Are We Turning the Tree of Life Massacre Into Another Partisan Issue?

November, 02 2018
Tree of Life

Walking through the sea protestors crossing Squirrel Hill on Tuesday afternoon, a friendly voice called out: “So, we meet again.” I had met the elderly member of the Pittsburgh Jewish community a few hours earlier outside Rodef Shalom Congregation, entering the funeral of brothers David and Cecil Rosenthal. We converged again as he and his daughter marched with thousands of other Pittsburgh residents to protest Donald Trump’s visit to their city. This is the new normal for many members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community: splitting their time between mourning the dead and protesting the hate that brought about the tragedy.

Two blocks down the road from the protesters’ gathering, President Trump’s motorcade, with its police motorcycles, secret service officers and black limo, was pulling out, concluding the short presidential visit to Tree of Life congregation.

Within these few quiet leafy blocks lies the story of Squirrel Hill this week. A neighborhood once synonymous with Jewish American success, safety and coexistence has now become known for everything it never wanted to symbolize: fear, hate, uncertainty. These blocks also portray vividly how anti-Semitism has evolved from one of the few issues of consensus in public American life to yet another political football.

On the one side of this divide stand those gathered outside Tree of Life on Tuesday: President Donald Trump, his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, a handful of Jewish advisers and the Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer. On the other side were the American Jews (and non-Jews) marching two blocks away. They are separated not only by partisan politics, but also by their answers to key questions the community is grappling with: What is anti-Semitism? Who is behind it? How do we fight back?

In the streets of Squirrel Hill, the debate over Trump’s visit to Pittsburgh sounded different. It wasn’t the right-left banter that has taken over much of the communal discourse in the past two years, but rather a quiet, thoughtful and somber discussion of people who have seen their worst nightmare come true, and are now looking to make sense of the new reality. But this does not mean that Pittsburgh’s Jews do not hold strong opinions. After conducting a symbolic ceremony of cutting kriah, the tearing of a garment as a sign of mourning, protestors marched carrying signs with a clear message to the president, who had just left their neighborhood: “Hate is Not Welcome Here,” read some banners. Others called on the president to “build bridges, not walls,” and to “watch your words.”

Perhaps it was the grief that kept Pittsburgh’s protest so civil and polite. Outside the grieving city, the Jewish public space has exploded with mutual accusations. In New York, police arrested Jewish protestors outside the city’s Republican Club. On social media and in published columns, some politically conservative Jews have accused liberals of using the Pittsburgh tragedy for unworthy political gains.

To some extent, the debate is all about perspective. Many Jews have long warned of Trump’s association with alt-right activists and what they view as his turning a blind eye to racism and anti-Semitism. They draw a straight line from Charlottesville to Pittsburgh, from Trump’s infamous claim that there are “good people on both sides” to the conspiracy theories about Jews and immigration that led Robert Bowers to take his AR-15 and three pistols to Tree of Life synagogue. For some right-wing Jews, while many were dismayed by Trump’s Charlottesville comments, recent days have brought about a drive to dispute the notion that rhetoric or hateful remarks played a role in the actions of one avowed anti-Semite. “We can never allow ourselves to be divided over the pointless exercise of assigning blame to anyone but the killer himself. It plays right into his sick and demented mind,” said David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel and a close ally of Trump.

Complicating the situation even more was the Israeli government’s decision to insert itself into the political debate with a public campaign defending Trump. The Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer took to the airwaves to fend off accusations against the president, stating that “anti-Semitism didn’t start in 2016,” and adding: “I don’t think that you should rush to reach a conclusion that because someone takes a stance against George Soros, that’s necessarily anti-Semitism.”

When asked about Trump, Israeli officials, including Dermer, Israel’s Counsul General in New York Danny Dayan, and Diaspora Affairs minister Naftali Bennett, pointed instead to Palestinian terror and to anti-Israel left hatred as equivalent, or worse, than the threat from the anti-Semitic extreme right. Bennett even disputed the Anti-Defamation League’s data pointing to a surge in anti-Semitism in America in the past two years.

And while Israeli politicians may have been too blunt in their defense of Trump and their attempts to divert criticism from the president, their statements revealed the new reality of how anti-Semitism is viewed, and treated, in present day America—and Israel. People on each side of the political divide now focus on a different strand of Jew-hatred: Liberals point to classic Nazi-style anti-Semitism and the racist environment in which it breeds, and conservatives focus on anti-Israel sentiments as a precursor to anti-Semitism. Just like the issue of supporting Israel, anti-Semitism has now become a partisan issue, making it much harder to ensure that this never happens again.

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