Pittsburgh Killing Aftermath Bares Jewish Rifts in Israel and America

Pittsburgh Killing Aftermath Bares Jewish Rifts in Israel and America

BEIT SHEMESH, Israel — The slaughter of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh elicited responses in Israel that echoed the reactions to anti-Semitic killings in Paris, Toulouse and Brussels: expressions of sympathy, reminders that hatred of Jews is as rampant as ever, reaffirmations of the need for a strong Israel.

But Saturday’s massacre also brought to the surface painful political and theological disagreements tearing at the fabric of Israeli society and driving a wedge between Israelis and American Jews.

Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi took pains to avoid the word “synagogue” to describe the scene of the crime — because it is not Orthodox, but Conservative, one of the liberal branches of Judaism that, despite their numerous adherents in the United States, are rejected by the religious authorities who determine the Jewish state’s definitions of Jewishness.

And the attacker’s anti-refugee, anti-Muslim fulminations on social media prompted some on the Israeli left — like many American Jewish liberals — to draw angry comparisons to views espoused by the increasingly nationalistic leaders who now hold sway in their governments.

The result has been a striking and lightning-fast politicization of the sort of tragedy that until now had only galvanized Jews across the world — not set them at one another’s throats.

Here in Israel, the decades-old animosity between left and right has reached new levels of enmity in recent years. Ultra-Orthodox parties that play a kingmaker’s role in the right-wing government are pressing to increase their influence and that of Jewish law on daily life, sparking bitter fights over everything from who serves in the military to whether trains can run and stores can open on the Sabbath. Jews from liberal American denominations feel increasingly alienated from Israel’s state-run religious life.

[Growing anti-semitism has stunned American Jews.]

With the Israeli government, like many across Europe, also taking a decidedly nationalistic turn, the election of President Trump has only compounded that strife, widening the rift between Israeli and American Jews. Politically liberal American Jews have been repelled by Mr. Trump’s solid support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and by Mr. Netanyahu’s effusive embrace of Mr. Trump and his granting of a wish-list’s worth of political gifts. They range from scrapping the Iran nuclear agreement to repeatedly punishing the Palestinians and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

All of that, and more, bubbled up when one of Israel’s most influential politicians, Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, jumped on a plane to Pittsburgh in his capacity as minister of diaspora affairs. Mr. Bennett gave voice only to unifying ideals: “Together we stand, Americans, Israelis — people who are, together, saying no to hatred,” he told a vigil there Sunday night. “The murderer’s bullet does not stop to ask, ‘Are you Conservative or Reform, are you Orthodox? Are you right-wing or left-wing?’ It has one goal, and that is to kill innocent people. Innocent Jews.”

No sooner had Mr. Bennett’s plane departed Ben-Gurion Airport than he was assailed by liberal Israeli critics, who among other things resurfaced a 2012 Facebook post in which he had accused leftists of promoting “crime and rape in Tel Aviv” because they wanted to allow African migrants who had entered the country illegally to stay.

“Is the Trump-supporting, African-migrant-bashing Naftali Bennett really the best person to represent Israel in Pittsburgh right now?” wrote Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz, the liberal daily.

Others cited a pro-Jewish Home party text message sent to Haifa residents in advance of Tuesday’s municipal elections. It warned Jewish voters fearful of “the flight of young Jews” and a “takeover” by “the sector”— shorthand for Israeli Arabs — to vote for the Jewish Home slate.

“That’s almost word-for-word the spirit of ‘Jews will not replace us,’” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a left-wing political consultant in Tel Aviv, recalling the chant of neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.

Even Michael Oren, the American-born deputy minister from the right-of-center Kulanu party, faulted Mr. Bennett for having sided with the ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbinate, which refuses to recognize non-Orthodox denominations as sufficiently Jewish to participate fully in Israeli religious life.

“Liberal Jews were Jewish enough to be murdered, but their stream is not Jewish enough to be recognized by the Jewish State,” Mr. Oren wrote in Hebrew on Twitter, adding: “I call on Minister Bennett not to suffice with condolences, but to recognize liberal Jewish streams and unite the people.”

On the right, veteran activists in Likud, Mr. Netanyahu’s party, circulated an email on Sunday — which Mr. Netanyahu’s aides and party leaders disavowed within hours — noting that the Pittsburgh killer had denounced the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which “encouraged immigration” and “acted against Trump.”

“Did we or did we not say that the Left is guilty of encouraging anti-Semitism?,” wrote the email’s author, who responded to queries but declined to identify himself.

