Remembering the heroism of Poway amid soaring antisemitism

April 26, 2024
Josh Lipowsky  —  Senior Research Analyst

On April 27, 2019, 19-year-old John Earnest broke into a Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, as about 100 congregants marked the Jewish Sabbath and the last day of Passover. Firing an AR-15style automatic rifle, Earnest killed 60-year-old Lori Gilbert-Kaye and wounded Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, Almog Peretz, and Peretz’s 8-year-old niece, Noya Dahan.

As we mark five years since that tragic day, we remember Lori Gilbert-Kaye and the bravery of the members of Chabad of Poway. According to multiple reports, Gilbert-Kaye shielded the rabbi after Earnest broke in. Rabbi Goldstein reportedly insisted on finishing his sermon before going to the hospital, telling congregants, “We are strong. We are united. They can’t break us.” Witnesses recalled how, even though he had been wounded, the rabbi prayed for peace.

Police later apprehended Earnest, who pleaded guilty to 113 hate crimes in 2021. Earnest also admitted to setting fire to the Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque in Escondido, California, in March 2019. On December 28, 2021, a federal judge sentenced Earnest to life in prison plus 30 years.

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece marking the six-month anniversary of Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, in which the terrorist group killed 1,200 in the worst attack on Jewish life since the Holocaust. The October 7 massacre happened weeks before the fifth anniversary of the October 27, 2018, Tree of Life synagogue attack, the worst domestic assault on Jewish life in the United States. Frighteningly, the environment that spawned these attacks is only getting worse.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recorded 2,107 antisemitic incidents throughout the United States. This figure represented a 12 percent increase from the 1,879 incidents recorded in 2018 and the highest number on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979—or at least it was the highest number on record. In 2021, ADL recorded 2,717 antisemitic incidents, a new high. And each year since, ADL has logged a new record-high number of antisemitic incidents in the United States. In 2022, ADL recorded 3,697 antisemitic incidents, setting a new high for the third time in five years. Earlier this month, ADL announced that it had tabulated 8,873 antisemitic incidents across the United States in 2023—a 140 percent increase from 2022 and more than four times as many as in 2019. 

In March, a group of Jewish students from nine universities testified before Congress that they felt unsafe on campus. Every day, we hear more stories of anti-Jewish harassment and attacks by so-called pro-Palestinian protesters. At Columbia, students have reported receiving death threats. Other students have had rocks thrown at them. At Yale, a Jewish student journalist was jabbed in the eye with a Palestinian flag. The student, Sahar Tartak, wrote protesters have glorified “the resistance,” a term often used synonymously with indiscriminate violence by Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups. Campuses are filled with chants of “There is only one solution, intifada revolution!” and “From the Sea to the River, Palestine will live forever!” This rhetoric leaves no room for Israel’s existence—making clear that protesters are not demonstrating for a peaceful two-state solution but for the total eradication of the Jewish state.

Rising antisemitism should concern us all. As we remember the anniversary of the Poway attack, we must also remember that it did not happen in a vacuum. Before attacking the Poway Chabad, Earnest published his manifesto online, lamenting that he “can only kill so many Jews” and “I only wish I killed more.” Earnest wrote that he was inspired by Robert Bowers’s Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 27, 2018, and Brenton Tarrant’s twin mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, 2019. These men subscribed to the ethnonationalist Great Replacement Theory, which postulates that foreign invaders (i.e., non-white, non-Christian immigrants) threaten to destroy the dominant white Christian culture in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere. While Tarrant viewed the Christchurch mosques as havens for these invaders, Bowers blamed Jews and Jewish organizations for supporting the so-called invasion. They didn’t view their actions as evil. They saw themselves as heroes fighting to preserve their culture.

John Earnest justified his actions by blaming Jews for killing Jesus, controlling the media, and a litany of other historic antisemitic tropes. Earnest claimed his intention was to glorify God by striking the enemies of God, a belief used to justify some of history’s worst atrocities.

Some Jewish students who have joined campus anti-Israel protests have reported that, while they condemn antisemitism, they do not feel unsafe. But these students have also not been a target of antisemitic ire like other Jewish students who are not joining the encampments. This follows a historic pattern of Jews receiving social acceptance and protection if—and only if—they assimilate. These protest camps have created litmus tests for Jewish students. Those who join the anti-Israel protests are welcomed, as mentioned in the article above. They are the “good Jews.” Those who don’t are ostracized Zionists, or “bad Jews.” This is sadly evidenced further by the emergence of a video earlier this week of Columbia student and protest leader Khymani James championing diversity while equating Zionism with Nazis and white supremacists. James further exclaims, “Zionists don’t deserve to live.”

Indeed, this has been an ongoing problem on campuses since before the current protests began. In December 2021, New Paltz Accountability, a student group for sexual assault survivors at the State University of New York at New Paltz, kicked out one of its co-founders for sharing a pro-Israel Instagram post. In September 2023, weeks before Hamas’s October 7 attack, the Rice University LBTQ+ group Rice Price broke ties with the university’s Hillel, arguing that Hillel’s support for Israel was “incompatible with Rice Pride’s mission to create an accessible and equitable space for queer students of all backgrounds.” At UC Berkeley, Jewish faculty and staff have reported multiple instances of exclusion and prejudice since October 7.

There is, of course, room for legitimate criticism of Israeli policies. Israelis themselves often taken the lead in criticizing their own leaders. But when that criticism devolves into calling for the annihilation of Israel, or the harassment of Jews solely because of a shared religion, then there can be no cover of being pro-Palestinian. Such rhetoric is antisemitic and must be condemned as such.

Jewish students across the country are increasingly living in fear. Just before the start of Passover, Rabbi Elie Buechler, director of the Orthodox Union-Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Columbia/Barnard, warned Jewish students should return home and remain there. Earlier this month, Brandeis University extended its transfer deadline to allow Jewish students to seek a safe haven. Jewish students should heed these warnings and do what is necessary to guarantee their own safety. But, as we mark the anniversary of the Poway attack, we must also keep faith that despite the increasingly dangerous atmosphere on campus, we will overcome the threats before us. As Rabbi Goldstein told his congregants: “We are strong. We are united. They can’t break us.”

Daily Dose

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On May 8, 2019, Taliban insurgents detonated an explosive-laden vehicle and then broke into American NGO Counterpart International’s offices in Kabul. At least seven people were killed and 24 were injured.

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