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'Stronger than hate': Nation remembers Tree of Life victims on 4th anniversary

Amid the ongoing fallout over antisemitic comments by Kanye West, people around the country paused Thursday to remember the victims of the Tree of Life massacre on the fourth anniversary of a mass shooting that left 11 people dead at a Pittsburgh synagogue in what remains the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States.

President Biden released a statement mourning the victims, their families and “countless others forever scarred by this heinous assault.”

“On October 27, 2018, a quiet Shabbat morning was shattered by gunfire and hate, and a place of sanctuary became a place of carnage,” Biden said. “In the four years since that terrible day, the people of Pittsburgh have shown us what it means to be stronger than hate. Welcoming the community to Torah study sessions. Showing their support for refugees and immigrants. Reimagining the Tree of Life synagogue as both sanctuary and memorial. The courage and character of the Pittsburgh community remains an inspiration to us all.

A woman dressed in black crouches, face in hands in front of a memorial on a sidewalk.
A woman at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 29, 2018. (Matt Rourke/AP)

“As we grieve this deadliest act of antisemitism in American history, we stand with the community of Squirrel Hill — and Jewish communities across America and around the world — in resolving to combat antisemitism and hate in all of its forms. This is especially true as we witness an ugly increase in antisemitism in America.

“The Rabbis teach that ‘what comes from the heart, enters the heart,’” the president added. “On this difficult day, our hearts are with the families of the victims, the survivors, and all those impacted by the Tree of Life shooting. May their memories be a blessing, and may we continue to bridge the gap between the world we see and the future we seek.”

A man wearing a yarmulke in front of a large menorah.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers watches the installation of a menorah outside the Tree of Life synagogue weeks after the shooting. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

According to the Anti-Defamation League, there was a 34% increase in the number of antisemitic incidents — defined as antisemitic harassment, vandalism or assault — in the United States over the past year, and the most since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979. And according to the FBI’s annual data on hate crimes, crimes targeting the Jewish community consistently constitute over half of all religion-based crimes.

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt believes the spike is due to a "normalization of antisemitism."

"We live in a politically charged environment, and Jews are the go-to scapegoat," Greenblatt told Yahoo News in a recent interview. "They just are."

Police said the suspected Tree of Life gunman, Robert Gregory Bowers, was enraged by what he perceived as Jewish support for immigration. He was arraigned on 63 federal charges, including hate crimes, and pleaded not guilty. His trial is expected to begin next year.

A person wearing a backpack in seen from behind observing a memorial for victims of the synagogue.
A person stands at a memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

The anniversary of the massacre comes as companies and organizations continue to distance themselves from West — who now goes by the name Ye — after the rapper and fashion designer made multiple antisemitic remarks.

“This week’s observance of four years since the deadly Tree of Life Synagogue shooting highlights that we must always condemn antisemitism and bigotry here and around the world — including from celebrities like Kanye West,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted this week. “Being a celebrity is not a license to incite violence.”

Pittsburgh’s three major professional sports teams paid tribute to the Tree of Life victims with a unified message.

"Today and every day, we honor and remember the victims of the Tree of Life tragedy," the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins each posted on their respective Twitter feeds. "We must always be #StrongerThanHate."

“We are stronger than hate,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf tweeted. “It's not who we are as Pennsylvanians. It's not who we are as Americans.”

"Four years ago our Jewish community and city were attacked," Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey said in a statement. "Today we commemorate the 11 lives taken from us at the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue and recommit ourselves to the hard work of ending violence, discrimination, and antisemitism every single day."

Additional reporting by Alexander Nazaryan.