by Mitchell Plitnick
On Saturday, Robert Bowers, a right-wing gunman strode into a synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh and began shooting. When he was finished, he’d murdered 11 people.
Donald Trump led the quick march to bizarrely defend one of the most prominent U.S. cult symbols, the gun, by blaming the synagogue itself for not having an armed guard at the synagogue, as if such a guard would have fared better than the three Pittsburgh police officer that Bowers shot.
Trump later blamed the media for violent attacks, saying, “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news.” That was to be expected, given the increasing attention to Trump’s own lengthy history of anti-Semitic dog-whistling and the scrutiny it was finally coming under in the wake of the terrorist attack in Squirrel Hill.
But the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history was not going to remain a domestic issue for very long. Given the disdain the government of Israel has been showing to the U.S. Jewish community for so long now, it was difficult to imagine that Israel’s response to the Squirrel Hill massacre would be positive. But few could have anticipated its cynical and opportunistic response.
As Jews and many others across the United States mourned the killings and worked to call out the growing trend of white supremacy in the United States that led to it, Israeli leaders scrambled to defend the man who had done more than anyone to stoke the fires that erupted in Pittsburgh, Donald Trump, and to score their own political points off this terrorist attack.
Although he had the good sense to rebuke Israel’s chief rabbi, who refused to agree with the obvious fact that the Tree of Life synagogue where the attack occurred was a “real synagogue,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately praised Trump for “unequivocally condemning this heinous crime.” Education minister and far-right leader Naftali Bennett, who also serves as the minister for diaspora affairs, quickly flew to Pittsburgh to falsely state that “From Sderot to Pittsburgh, the hand that fires missiles is the same hand that shoots worshippers.”
Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer made the lie even more blatant, stating, “… those anti-Semites are usually not neo-Nazis, on college campuses. They’re coming from the radical left.” Like Bennett and Netanyahu, Dermer has long since abandoned any pretense of bipartisanship in the United States and has thrown in his lot with the Republican party and, these days, with Trump. It’s hardly news that the Netanyahu government warmly embraces anti-Semites. Netanyahu had already courted controversy by supporting the far-right Hungarian leader, Viktor Orban, even while Orban waged a blatantly anti-Semitic electoral campaign back home.
But that was Hungary. This is the United States, the home of the Jewish community that has given so much money and political support to Israel for so long. And this wasn’t just about where words like Orban’s could lead. Squirrel Hill was the result of month after month of Trump’s barely concealed shout-outs to the anti-Semitic right.
Trump’s long history of anti-Semitic dog whistles, unmatched by any prominent politician in living U.S. memory, had seen a sharp uptick in the weeks before this attack. In his zeal to present a group of hundreds of poor Honduran refugees—including many women and children—as an existential threat to the world’s only true military superpower, he repeatedly talked about globalists (which is code, among the alt-right, for Jews), referred to himself as a proud “nationalist,” and, jumping on the same bandwagon that Orban and Netanyahu had already been riding, accused Jewish philanthropist George Soros of funding pretty much every progressive action Trump doesn’t like.
Robert Bowers seems not to have liked Trump either, but Trump’s public anti-Semitism contributed to the atmosphere that led him to act. The Pittsburgh chapter of Bend the Arc, a progressive (though quite mainstream) Jewish organization published an open letter to Trump telling him to stay out of Pittsburgh until he “fully denounce(s) white nationalism.”
The group wrote, “For the past three years your words and your policies have emboldened a growing white nationalist movement. You yourself called the murderer evil, but yesterday’s violence is the direct culmination of your influence.”
An Uneasy Right-Wing Alliance
The choices Netanyahu has made have come home to roost. More realistic than many of his supporters, Netanyahu understands that it is not just his politics that don’t align with most U.S. Jews, but the values on which they are based. Netanyahu’s Israel embraces nationalism even more strongly than previous generations of Israelis. The Israeli government demonizes Palestinians, whether they are under occupation or citizens of the state. It asserts not only its right to act with impunity but its right to prevent other countries from acting in their own defense. It labels citizens who object to all of this, especially those from its dominant group, as traitors and collaborators.
Those are all traits that neatly align Israel with the worst tendencies of Trump and his administration. Easy parallels can be drawn between the current anti-immigrant hysteria in the United States and the appalling treatment of African migrants in Israel.
Indeed, Bowers stated in some of his postings on social media that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was an impetus for his actions. He believed that HIAS was aiding the immigrants coming north toward the United States from Honduras. HIAS, in fact, has no connection to that wave of refugees yet, although they do support refugees coming from many parts of Latin America into the United States. They are also one of the most vocal U.S. Jewish groups objecting to Israel’s treatment of African migrants.
Although the growing divide between the U.S. Jewish community and Israel has provoked a good deal of discussion within the Jewish community, Israel’s increasing illiberalism has had no effect on U.S. policy. This is hardly surprising in the Trump era.
Netanyahu is therefore faced with a choice: support the Jewish community in the wake of a devastating terrorist attack or continue to support his friend Trump, which can only be done by aiding him in whitewashing the considerable responsibility the U.S. president bears for this crime.
The Pittsburgh terrorist attack was an outgrowth of the far-right anger that Trump has been stoking since early in his campaign. Brett Stephens, who is far from a liberal voice, summed it up on Twitter: “Trump routinely defames ‘globalists’ and ‘international banks’ and ‘corrupt media,’ all of which anti-Semites associate with Jews. Responsible rhetoric begins by not demonizing entire categories of people, or giving deranged people mental ammunition.”
Netanyahu had long since gone all in on Trump and alienated Democrats in the process. It’s much too late for him to go back on it now, and he would have to if he wanted to take on Trump’s anti-Semitic dog whistling. So instead, he and his henchmen support Trump in a shamelessly transparent attempt to absolve his obvious role in this crime.
Rethinking the U.S.-Israeli Relationship?
Netanyahu’s cynicism has long-term effects. Saudi Arabia is learning that now. For decades, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been transactional, based on mutual interests. And that works well enough, until something goes wrong and interests begin to be weighed against values. Suddenly, members of Congress are pushed by their constituents—or are pre-empting such pressure by acting first—to re-examine the U.S.-Saudi relationship in a way that has not been seen before, even after 9/11.
The U.S.-Israel relationship is, of course, a long way from there. There is still great affinity for Israel across the political spectrum in the United States. But the divide is increasing. Holding millions of people without any rights for over five decades is not compatible with the values of most Americans. Nor is gunning down protesters who pose no immediate threat. Attacking Israeli citizens for nothing more than defending the human rights of Palestinians also tends to sit poorly in American eyes.
None of this has affected the U.S.-Israel relationship yet. But Netanyahu’s embrace of Trump and his willingness to ignore Trump’s racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant rhetoric is unprecedented, even for right-wing Israeli leaders. That indifference to the well-being of U.S. Jews will, in the long term, affect not only Jewish support for Israel, but the way a wide variety of Americans perceive the country. Indeed, Americans are increasingly unable to look the other way when it comes to Israel’s long-term dispossession of the Palestinian people.
Trump and Netanyahu have demonstrated in Pittsburgh that their worldview is a good deal closer to that of Robert Bowers than it is to that of most U.S. Jews or, indeed, most Americans. In the long run, that will matter. Although Trump has brought white supremacy much more clearly into the mainstream of the U.S. right wing, his time in office is limited. Trump’s views, unlike Netanyahu’s, do not reflect the majority of Americans. It will be very difficult for Netanyahu, or whoever eventually succeeds him, to erase Israel’s current acceptance of anti-Semitism in the United States.