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Pittsburgh synagogue shootings deepen divide in Jewish community over Trump

President Trump spoke at the Future Farmers of America convention in Indianapolis Oct. 27 and addressed the deadly shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue earlier. (Video: The Washington Post)

The killing rampage at a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday deepened sharply divided views in the American Jewish community about President Trump, inflaming a debate about whether he has fostered an atmosphere that allows hate and anti-Semitism to flourish.

Trump declared the mass shooting an act of “pure evil.” But his words have met with scorn from some leaders of the Jewish community who say they remain deeply disturbed that he declared last year that there were fine people on “both sides” of a protest in Charlottesville in which white supremacists chanted that “Jews will not replace us.” 

The leaders of a Pittsburgh-based affiliate of a liberal Jewish group, Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, released an open letter to Trump on Sunday saying he is not welcome in the city unless he denounces white nationalism and stops “targeting” minorities and immigrants.

Squirrel Hill residents talk about their neighborhood in the wake of the fatal shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Oct. 27. (Video: Elyse Samuels, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

“He has allowed hatred and division to fester in this country to levels we have not seen, and that has directly contributed to the rise of anti-Semitism in this country,” said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, which was formed in the aftermath of the Charlottesville rally. 

Jewish supporters of the president — including many top Republican donors — say the doubts about the president’s commitment to fight anti-Semitism are unfair. They said he is one of the best friends that Jews have had in the White House, noting that his daughter and son-in-law and their children are Jewish and citing his decisions to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and his withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal, actions long sought by conservative Jews.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, founder of TheSHUL of the Nation’s Capital, a Washington temple attended by Trump’s daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, said the president can use this moment to demonstrate his capacity to heal.  

“Personally, I absolutely do not believe the president is anti-Semitic,” Shemtov said. “On the contrary, especially if one speaks to his associates going back decades, you will find the opposite to be the case.” Shemtov stressed that he is nonpartisan and would not discuss conversations he has had with Trump or his family.

“The president has already said he intends to go to Pittsburgh, and it appears obvious that he wishes to bring about healing,” he added. “I think it is better for everyone if we let him find his way to do that and reserve judgment until after he does.”

‘Stop the words of hate,’ rabbi urges leaders after synagogue massacre. Trump keeps tweeting.

Some view Saturday’s shooting — the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history — as an opportunity for Trump to reverse the damage done by his Charlottesville comments.

“The president is in a unique position to take action,” said Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a leading voice of Orthodox Judaism. While Boteach said that he and many Jews applaud Trump’s support of Israel, he added that “where Trump must do more is an outright condemnation of white supremacists.” 

Trump is supported only by about one-fourth of American Jews, many of whom are Democrats who disagree with him on many issues, according to polls. A Gallup poll found that Trump’s approval rating among Jewish Americans was 26 percent in 2017, 12 points below his overall average job approval rating of 38 percent at the time. Separately, a survey this year by the American Jewish Committee found that 55 percent said they think the status of U.S. Jews was less secure than a year ago.

Liberal Jewish groups have condemned Trump’s support of Israel’s actions in the occupied territories, with some calling for boycotts or other measures of protest against the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

And in the wake of the Pittsburgh attack, many on the left have intensified their criticism of Trump’s rhetoric.

Yonah Lieberman, a founding member of the progressive Jewish group IfNotNow, said the president’s comments — including his unsubstantiated allegation that Jewish Democratic donor George Soros pays for protesters at his rallies — has fostered a hateful climate. 

“Trump has blood on his hands,” Lieberman said about the Pittsburgh massacre, urging the president not to deliver a speech in the city where the shootings took place.

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Lieberman said that those who think Trump “can’t be anti-Semitic because he has a Jewish daughter don’t believe he can be sexist because he has a wife and can’t be anti-immigrant because his wife is an immigrant.” 

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal Jewish group J Street, said Trump “has stoked populist anger and fear against traditional scapegoats for political gain.”

A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On CNN on Monday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Trump is trying to heal the country, noting his comments condemning the Pittsburgh attack.

