Practical Jewish unity after Pittsburgh

A laudable effort was made by Jewish newspapers to publish a joint editorial calling for togetherness, but more practical steps need to be taken to combat antisemitism.

November 12, 2018 23:23
4 minute read.
Practical Jewish unity after Pittsburgh

Flowers and other items have been left as memorials outside the Tree of Life synagogue following last Saturday's shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, November 3, 2018. (photo credit: ALAN FREED/REUTERS)


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In response to the Pittsburgh tragedy, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee issued a poignant call for a “coalition of conscience” to combat antisemitism. He addressed his call to the general American leadership. But what’s most disturbing about Jewish responses to this massacre is the lack of any Jewish coalition or shared Jewish view about the way forward.

A laudable effort was made by Jewish newspapers to publish a joint editorial calling for togetherness, but more practical steps need to be taken to combat antisemitism. On these, there is no consensus. The lack of a common Jewish voice is hardly surprising. For such a voice to emerge, Jews would have to place their Jewish identity as the paramount factor in their identity. Being simply a “Jew” would have to play a more important role in defining who we are than any one of the other multiple identities Jews have: liberal/ conservative, Israeli/American, Reform/Orthodox, etc. Predictably, liberal Jews argued that the massacre was “a culmination of President Donald Trump’s influence.” Israeli political leaders such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, on the other hand, would not connect Trump to the massacre. Both reactions are understandable: liberal Jews see Trump as a sort of Jewish “anti-Christ,” as the antithesis of all they stand for. But as Bennett noted, Trump consistently “has Israel’s back” and has made extremely important contributions to Israel’s security. For liberal American Jews and Israeli right-wing Jews to overcome their competing views of Trump and move toward a practical consensus on how to avoid a repeat of the Pittsburgh tragedy, both sides need to do more than listen. They need to care about the other side’s well-being and take practical and sometimes self-sacrificing steps to promote the other side’s well-being. This is the real meaning of Jewish unity, of placing our Jewish identity above other forms of identity, of real caring about other Jews.

This needs to begin with some real listening. Israeli leaders need to listen to how and why liberal American Jews feel that Trump encourages antisemitism, listen to liberal American Jews’ ideas about practical ways in which the president can more robustly oppose those in his voter base who tend toward antisemitism. Israeli leaders need to then broach those ideas with Trump and explore them, using ways in which he will listen. When Israel’s survival is on the line, Netanyahu knows how to find ways to engage Trump (remember the PowerPoint on “Iran lied”?) to take practical steps to make US Jews feel safe. These steps may or may not help avoid another massacre, but they will show US Jews that Israeli leaders care, and for this, it is worth expending Israel’s limited political capital.

However, caring goes both ways. If Israel is to care about liberal American Jews, in ways that do not directly advance Israel’s interests, then liberal American Jews need to care about the well-being of Israeli Jews, even when caring about us conflicts with liberal values. The most poignant example of lack of caring was reached in the Obama administration, when substantial numbers of American Jews supported the Iran deal, despite opposition by all major Israeli political leaders. This opposition was grounded in reality: the Hamas missiles that threaten all of us in southern Israel are paid for by Iranian money. The 150,000 Hezbollah missiles that can target nearly any point in northern and central Israel are paid for by Iranian money. The resolve of Hamas and the rate of delivery of sophisticated missile systems to Hezbollah are proportionate to the wealth of Iran, and the Iran deal increased Iran’s wealth and influence.

Liberal American Jews often see Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank as a make-or-break issue: support for it is incompatible with their liberal identity. Israelis see the issue differently: Amos Yadlin, the Labor Party’s presumed nominee for defense minister in the last elections, recently published a carefully researched paper concluding that some form of Israeli presence there is indispensable in the foreseeable future. Israelis fear the West Bank turning into another Gaza. Missile attacks from there would render life in central Israel unbearable. Army officers acknowledge that it is only the Israeli military presence in the West Bank that keeps Hamas from taking control. These are uncomfortable realities, and asking American Jews to support Israel in protecting its citizens in this way means asking American Jews to subordinate their liberal identity to their Jewish one. But that is part of the “package deal” of making Jewish identity primary in the aftermath of Pittsburgh.

In blunt terms, the “package deal” is that Israel will spend some of its limited capital with the Trump administration (and future US administrations) on ways to increase the personal security and sense of security of American Jews, and American Jews, liberal or otherwise, will support the security of Israelis, even when this support seemingly conflicts with their liberal values.

This “package deal” involves a great deal of self-sacrifice, but if we learn anything from our history, it is that we either hang together or be hanged together. Antisemites don’t care about Jews’ denominations or beliefs. The heroism of Esther can be our model: she refused to do what was best for herself, and instead acted in the interests of the broader Jewish community. As a small community of only several million, Jews have always had limited political power, but when we stand united, we can leverage our power. Our power will be still limited, but we will be stronger if we sacrifice for each other.

The writer lives in Beersheba and is a senior lecturer in Land of Israel Studies and Bible at an Israeli university.

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