palestinians should get a state just because they want one. The Kurds and Basques have a greater claim to independence. Why are only Palestinians entitled to one?

Waxman gives equal weight to the Jewish and Palestinian claims to indigeneity. He acknowledges evidence of Jewish roots in the land dating to antiquity while Palestinians didn’t arrive until after the Muslim conquest, but then contradicts this inconvenient fact by claiming that “it is impossible to definitively know who was here first.” He then asserts a blatant falsehood, suggesting that Jews believe they descend from the Canaanites, and further insinuates that there is validity to the baseless Palestinian claim to be related to them.

The explanation of Zionism is facile and misleading, calling it “a diverse set of beliefs.” No, Zionism is the belief that the Jewish people are a nation entitled to self-determination in their homeland, which is Israel. There are different “flavors” of Zionism debating how this should be achieved and what the state should look like, but not the objective.

The Arabs believe the Zionists are colonialists, but Waxman shows they are the antithesis. He acknowledges that the Arabs are wrong but says their view “is completely understandable in the context of that time.” We are no longer in that time, however, so when Israel’s detractors say it now, it is simply a lie.

His version of how the Palestinians became refugees in the first place is mostly wrong, starting with the exaggerated number of 700,000.

Ephraim Karsh’s research has shown the number was no more than 609,000, and United Nations and CIA estimates were roughly half that. Waxman repeats the Arab canards about the Palestinians being expelled as part of a campaign of “ethnic cleansing,” but acknowledges most Palestinians “probably” were not expelled. The facts are well-documented that Palestinians were forced to leave in a handful of instances, and not for “ethnic cleansing” but to protect Israeli soldiers from being attacked from the rear. The Arab narrative further dissolves if you know thousands of Palestinians left before the war began, that Israel encouraged Arabs to stay, and 250,000 remained to become full citizens.

Most Palestinians left because they didn’t want to be caught in the crossfire of the war. He cites historian Benny Morris to discredit the idea that many Palestinians fled because their leaders encouraged them to make way for the invading armies and promised they’d be allowed to return to their homes—and those of the Jews. Morris, however, said that “Arab officers ordered the complete evacuation of specific villages” and that “there can be no exaggerating the importance of these early Arab-initiated evacuations in the demoralization, and eventual exodus, of the remaining rural and urban populations.”

There is plenty of documentation about the leaders’ role if Waxman bothered to look.

The discussion about the fate of the refugees is also inaccurate. Refusing to allow enemies who left their homes to return is not a violation of international law. Other refugee populations were resettled, but it was the Arab states that prevented the Palestinians from becoming citizens in their countries. Israel offered to allow some refugees to return in exchange for a peace agreement; the Arabs rejected the idea.

Waxman cites U.N. Resolution 194 as granting Palestinians a “right to return”; however, that is a selective reading of the resolution, which conditioned their return on a willingness to live at peace with their neighbors and called for their resettlement. Also omitted is the fact that the Arab states voted against the resolution because it was adopted when they still believed that they would drive the Jews into the sea. Like all General Assembly resolutions, 194 is not legally binding.

He also incorrectly states that Israeli leaders have not accepted any compromises regarding the Old City; former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert offered them. Omitted is the Palestinians’ rejection of those proposals.

On the borders of a future state, Waxman has accepted Palestinian propaganda that Palestinians have abandoned their claim to the majority of the land they believe should be theirs and are being asked to take only 22% of Palestine. It is Israel that is only 22% of historic Palestine, and if Israel withdrew from the disputed territories, it would possess only about 18%. Today, some 73% of Palestinians live in “Palestine.”

The evidence that the Palestinians have not abandoned their goal of destroying Israel and claiming the land from the river to the sea is clear from Palestinian Authority maps. Furthermore, Israel has already withdrawn from more than 90% of the territories it captured in 1967, including all of Gaza and 40% of the West Bank. It is not obligated to return any more land. Waxman also accepts that the territories are “occupied” when they are disputed. Israel cannot occupy land that was part of Israel but never a sovereign Palestinian state. Moreover, an occupier is a nation that attacks another and then retains the territory it conquers. One that gains territory while defending itself, like Israel, is not in the same category.

In another distortion of historical fact, Waxman says Netanyahu doesn’t want to negotiate. That is true during the war, but he was willing and did in the past. It is true that Netanyahu opposed Oslo, but he didn’t repudiate it and agreed to further withdrawals in negotiations with PLO head Yasser Arafat.

Waxman refers to current P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas as “a staunch advocate of the peace process” even though he has refused to negotiate since 2008, to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or to stop incentivizing terrorism. He falsely equates religious Zionists and Islamists. Extremist Jews are a minority, with no say in policy towards the Palestinians and no charter calling for the murder of their neighbors. The Palestinian public elected Islamists, who took over the Gaza Strip, and immediately started acting on their desire to destroy Israel and kill Jews.

If you wonder why there is so much hostility towards Jews and Israel on campus, look no further than the professors who teach already ignorant students that facts don’t matter, only narratives. By disseminating misinformation about history, they hinder genuine understanding of the conflict. Worse still, they push a false equivalence between the positions of Israelis and Palestinians, distorting reality and perpetuating animosity.

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Diasporism: A Poor Man’s Judaism

Members of extreme anti-Zionist group “Jewish Voice for Peace.” Photo: NGO Monitor.

JNS.orgThe clash between devotion to the Diaspora and the yearning for the Land of Israel is not a new phenomenon. In the period between the end of the 18th century to the beginning of World War II and the Holocaust, there were four classic categories of Jews (besides the outright assimilationists) seeking to reject the centrality of the historic Jewish homeland and all that that entailed in a practical and theoretical sense while justifying remaining in the lands of exile.

