The massacre of Jews sitting in a Pittsburgh shul on Shabbat morning has been an emotionally searing experience for American Jews, me included. Tablet’s Alana Newhouse smartly noted how aninut – the stage in Jewish law that reigns from the time of death to burial – is marked by the disruption of orderly thinking. Now that funerals for the victims have begun, it is time to take stock of what happened and what can be gleaned from the starkest display of anti-Semitism in American history. I’m not sure that my thinking is quite orderly yet, so what follows are three broad observations that are related to each other only by the event that precipitated them.
The first has to do with incitement, which I had been thinking about in the context of domestic terrorism before the Tree of Life attack. One of the most frustrating things about the Trump era is that having a balanced and honest conversation about President Trump is nearly impossible given the ferocity of people’s feelings about him, both positive and negative. I do not exempt myself from this critique; I suspect that my feelings about the president are evident if you read this column every week. If you follow me on Twitter, they are glaringly clear. But I still think it is important to assess Trump’s responsibility or lack thereof for what took place in Squirrel Hill in as objective a manner as possible, and it turns out that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides just such a template.
Robert Bowers is a virulent anti-Semite. His anti-Semitism was not created by Trump, and neither was his desire to kill Jews. Anti-Semites do not need excuses, and it is dangerous and unwise to mitigate their agency by assigning the blame for their actions to anyone else. It is also the case that many American Jews have felt a distinct feeling of discomfort since Trump assumed the presidency, particularly since his infamous “very fine people on both sides” comment about neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville who chanted “Jews will not replace us” and menaced synagogue worshippers on another unsettling Shabbat morning. What are we to make of the fact that Trump has never explicitly condoned anti-Semitism, and has in fact explicitly condemned it on multiple occasions, yet both Jews and white supremacists believe that he is winking and nodding in approval to anti-Semitism in a variety of ways?
One of the things for which Israelis and American Jews take Mahmoud Abbas to task most often is incitement. Abbas has never personally taken up arms against the Jewish state or its citizens, and does not call for terrorist attacks directed at Israelis. But when he praises the actions of those who do, or engages in Holocaust denial, or rejects the Jewish connection to the land of Israel, we call him out for inciting violence. It does not mean that Abbas is a terrorist and that he is directly responsible for the actions of Palestinians who commit terrorist attacks, but it means that he helps foster an environment in which such attacks flourish. His sometime condemnations of particularly heinous terror attacks ring hollow given the covert messages he sends time and again that appear to glorify targeting Israelis.
The more I have thought about it, the more I find this framework useful for evaluating Trump in the wake of the Pittsburgh attacks. I do not think that Trump is an anti-Semite, and he certainly has not urged attacks against Jews. He is not responsible for Bowers, and he is not responsible for eleven new Jewish martyrs. But his incitement has fostered the environment that makes targeting Jews seem easier and more urgent for the anti-Semites who already hate us. Every time he praises white supremacists under the guise of nationalism, every time he approvingly tweets conspiracy theories that just happen to disproportionately involve Jews and anti-Semitic tropes, every time he defends Confederate “values” and ideals, and every time he glorifies violence against his perceived enemies, he makes this country more dangerous for us. The fact that Bowers finds Trump to be insufficiently nationalist is only a defense if you accept that Hamas’s tarring of Abbas as an Israeli collaborator makes him a Zionist, and neither is it exculpatory to argue that Trump is too clueless to be doing any of this purposely. Trump’s incitement has created an environment in which it has been permissive to attack journalists, permissive to send bombs to political opponents, and now permissive to gun down Jews at prayer.
If you take incitement seriously in the Palestinian context, then take it seriously in this one too, and if you dismiss it as irrelevant in the Palestinian context, then don’t blame Trump as the cause of Jewish deaths. My own view is that words matter, both here and there, and I certainly hold Trump partially responsible for the fact that for the first time in my life, I feel like a Jew in America rather than like an American Jew.
Many Israelis remain hurt and angry with American Jews for their support of the Iran deal. They viewed it as making Israel less safe rather than more, and they did not want to hear American Jews explain to them why they believed otherwise. They still feel a sense of betrayal that American Jews did not have their backs, and do not understand why American Jews supported President Obama despite the depth of Israeli antipathy toward him as a result of policies that they saw as putting Israel at risk. When American Jews said that Obama shared their values and their worldview, Israelis responded with, “what about us?”
We have now arrived at the mirror image of the Iran deal. Many American Jews are hurt and angry over Israeli support for Trump, viewing Trump as not only being out of line with their own values but as making them less safe. Israelis, on the other hand, see Trump as a great friend to Israel, and do not understand why American Jews feel such revulsion toward him. Israelis wanted American Jews to have their backs and respect their own conclusions about what would make Israel safer and more secure, so granting that most of them feel that American Jews let them down, what is the obligation now of Israelis to put their own feelings aside out of respect for the vast majority of American Jews? Is it Ron Dermer’s job to go on American television and mount a full-throated defense of Trump, or should he at minimum stay neutral given the conviction in many quarters of American Jewry that Trump is fostering a permissive atmosphere for anti-Semitism? I don’t know the answer to this question, and since I did not support the Iran deal I may be the wrong person to even address it, but it is worth thinking about.
I took Avi Gabbay to task in the Forward for his insulting and ahistorical suggestion that American Jews should now make aliyah, so I do not need to rehash my jeremiad here. But I do want to add something that I did not write about in that piece about American Judaism. The American Jewish project has never felt like a temporary one that is bound to be disrupted, or that is in a holding pattern until American Jews inevitably move to Israel. It is its own entity, and should be taken seriously as such. Now more than ever, it is critical to fight for it, to stand up for it, to make clear that the terror in Pittsburgh will be a tragic blip rather than the new normal.
On Monday evening, I made my way to the solidarity and prayer vigil at Adas Israel Congregation organized by the JCRC of Greater Washington, but I never got close to the door. I walked nearly half a mile down Porter Street past a throng of people waiting in line, finally getting to the end and then making my way back up toward the synagogue. With nearly 4,000 people stretching the building to its capacity to hear speeches and prayers from politicians, community leaders, and religious leaders, I was one of the hundreds who packed the steps and plaza out front once the building had filled up and another impromptu vigil was organized on the spot.
It was one of the most emotionally moving experiences I have had, and it was not because the speeches were particularly inspiring or because the prayers held particularly special meaning. It was because thousands of people, Jewish and non-Jewish, showed up and waited in the cold and weren’t deterred when space ran out, for an event that made it clear just how much of a home we Jews have in America. We do not need to worry about our political leaders supporting us, or hiding our Judaism from our neighbors, or thinking about acquiring a foreign passport for when the day comes when we will have to run. Despite the new feeling of discomfort that many of us are experiencing for the first time, there is no question that those who want to do us harm are a small and largely-shunned minority. So let’s remember what a unique situation we enjoy in the annals of Jewish history, and work to make sure that the American Jewish experience continues to grow and remain one of the poles of world Jewry. Let’s continue to develop an American Judaism that is our own, and ensure that no American Jew ever makes aliyah out of need rather than out of desire. Let’s continue to be unapologetic American Jews.