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Israel's Political Response to Attack on a Pittsburgh Synagogue Divides American Jews

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
December 2018

The tragic killing of eleven Jews at prayer at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October by a neo-Nazi extremist who held Jews responsible for an "invasion" of immigrants from Central America, brought condemnation from Americans of all religious backgrounds. Muslims raised more than $100,000 in a single day to help victims and their families. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, on the front page in Hebrew. At the Rodef Shalom Congregation, where three funerals for victims were held, Joanna Rogers, the widow of Fred Rogers, the children's television host and Presbyterian minister, attended services. Squirrel Hill, where the shootings occurred, was, in fact, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Joanna Rogers told the congregation, "I love you."  
The former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, wrote an article in The Forward (Oct. 31, 2018) with the headline, "Memo to Israel: America is Sitting Shiva---Your Job Is To Listen." He declared, "Please listen. Please don't lecture us. Please don't bring politics into the discussion. Please don't lecture us on how we should feel. We are days before a highly contested mid-term election---staying out of the internal politics of democratic allies is a principle that should always be upheld." The response of the Israeli government was quite the opposite. It was narrowly political, trying to advance its policy of attempting to silence criticism of Israel as being "anti- Semitic." The fact that the shooter in Pittsburgh came from a far-right perspective and his hatred of Jews had nothing to do with Israel or the Middle East, did not give pause to Israel's representatives, who rushed to the scene. They even criticized American Jews who suggested that President Trump's harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric might have led the shooter to take action. Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett visited Pittsburgh and in addition to conveying condolences, appeared in American media arguing that criticism of President Trump for helping stimulate intolerance and violence with his intemperate rhetoric was unfair because he was the most "pro-Israel" president in memory and had moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer said, in an MSNBC interview, that peaceful activity critical of Israel on college campuses was as much a threat to Jews as the rise of white nationalism and said he was pleased with President Trump's response. In Israel, the leader of the opposition, Avi Gabbay, said the attack should inspire "the Jews of the United States to immigrate more and more to Israel because this is their home." This was reminiscent of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who in the wake of the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, told the Jews of France, "The State of Israel is your home." In discussing the attack in Pittsburgh, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi David Lau and the ultra-Orthodox media declined to identify the Tree of Life Synagogue as a "synagogue," because it was not Orthodox.  
Israel's response was widely criticized by American Jews. In an article headlined "The Tone-Deaf Reaction to the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting," Jay Michaelson, an ordained rabbi, wrote in The Daily Beast (Oct. 28, 2018) with regard to Israel's intolerance of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism: "To American Jews who care about Israel, that is a painful reminder, that Reform, Conservative and other non-Orthodox Jewish denominations are not recognized by the Jewish state. The state does not recognize conversions performed by non- Orthodox rabbis. And plans for a non-Orthodox prayer space at the Western Wall have been floated and canceled for many generations now, most recently by Netanyahu who flatly broke his promise to American Jewish leaders to create one last year." With regard to Naftali Bennett's appearance in Pittsburgh, Michaelson notes that, "Sending ultranationalist Bennett to 'comfort' mostly liberal American Jews rubs salt in the wound. Bennett, perhaps more than any other Israeli politician, has legitimized open racism against Arabs, sworn his opposition to a two-state solution with Palestinians and moved Israeli nationalism far to the right." Nancy Bernstein, co-chair of J Street Pittsburgh called Bennett's presence "a blight."  
While in Pittsburgh, Bennett declared, "We pray this is the last such event. Jewish blood is not free." In Michaelson's view, "Bennett's line about 'Jewish blood' is both creepily blood-nationalist and a common justification for harsh military responses against terrorists, their families, their neighbors and even their whole villages. Bennett's rhetoric is tone-deaf, alienating to most American Jews and part of the very hyper- nationalist crisis that brought this tragedy into being in the first place."  
Abraham Foxman, former national director of the Anti- Defamation League, was concerned with the manner in which Israeli leaders defended President Trump and denied that his rhetoric had any connection with the Pittsburgh shooting. His message to Israelis: "Butt out." He told The Forward (Nov. 2, 2018): "I think Israeli officials and Israeli representatives should come and stand in solidarity with the American Jewish community I don't think they should come to the U.S. and stand in solidarity with the President, especially in an election period." •

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