A memorial service for the synagogue shooting, where 11 people were killed when a gunman opened fire during worship in Pittsburgh, is held in front of the White House in Washington on October 28, 2018.  Photo: Yomiuri Shimbun
A memorial service for the synagogue shooting, where 11 people were killed when a gunman opened fire during worship in Pittsburgh, is held in front of the White House in Washington on October 28, 2018. Photo: Yomiuri Shimbun

One of the worst antisemitic incidents in the history of the United States took place at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, 2018, when 11 people were killed in a shooting.

On the face of it, Israeli and American Jews presented a united front over the tragedy.

Jerusalem’s Old City walls were lit up with the inscription “We are with you, Pittsburgh.” Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett immediately headed to the site of the attack to showcase Israeli solidarity.

However, the official level of unity and solidarity hide deepening inter-Jewish fissures. Upon hearing of Bennett’s visit, the pro-Israeli left-wing group J-Street tweeted that by defending the Trump administration, Bennett contributed to the “spread of fear, division and hate.”

One of the defining features of politics in the United States in the 21st Century is the partisan distaste Republicans and Democrats feel towards each other. This is increasingly in evidence in relations between Jews on both sides of the Atlantic.

Partisan divisions

Many liberal Jews blame Trump for inciting the attack with his rhetoric. Eleven left-leaning Jewish leaders in Pittsburgh went as far as to write the President an open letter stating he was not welcome in the city until he disavowed intolerance and white supremacy.

Correspondingly, Jews who support Trump have been vilified by some left-leaning Jews. One accusation that recurred was that Jews who support the president sold out the interests of the community in order to support Israeli interests.

Journalist Julia Ioffe tweeted: “A word to my fellow American Jews: this President makes this possible … I hope the embassy move over there, where you don’t live, was worth it.”

The veteran Jewish publication The Forward published an op-ed declaring “if you ignore his hateful tweets because you like his policies on Israel, you are part of the problem.”

Trump is popular in Israel and enjoys 49% support versus only 22% disapproval. In the United States, a recent Gallup poll found the president’s approval has sunk to 40%, while his disapproval rating is at 54%.

Many liberal American Jews resent the Israeli support for Trump, as well as the close governmental cooperation. As a result, some liberal American Jews blame the Israeli government for Trump’s racist policies and indirectly for the attack in Pittsburgh as well.

David Simon, creator of the television show The Wire, said that by supporting Trump, Netanyahu had chosen “white nationalism and creeping fascism.”

“American Jewry, now targeted, has eyes and memory,” he tweeted.

Liberal Jews claim that Trump-supporting Jews are traitors, putting their brethren at risk by supporting Israel at their expense. The accusations were one step away from accusing the Israeli government and right-wing American Jews of having blood on their hands.

This is an inversion of the classic accusation of disloyalty leveled at critics of Israel in the past by supporters of the Jewish state.

Conservative Jews in Israel and the United States vehemently disagree. In an editorial in the right-leaning Commentary magazine, John Podhoretz, who is not a Trump supporter, insisted: “Donald Trump should be assigned no such blame, even if the shooter were the president of the Donald Trump Fan Club, because he pulled no trigger and committed no crime. Period.”

In this they are in full agreement with their right-wing counterparts in Israel. Members of the Likud party Tweeted and exchanged messages stating that liberal American support for immigrants was encouraging anti-Semitism in the United States.

In response to their coverage of the attack, the liberal Forward was targeted by right-wing Israelis. The Forward’s opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon tweeted: “If you had told me a week ago that I would spend the days after a terror attack against my community being trolled by right-wing Israeli Jews, I simply would not have believed you.”

Denominational divisions

The shootings also highlight the denominational divide between the American Jewish community and their Israeli counterparts. In the US, the vast majority of affiliated Jews are either from the Conservative or the Reform streams.

However, in Israel the Orthodox stream controls the rabbinate and they refuse to recognize non-Orthodox conversions. Since the 1980s this has led to significant tensions between the Israeli government and American Jews.

After the shooting, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish media in Israel and the country’s chief rabbis avoided referring to the Tree of Life as a synagogue. Instead, they referred to it as a “Jewish Center” or other non-specific terms. This is seen by many American Jews as an intentional slap in the face, as it denotes that these are not houses of worship.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, was outraged, and said: “This tragedy should bring all Jews together, not rip us further apart. It’s unconscionable that any rabbi worth their name would question the Jewishness of those worshiping on Shabbat in a synagogue shattered by murder and the blood of Jews.”

A headline in The Forward objected: “Not a synagogue? Pittsburgh Victims Might Disagree.”

For decades Jews on both sides of the Atlantic have been concerned that familial relations between the communities will be torn asunder through disagreements over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, it appears that the true fault lines are over the very identity of American Jews.

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