Many Israelis, of course, reacted with horror and grief as they tuned into coverage of the Pittsburgh massacre. In Beit Shemesh, a largely ultra-Orthodox city 20 minutes west of Jerusalem, Elisheva Gutman, 24, a social worker, said her parents had vacationed in Pittsburgh two weeks earlier and had attended Sabbath services down the street from the Tree of Life synagogue, the killing site. “When they go to Europe, my father takes off his kipa and puts on a hat,” for fear of attack, Ms. Gutman said. “It’s not supposed to be that way in the U.S.”

Chaim Zaid, 62, a paramedic from Kedumim, a West Bank settlement, said the shooting belied Israelis’ ideas of the United States as a “paradise” for Jews. “You think the big U.S., with the big F.B.I., will protect them, and nothing will change,” he said. “But that was a change point. My sister lives in Brooklyn and was afraid to come to my home. So Sunday morning I sent her a message: ‘Rivka, you were afraid to come to me?’”

If other Israelis were quick to score political points over the Pittsburgh killings, though, in a sense they had been preparing for this moment. The disagreements between American and Israeli Jews have been piling up.

Only last week, the Jewish Federations of North America’s yearly General Assembly drew hundreds of Americans to Tel Aviv for a three-day conference focused on the strains in the relationship, titled “We Need to Talk.”

In a provocative keynote, the head of Israel’s largest real estate company, Danna Azrieli, recited the litany of friction points. For Americans, she said, there are Mr. Netanyahu’s effusive embrace of Mr. Trump, whom most American Jews oppose; the Israeli occupation and Jewish settlements on the West Bank, which many American Jews believe block peace with the Palestinians; Mr. Netanyahu’s reneging on a deal last year to significantly upgrade and grant equal status to a mixed-gender, Reform and Conservative prayer space at the Western Wall; and Israel’s new nation-state law, which opponents call racist and anti-democratic because it enshrines the right of national self-determination in Israel as “unique to the Jewish people.”

For Israelis, Ms. Azrieli said, Americans don’t serve in the Israeli army, pay Israeli taxes or live under the threat of rockets, but also don’t let those realities stop them from trying to impose their views on Israelis.

Long as it was, that list had big omissions. Israelis on the left would add, at a minimum, the Netanyahu government’s warming up to increasingly authoritarian leaders in countries like Hungary and Poland, and its demonization of the Hungarian-born, liberal Jewish financier George Soros — who also is a frequent target of anti-Semitic attacks in the United States and Europe — for underwriting activist groups that oppose Mr. Netanyahu’s policies. Mr. Netanyahu’s own son even posted a meme attacking Mr. Soros with anti-Semitic imagery that drew praise from the likes of David Duke.

And Israelis on the right would add their lingering resentment of American Jews’ support for the Iran nuclear deal struck by President Obama, which Israelis saw as a matter of survival, according to the author Yossi Klein Halevi, a New York-born Jerusalemite.

Mr. Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, said the Pittsburgh shootings had exposed an even deeper and more worrisome divide between the two populations. “Each sees the other as in some sense threatening its most basic well-being,” he said. “American Jews don’t understand the depth of the Israeli sense of betrayal over the Iran deal. And Israelis don’t understand why American Jews regard Trump as a life-and-death threat to the liberal society that allowed American Jewry to become the most successful minority in Jewish history.”

How damaged is the relationship? In her keynote, Ms. Azrieli felt compelled to plead, “Don’t give up on our country,” adding: “Don’t walk away because your liberal sensibilities are insulted. Don’t assume that nothing can change. Things do change — just painfully, slowly, incrementally, and with all of our help.”

And yet among Israeli leaders, some already have given up on American Jews, said Mr. Oren, the deputy minister and a former Israeli ambassador in Washington, who also cited some American Jews’ opposition to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“One school of thought is: ‘These are our people, we have to do everything possible to reach out.’ The second school says:, ‘It’s too late, they’re gone. After Iran, after Jerusalem, if we have limited resources we should invest in our base — evangelicals and the Orthodox.’”

“The first school, which is mine, is a beleaguered school,” Mr. Oren said. “The burden of doubt is on us; we have to prove that we’re still correct. It’s not easy.”

In Beit Shemesh, Zion Cohen, 66, a mall manager, lamented the acrimony. “I’m Likud, but what’s happened between Israel and America, I’m against it,” he said. “I know it’s painful to Jews in America how Israel acts toward them. The influence of the Orthodox and Haredim on the Israeli government is a catastrophe. And we need help from the Jews of the U.S., especially given how much anti-Semitism there is now in the world.”

He added: “We have to unite the whole Jewish people.”

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