“We’ve not heard the last from the president on this matter, and I think it is in­cred­ibly important that the president’s statements, in the wake of the murders of 11 people of faith . . . condemned, in no uncertain terms, anti-Semitism,” Conway said.

Abraham Wallach, who is Jewish and served as a vice president of the Trump Organization for 10 years until around 2002, said he saw no sign that Trump was anti-Semitic when he worked for him.

Wallach, who said he did not vote for Trump, recalled that he threatened to quit when another member of the company made an anti-Semitic remark. He said he brought the matter to Trump’s attention and Trump upbraided the company official who made the remark and stood by Wallach. Later, Wallach said, Trump attended his mother’s funeral and wore a yarmulke.

“I never found him to be anti-Semitic in the least,” Wallach said. The problem in assessing Trump, Wallach said, is “with Donald, you never know what the reality is.”

Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush and a Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) board member, said the reason the majority of Jews do not support Trump is because they are Democrats. 

“It’s the usual split in the Jewish community,” said Fleischer, who did not support Trump in the presidential election but said he might do so next time. “Seventy-five percent of the Jewish community can’t stand him, and 25 percent is very supportive of him. On Israel, you can’t find a better supporter than Donald Trump.”  

Trump’s relationship with the RJC, a group of wealthy GOP donors, has improved since his rocky appearance at a 2015 presidential forum it hosted. The then-candidate declared he was “a negotiator — like you folks,” and drew a smattering of boos when he refused to definitively say he would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“Don’t worry about it,” Trump said at the time. “You’re going to be very happy, okay? Don’t worry about it.”

Once he was the GOP nominee, Trump got the backing of casino mogul and RJC board member Sheldon Adelson and his physician wife, Miriam, who contributed $20 million to a super PAC to bolster his campaign. 

As president, Trump delivered: The United States inaugurated a new embassy in Jerusalem in May amid widespread criticism from Arab nations and protests by Palestinians, who view East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

This year, the Adelsons have emerged as the biggest GOP donors to super PACs, contributing more than $112 million — largely to efforts to help Republicans maintain control of Congress. An adviser to Sheldon Adelson did not respond to requests for comment. 

Marc Goldman, a Boca Raton, Fla., investor and RJC board member, said that along with the embassy move, Trump has demonstrated that he cares about shared values between the United States and Israel. 

“It’s more than what he’s done for the Jewish community. He brought traditional Western values of what Judaism has brought and what America is founded on,” Goldman said. “His whole approach, creating self-dependence as opposed to government dependencies . . . is also a fundamental value.” 

Lisa Spies, a prominent Jewish Republican fundraiser, said conservative Jewish donors have been heartened not only by the president’s policies but by the public display of faith by Ivanka Trump. 

“It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m Jewish,’ ” Spies said. “It’s another thing for his daughter to actually go to services on a somewhat regular basis and that being public. . . . They bought a home within walking distance so they can walk on Sabbath to services. People respect that.”

But President Trump’s rhetoric has driven some Republican Jewish donors away from the party.

Leslie Wexner, a founder of a retail merchandising brand, and hedge fund manager Seth Klarman, both longtime Republican donors, announced last month that they were cutting ties with the GOP because of Trump. 

Wexner, a Trump critic who had supported former Florida governor Jeb Bush in the Republican primaries, said last month that he was now a political independent. The chief executive of L Brands said he felt “dirty” and “ashamed” after Trump’s Charlottesville remarks, according to the Columbus Dispatch. 

“I just decided I’m no longer a Republican,” he said at a September event in Ohio, the newspaper reported, adding, “I won’t support this nonsense in the Republican Party.”

Klarman, chief executive of the investment management firm Baupost Group, has pledged to spend as much as $20 million this election cycle to support Democrats and has given the maximum allowed contribution to the Democratic National Committee.

Formerly the biggest donor to the GOP in New England, Klarman said he wants to help Democrats regain a majority in both chambers of Congress so that they can be “a check on Donald Trump and his runaway presidency.” 

Scott Clement contributed to this report.