Did Israelis err in backing Trump after Pittsburgh?


For those who have spent recent years lamenting the growing disconnect between Israel and the Diaspora, the days after the Pittsburgh shooting provided more proof of their claims. Some Americans believe that Israelis and their leaders — particularly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — don’t understand the feelings, concerns or fears of American Jews.

Until now, that dispute has for the most part rested on disagreements about the peace process and religious pluralism in Israel. But in the wake of the horrific 11 deaths of Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh, a separate argument may have become the biggest bone of contention between the two communities: President Donald Trump.

The vast majority of American Jews are loyal Democrats and political liberals, and would oppose any Republican. But Trump’s populism and incendiary rhetoric, which flouts both the normal conventions of leadership, put him beyond the pale for liberals.

Most importantly, they think his focus on illegal immigration fans the flames of hatred. They believe that his inconsistent stands about the far-right — principally, his equivocal reaction to last year’s neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va. — has emboldened extremists, and directly or indirectly led to the slaughter at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

As former Anti-Defamation League executive director Abe Foxman said last week, Trump is “not an anti-Semite,” but he is “a part of the problem.” That led Bret Stephens, the conservative New York Times columnist, to conclude that the throngs of GOP voters who cheer for the president at his rallies may be different from the alt-right extremists who plot and carry out violence, but “not altogether different.”

Stephens sees the relationship between the Trump-led Republican Party and murderers like Robert Bowers as analogous to the one between political activists of the Muslim Brotherhood and the terrorists of Al Qaeda. In his words, “the former generally committed to working within the political system, the latter to destroying it, yet both profoundly hostile to the values animating open societies.”

If that’s how you see Trump and his supporters, then it’s no wonder that Stephens concluded by writing, “The blood that flowed in Pittsburgh is on his [Trump’s] hands also.”

Trump may be guilty of coarsening the tone of American discourse, and extremists may applaud his open hostility to illegal immigration and foreign threats. But the willingness of a usually sober writer like Stephens to characterize so many law-abiding Americans who — whatever your political or social differences — don’t deserve to be peremptorily dismissed, as racists and foes of American liberty, says a lot about polarization in our society.

Yet outrageous as those assertions might be, a significant number of American Jews probably agree.

When Israel’s government indicated that their attitude towards Trump had not changed, the reaction was predictable. The sight of Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer at Trump’s side when he made a condolence call at the site of the massacre outraged many of the president’s detractors. Dermer’s presence led Haaretz correspondent Alison Kaplan Sommer to claim it was something “American Jews may never forgive.”

Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett, who went to Pittsburgh to attend some of the victims’ funerals, later told the Council on Foreign Relations that he did not think there was a link between the president’s rhetoric and Pittsburgh. He also dismissed analogies between Trump’s America and Weimar Republic Germany.

Sommer quoted with approval the response from Edward Bleier, an 86-year-old American Jewish philanthropist who claimed Trump’s behavior and his use of the “America First” slogan to describe his foreign policy did remind him of Nazis. Henry Siegman, a bitter critic of Israel, told Bennett to his face that he had no right to tell American Jews what to think about Trump.

The gap between Israeli opinion and that of American Jews on Trump was highlighted by an American Jewish Committee survey published in June. Israelis view the president solely through the prism of his support for them. American Jews who are not single-issue voters on Israel regard other issues as more important.

There is an argument to be made for Israelis, who resent Diaspora Jews telling them what to do, to be as reticent about giving advice to Americans.

Yet those who criticized Netanyahu for his willingness to quarrel with President Barack Obama are in no position to declare his support for a friendlier president to be foolish. For Israel to dump Trump as he tried to stand with an afflicted American Jewish community and with the Jewish state makes no sense.

Israeli attitudes towards American Jews on issues like pluralism are often tone-deaf and self-defeating. But in this case, distance gives them the luxury of perspective that those immersed in hyper-partisan battles have lost.

Any act of anti-Semitic violence, especially one as horrific as Pittsburgh, is one too many. But claims of a Trump-fueled surge in anti-Semitism are simply false. Whatever you may think of Trump, he is not a harbinger of a new Third Reich, and America remains a place where Jews are accepted as they have never been anywhere else in the history of the Diaspora.

Anyone who witnessed, as I did, so many non-Jewish Americans showing up in synagogues this past Shabbat to show their solidarity can’t really believe that Jews are isolated, or that the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens aren’t as appalled by Pittsburgh as they were.

Israelis may not know much about American Jews, but they aren’t wrong to regard Trump hysteria, as opposed to reasoned opposition, with dismay. It may take an outsider to understand that analogies to Nazis or the Muslim Brotherhood — let alone talk about him having blood on his hands — shouldn’t be allowed to intrude into the discussion about anti-Semitism.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.