Israel is a country with no shortage of flaws, but it also has a significant number of unique characteristics, one of which comes to mind this week in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre.
Take the recent murder of Ari Fuld in Efrat. Israelis from across the political spectrum visited the bereaved family during the shiva mourning period. Tzipi Livni, one of the heads of the Zionist Union, came to Efrat to comfort the Fuld family. Ahinoam Nini, the singer and left-wing activist who has criticized fellow artists for performing in settlements, also came to pay her respects.
Ari Fuld could not have been a more vocal opponent to Livni and Nini’s left-leaning politics, which include the evacuation of some settlements and the establishment of a Palestinian state. But no one protested Livni or Nini’s visits, and no one told them not to come. No one asked them to leave, and no one – at that moment – accused Livni or Nini’s politics of causing Fuld’s fatal stabbing.
This is worth thinking about as the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting – the worst antisemitic attack on Jews in US history – continues to roil the American Jewish community, and more significantly, divide it. Just hours after the shooting, prominent Jewish pundits took to social media to start placing blame.
Julia Ioffe, an American-Jewish journalist and past target of online antisemitic attacks, accused President Donald Trump as well as American Jews who support him of inciting the attack, because he moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“I hope the embassy move over there, where you don’t live, was worth it,” wrote Ioffe, who later said on CNN that Trump had radicalized more people than ISIS.
After Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett announced he was flying on Saturday night to Pittsburgh, David Simon, creator of the TV series The Wire, told him to “go home,” and then proceeded to blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his support for the Trump administration for the tragedy.
“The American Jewish community is now bleeding at the hands of the Israeli prime minister,” he tweeted. Instead of looking at Bennett’s trip as a demonstration of solidarity by the Israeli government, it was viewed – so wrongly – through the prism of politics.
Then came Franklin Foer, a writer in The Atlantic, who called for the excommunication of any Jew who supported Trump.
“Their money should be refused; their presence in synagogues not welcome,” Foer wrote. “They have placed their community in danger.”
This was all in the span of just a few hours after the attack, even as the bodies of the 11 victims were still inside the synagogue.
IN THE WEEK since, the situation has not improved. When Trump visited Pittsburgh on Tuesday, the city’s mayor and the state’s senators refused to meet with him. Protesters lined the streets, yelling: “Trump go home” and “Words matter.”
On the latter, they are right. Words do matter, and Trump has made comments some of which are difficult to forgive.
There was his comment “fine people on both sides,” said after the August 2017 “Jews will not replace us” neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville that ended with the death of a counter protester. It was a comment, I wrote at the time, which was a stain on Trump’s presidency, and showed him to be missing moral clarity.
More recently was Trump’s announcement in Houston that he is a “nationalist,” a term associated with far-Right fascist politics and the likes of Mussolini, Pinochet and others. Then there are his regular attacks on the media and political opponents – not very different than what Netanyahu does in Israel – and more.
But while Trump’s rhetoric is at times intolerable, he was not the one who pulled the trigger that killed the 11 people praying at the Tree of Life Synagogue. To make the story about him is to turn this tragedy into a political tool.
AN ATTACK on the scale of what happened in Pittsburgh is an opportunity to come together, not grow apart. The scene of 11 Jews being gunned down in a synagogue on a Shabbat morning is horrific, but for Israelis, it is sadly not that different than other attacks that have taken place against Jews in Israel, Europe and Asia.
When Israelis heard of Pittsburgh they thought back to the violent antisemitic murders in the Har Nof synagogue in 2014, and at the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva High School in 2008. French Jews probably thought of the 2015 Hyper Casher attack, or the 2012 shooting at the Ozar Hatorah School in Tolouse, while Danes likely recalled the fatal shooting in 2015 at the Great Synagogue in Copenhagen.
Part of the much-talked-about dissonance between Israel and Diaspora communities is exactly that difference, with each community influenced by its experiences: Israelis by 70 years of war and terrorism, American Jews by relative peace.
Interestingly, Israel – a state established to protect the Jewish people – is also the one place in the world where a Jew has a higher chance of dying an unnatural death, one caused by war or terrorism. Yet despite that, Israelis don’t pick up and leave; as poll after poll shows, they live happy and proud lives.
The reason, I think, is because Israelis are a diverse people who might at times be divided over important issues like the Palestinian peace process, but they don’t let terrorism bring them down or rip them apart. They understand that external threats are exactly that: external. Livni and Nini might not agree with the Israeli presence in the West Bank, but they also aren’t blaming Fuld or the right-wing government he supported for his own murder.
This doesn’t mean that we should “normalize” synagogue attacks. Of course not. They shouldn’t happen: not in Israel, not in France, not in Denmark and not anywhere else in the world.
SADLY, we Jews know from experience that antisemitism and hatred of our people has always existed.
The antisemitism that led to the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, which spurred pogroms in Russia in the 19th century, and which saw the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930s is the same antisemitism that led Robert Bowers to storm the Tree of Life Congregation on Saturday and shoot innocent worshipers.
As we read annually at the Passover Seder: “In every generation our enemies rise up to destroy us.” But as we continue reading, all those people who seek to destroy the Jewish people ultimately fail, and the Haggadah gives a religious reason for their failure: God, it says, saves the Jewish people.
While that might be part of the answer, in my mind there is no doubt that our strength also comes from our unity, our national sense of belonging, and our solidarity with one another in good times as well as in bad.
Was Bowers motivated or inspired by Trump’s belligerent rhetoric? Possibly. What we know for sure though is that not only has he killed 11 Jews, he has also succeeded in causing division and strife among Jews, an accomplishment he should be denied.
I am not saying that people should not be allowed to criticize Trump, Netanyahu, Bennett or Israel, or search for reasons. They should. The question, in my eyes, is one of timing and purpose. Does it help the cause of defeating antisemitism and preventing future attacks to excommunicate fellow Jews? I don’t think so. Does it help to blame the Israeli government and its alliance with Trump? Probably not.
What happened in Pittsburgh is a shock to American Jewry. It should be. Real, practical steps might need to be taken to ensure the continued safety of the second-largest Jewish community in the world. The type of security at Jewish institutions in Europe might need to be copied to the US.
But to defeat the antisemitism that vile people like Bowers lean on, the Jewish people would do better if they come together and embrace unity over division, and compassion over hatred. Let’s not let the antisemites win.
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