With the onset of the Enlightenment, the Haskalah, in the mid-to-late 18th century, a break with the Jew’s religious component led, perhaps unintentionally, to a preference for Diaspora community life even while the Land of Israel was treated with respect, if tinged with romanticism as in Avraham Mapu’s novels. It eventually led to a promotion of cultural assimilation.

With the rise of the Hibbat Tzion movement, coupled with the political activity of Theodor Herzl and the Zionist movement, came two Diaspora-centered reactions. One was that of the Marxist Bund, which adopted the concept of Doiykait (Hereness in Yiddish) laced with a strong anti-nationalist position. The second was the extreme ultra-Orthodox rejection of this new “false messianism” as voiced by the Teitlebaum dynasty, first of Sighet and later of Satmar, as well as the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Sholom Dovber Schneersohn (“the Rashab”). Rejecting Zionism, they held back their followers and those they influenced from leaving Europe before it was too late.

A third trend was pushed by Shimon Dubnow. Realizing, as a result of the Russian pogroms during the last quarter of the 19th century, that his dream of a universalist, scientifically detached reality was damned, he moved to adopt a truncated nationalist conception of Jewish identity based on community autonomy. As the YIVO Encyclopedia describes his thinking, Jewish social institutions would serve as substitutes for a state being quasi-political forms that were a manifestation of Judaism’s ability to transcend the usual physical requirements of nationhood. Dubnow’s life ended when he was shot in the Riga ghetto.

The fourth was that of the Reform Movement until 1937. Zion was erased from the prayer books. As Jonathan Sarna notes, Reform Rabbis protested efforts aimed at Jewish colonization of Palestine at the 1869 Philadelphia Conference of Reform Rabbis voting for a resolution that “the Messianic goal of Israel is not the restoration of the old Jewish state… but the union of all men as the children of God.” Later, hundreds of Reform Rabbis lobbied U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 to refrain from backing the League of Nations’ decision to reconstitute the historic Jewish national home in Palestine. It was only in 1937, when the Columbus Platform was adopted, that they recognized the “promise [of] … the rehabilitation of Palestine” and “the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland … a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.”

All had felt that Zionism promoted a negative view of Jewish existence in the lands of the exile (or that there even was an exile) and the purpose for a Jewish existence and could not agree that the Diaspora was doomed to failure. The Holocaust provided its own horrific solution to their ideological fantasizing, although the Satanic portrayal of Zionism and Israel as formulated in the tome VaYoel Moshe continues.

And yet, Diasporism has begun again.

From IfNotNow, which is “commit[ed] to grappling together with apartheid, Zionism and the State of Israel,” to Jewish Voice for Peace to Na’amod, there is a significant groundswell among Jewish youth. A Diasporic revival was noted in 2018, and we are told it is being embraced. The new buzzword is “portable.” Pro-Diasporic views are the subject of a 2021 academic thesis. Daniel Boyarin has a No-State Solution, as does Peter Beinart who, as of 2020, no longer believes in a Jewish state.

Now, there is Shaul Magid’s new book with the accompanying New York Times effusive treatment, which asked: “Is Israel Part of What It Means to Be Jewish?” It points out that “some progressive Jews are … reimagining their faith as one that blesses their lives in America and elsewhere.”

Magid’s volume, to quote his publisher, now “challenges us to consider the price of diminishing or even erasing the exilic character of Jewish life.” The book, The Necessity of Exile, views exile “as a positive stance for constructive Jewish engagement with Israel/Palestine, antisemitism, diaspora and a broken world in need of repair.”

In a January podcast, Magid related to Zionism as “another alternative, which basically functioned under the assumption that emancipation wouldn’t work.” That is quite unfair and historically incorrect. Herzl’s Zionism initiative did react to the failure of the non-Jewish world to accept Jews but Jews—since the walk from Egypt through the desert on to the Babylon exile and to the continuum of immigration to Eretz-Yisrael after the Roman conquests—were always Zionists.

It was Leonard Cohen who, participating in a public panel held at the Jewish Public Library of Montreal in June 1964, spoke of Jews who “create this insane Talmud of identity that must end in psychiatry—or Zionism” (here at 10:56) and yet asserted that the Jewish people have a unique mission. Here we are, 60 years later, and we observe too many Jews requiring mind-healing treatment.

A Judaism bereft of the Land of Israel—of Jerusalem Rebuilt, of the Ingathering, of the commandments bound up with the soil and agriculture of the Land, and more—is one that is shallow, mechanical, if at all observed, and most importantly, negates the vaunted messaging of what they hail as the ethical and moral Judaism of the Prophets, whose writings are hardcore Zionist.

Pining for a return to Egypt, the Children of Israel pestered Moses and complained about the culinary dearth they were subject to in the desert. Where, they demanded, were the cucumbers and melons, the leeks, onions, garlic and the fish? A Midrashic commentary suggests that their taste buds found that the manna they picked in the field for their daily sustenance, while quite tasty, nevertheless lacked those very food flavors they were used to in Egypt. That they were slaves in Egypt seemed to elude their consciousness.

The contemporary Diaspora preference-seekers, making themselves slaves to a neo-Bundist progressive agenda, are not saving even themselves from the hate directed at Zionism and Israel. They feed that hate, providing the haters with a cover and, in the end, will suffer a fate that they are attempting to avoid. It will be a repeat for them of a paradigm from a certain Central European country.

To borrow a classic Jewish analogy, they are repeating the act of “loathing the land” (Numbers 14:31), of denigrating the Jewish people’s identity and essence.

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