First funeral for synagogue massacre victims ahead of Donald Trump visit

Oct 31, 2018, 10:50 IST | AFP

A protest in Pittsburgh against the president has been called for Tuesday afternoon

First funeral for synagogue massacre victims ahead of Donald Trump visit
Donald Trump

The first two victims of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in recent US history will be laid to rest in Pittsburgh on Tuesday as the grieving city awaits a controversial visit by President Donald Trump and his wife Melania.

The funeral for Cecil and David Rosenthal -- brothers aged 59 and 54 who were among 11 people gunned down during prayers at the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday -- was held at the nearby Rodef Shalom temple. Trump's visit to the city has been contentious, coming amid a mounting row over whether his fierce rhetoric at campaign rallies and on Twitter has helped stoke extremism ahead of November 6 midterm elections. A protest in Pittsburgh against the president has been called for Tuesday afternoon.

"It's just enraging that this type of hate crime could occur here and that the leadership of our country does not denounce anti-Semitism and does not denounce white nationalism and does not denounce neo-Nazism. And that is the problem," mourner Joanna Izenson told AFP ahead of the service. "There's always going to be anti-Semitism, there always has been, but never have we had a president of this country who does not fight hard against it, verbally and in every way. And he needs those supporters and that's why he doesn't," she said.

There was a huge turnout at Rodef Shalom, a 25-minute walk from the Tree of Life. Hundreds of mourners spilled out of the temple after the funeral, some of them sobbing and clasping each other. The brothers' caskets were placed in two hearses and driven away with a sheriff's car in the lead. "The family spoke and spoke beautifully," said mourner Marilyn Latterman. "It was tragic, it was sad -- it was a beautiful tribute to two wonderful, loving, innocent men," said Father Paul Taylor, a Catholic priest who also attended the service, which he said was "standing room only." The Tree of Life shooting spree, allegedly carried out by loner Robert Bowers, came in the same week that authorities arrested an ardent Trump supporter from Florida on suspicion of mailing more than a dozen homemade bombs to opponents and critics of the president.

The incidents have led to accusations that Trump has fanned violence through almost daily tweets and speeches lambasting illegal immigrants, political opponents and journalists in divisive language. Bowers had reportedly claimed on social media that Jews were helping transport caravans of refugees from Central America into the US, repeatedly calling the migrants "invaders." The caravans are a favorite target of the president, and he has called a group of several thousand impoverished mainly Honduran migrants currently attempting to walk north to the United States "an invasion."

Jeffrey Myers, a Tree of Life rabbi who was present when the attack started, told CNN that "the president of the United States is always welcome." But a former president of the synagogue, Lynette Lederman, spoke out on the network on Monday to tell Trump to stay away, calling him a "purveyor of hate speech." A group of Pittsburgh Jewish leaders wrote an open letter to Trump Sunday telling him he bears responsibility for the shooting and saying he was not welcome in the city unless he denounced white nationalism and ended his "assault on immigrants and refugees."

'Christian rabbi'
Trump has struck back in typically robust fashion, arguing that critical journalists were in fact the ones feeding extremism across the country. "There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news," Trump tweeted. "The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly.

That will do much to put out the flame of Anger and Outrage." Trump's Pittsburgh visit is not the only element of the administration's response to the massacre that has been a source of controversy. On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence attended a campaign rally in Michigan at which a so-called "Christian rabbi" was invited to speak on behalf of the area's Jewish community. Instead of opening with prayers for the 11 victims of the Tree of Life shooting, Loren Jacobs praised Jesus Christ and then offered prayers for four Republican candidates.

At the end of the rally Pence, a devout Christian and hero of evangelicals, invited Jacobs back to say a prayer for the victims as "a leader of the Jewish community here in Michigan." Jacobs then offered words for the dead in the form of a prayer to Jesus Christ, without naming any of them. Jews expressed outrage over social media, describing Jacobs' appearance as an "insulting political stunt" and blasting Pence as a "Christian supremacist."

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