Police say Robert Bowers had an ‘unthinkable’ thought – then carried out America’s deadliest antisemitic attack
By Abe Asher,2023-05-31
The trial of Robert Bowers , the man charged with perpetrating the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood of Pittsburgh in 2018, began with opening statements on Tuesday.
Mr Bowers, who is charged with 63 criminal counts, could face the death penalty if convicted. Here is a rundown of what we know about him and the crimes he is charged with committing.
Who is Robert Bowers?
Mr Bowers, born in 1972, was 46 years old at the time of the shooting. He had, by multiple accounts, a challenging childhood. His parents divorced when he was around one year old, and his father, Randall Bowers, died by suicide while awaiting trial on a rape charge six or so years later.
Mr Bowers was raised in large part by his grandparents in the Pittsburgh suburb of Whitehall and attended Baldwin High School for several years before dropping out and becoming a trucker. Mr Bowers’ colleagues and neighbours largely described him in the aftermath of the shooting as quiet and not memorable. One told The New York Times that she couldn’t even remember his name.
However, quiet as he may have been in person, Mr Bowers was verbose online where he was radicalised and trafficked in white nationalist conspiracy theories. Mr Bowers was a heavy user of the far right social networking platform Gab, where he promoted the Great Replacement theory and made antisemitic and racist posts.
Shortly before the shooting, Mr Bowers ranted against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) for sponsoring a National Refugee Shabbat.
“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” Mr Bowers wrote on the platform. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
What happened in the shooting?
Shortly before 10am on 4 November, 2018, a man believed to be Mr Bowers entered the synagogue where three separate services were underway involving the three different congregations that practised there, and began shooting.
The shooting reportedly lasted for roughly 20 mintues. Mr Bowers was allegedly armed with an assault rifle and three semi-automatic pistols. When police arrived at the synagogue about 10 minutes after Mr Bowers entered, he shot at them. He later engaged tactical teams who arrived at the synagogue in a fire fight, fleeing to a room on the third floor of the building after he was wounded.
Finally, nearly an hour-and-a-half after he entered the synagogue, Mr Bowers surrendered to law enforcement and recieved medical care for his gunshot wounds. He reportedly told a SWAT officer after surrendering that he wanted all Jews to die.
Who were the victims?
The shooting at Tree of Life traumatised the historically Jewish Squirrel Hill community and Jews across the nation. Eleven people were killed during the shooting and seven more were injured. The first people killed were the brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal. Jerry Rabinowitz, a physician, was killed after moving towards the sound of the shooting to see if anyone needed medical assistance.
The shooting was the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history, and it carried a particular edge given that it was linked to HIAS’ work protecting and resettling refugees — work born out of the Jewish experience of persecution in Europe in the decades leading up to the Holocaust.
The people who lost their lives in the shooting were: Joyce Fienberg, 75, Richard Gottfried, 65, Rose Mallinger, 97, Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, Cecil and David Rosenthal, 59 and 54, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, 84 and 86, Daniel Stein, 71, Melvin Wax, 88, and Irving Younger, 69.
What happened in opening arguments at trial?
After a long delay, Mr Bowers’ trial began on Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
There is little doubt about the verdict. Mr Bowers’ attorneys reportedly offered to have him plead guilty to avoid the death penalty, but prosecutors rejected that offer.
In her opening statement, Mr Bowers’ attorney Judy Clarke admitted that he went to Tree of Life in 2018 and “shot every person he saw” and said that “there is no making sense of this senseless act. Mr Bowers caused extraordinary harm to many, many people.”
But Ms Clarke suggested that in Mr Bowers’ mind, he genuinely believed was trying to help people by targeting Jews. Mr Bowers’ lawyers have also claimed that he has epilepsy and schizophrenia.
Whether Mr Bowers would actually be killed by the state if convicted remains to be seen. President Joe Biden voiced his opposition to the death penalty when he ran for president in 2020, and Attorney General Merrick Garland placed a moritorium on all federal executions two years ago.