But showing support for Israel does nothing to combat anti-Semitism or bolster the safety of Jews in the United States. The shooting and the response underscores the reality that American Jews and Israeli leaders have never been more disparate and divided.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of education and diaspora affairs — whose Jewish Home Party thrives on its Jewish supremacist, anti-Arab rhetoric — flew to Pittsburgh immediately after the attack and compared Palestinians firing rockets from Gaza to neo-Nazi white supremacists: “From Sderot to Pittsburgh, the hand that fires missiles is the same hand that shoots worshipers. We will fight against the hatred of Jews, and anti-Semitism, wherever it raises its head.”
The Israeli government and its media allies have jumped on the massacre in Pittsburgh in a very specific way — refusing to engage the idea that President Trump, whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described as the greatest supporter of the Jewish people and state, has taken either an active or passive part in the hostile political climate in the United States. Conflation of American Jews with the Israeli government serves the underlying message that anything anti-Israel is anti-Semitic.
In his remarks at the weekly Sunday cabinet meeting in the Knesset, Netanyahu referenced “new anti-Semitism” in Europe and “radical Islam” but never mentioned the actual ideologies behind this attack: white supremacism, neo-Nazism and other extremism in the United States. He refused to name them. Netanyahu made no mention of Trump’s use of rhetoric that openly hints at anti-Semitic conspiracy theories or his even less subtle incitement against refugees and asylum seekers.
Instead, in a letter addressed to the Pittsburgh Jewish community, Netanyahu focused entirely on his own political messaging. He expressed appreciation for Trump “unequivocally condemning this heinous crime and for pledging to fight those who seek to destroy the Jewish people.” Meanwhile, more than 35,000 American Jews have signed a letter by a coalition of progressive members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community telling Trump he is not welcome there until he denounces white nationalism.
Also conspicuously absent from Netanyahu’s rhetoric has been any mention of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the organization that Robert Bowers, the accused Pittsburgh shooter, had attacked on social media for aiding refugees, which many people have been donating to as a show of support. Netanyahu’s Likud party even reportedly distributed talking points to activists describing HIAS as “a left-wing Jewish group that promotes immigration to the U.S. and works against Trump.”
The word “terror” was also notably absent from Netanyahu’s rhetoric, and that of other Israeli politicians and most media outlets. None of the front-page headlines in any of Israel’s major newspapers used the term to describe the Pittsburgh attack. They described it as a “massacre” and Bowers as “the shooter,” a “far-right nationalist” or a “murderer.” But no mention of a “terrorist” or “terrorist attack.”
That’s because in Israel, “terror” comes from only one source. As my colleague Samah Salaime, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and blogger with +972 magazine, posted on Facebook: “The Israeli media systematically refrained from using the words that are reserved only for Palestinians.” If Bowers had been Muslim, or an Arab, the word “terror” would have been plastered in big bold red letters throughout the Israeli media. (The phenomenon isn’t unique to Israel, either; politicians and media outlets in the United States tend to treat terrorism as a uniquely foreign and Islamic phenomenon, as Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution points out.)
Netanyahu and many Israelis use “terror” relatively liberally as a code word for the worst thing you can do to Jews, a euphemism for supposed evil. The Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions is anti-Semitic “economic terror”; when they go to the United Nations or the International Criminal Court, it’s “diplomatic terror”; when they protest in the West Bank, it’s “popular terror.” A Palestinian child who so much as points a stone at an Israeli soldier is considered a terrorist, and every Palestinian living in Gaza is essentially a priori treated as one. On Sunday, in Gaza, three Palestinian “terrorists,” according to the IDF and reported that way by most Israeli news organizations, were killed by an Israeli strike after the military said they attempted to place an explosive device on the border fence. They were children, ages 13 to 14. But a man inspired by anti-Semitic and anti-refugee conspiracy theories who shouted “All Jews must die” before going on a rampage in an American synagogue? In Israel, he isn’t labeled a terrorist.
On MSNBC on Monday, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, echoed Trump’s response to the Nazis who marched in Charlottesville last year. As host Ayman Mohyeldin tried to tease out some kind of condemnation of the Trump administration’s role in fomenting hate, Dermer said, “I see a lot of bad people on both sides who attack Jews,” absolving American leadership of any responsibility and drawing a false equivalence between violent white nationalists who chant “Jews will not replace us” and left-wing college students (some of whom are Jews) who advocate for Palestinian rights. Asked about the sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017 — the largest increase ever recorded by the ADL — Dermer said it’s not new and immediately pivoted outside the United States. “It’s a huge problem in Europe … where you’ve seen a number of attacks,” he said, and then tried to insist that Trump is committed to confronting anti-Semites because “he has Jews in his family.”
The attempt to conflate criticism of Israel’s human rights record with the ideologies that prompted the massacre in Pittsburgh only underscored how much Trump and Netanyahu have in common. Netanyahu, after all, allied with Orban’s Hungary and incited against George Soros before Trump did. Like Trump’s, the bread and butter of the Israeli government’s populist appeal is nationalist, Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric.
Since Israel was established, American Jews have been told that the “Jewish state” is a place they could find refuge in, a place they could turn to if and when anti-Semitism rears its ugly head again, even in the United States. That’s what happened this weekend. And Israeli leaders have made it clear where their alliances and values lie.