August 18, 2019

Pittsburgh Should Unite Us, Not Divide Us

Mourners react during a memorial service at the Sailors and Soldiers Memorial Hall of the University of Pittsburgh, a day after 11 worshippers were shot dead at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 28, 2018. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

There may be many reasons to target President Donald Trump, but those who are blaming him for the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue last Saturday are only accentuating the deep divisions within our community. 

I realize that with the midterm elections around the corner, it’s tempting to double down and simply blame Trump for anything bad that happens in America. But before rushing to politicize the horror in Pittsburgh, it would behoove us to slow down a little.

Anti-Semitism transcends politics.  

First, the vile anti-Semite who murdered 11 Jews, Robert Bowers, didn’t just hate Jews—he also hated Trump. As Kelly Weill writes in the Daily Beast, he “raged at Donald Trump for being insufficiently anti-Semitic.”

Bowers, Weill writes, was “among a set of neo-Nazis who criticized President Donald Trump for being, as they saw it, not biased enough toward Jews.” When Bowers wrote on Gab, “There is no #MAGA as long as there is a kike infestation,” he was surely aware that Trump is surrounded by Jews, including his Jewish grandchildren, and has embraced his daughter’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism.

Bowers would certainly recoil at the president’s statement on the day of the massacre that “Anti-semitism represents one of the ugliest and darkest features of human history. Anti-semitism must be condemned anywhere and everywhere. There must be no tolerance for it.”

So, if we’re going to speculate about what triggered this murderer, let’s include the fact that President Trump was too pro-Jewish to nourish this Nazi’s appetite for Jew-hatred. Of course, if it’s Jew-hatred this killer is looking for, he can find just as much on the Farrakhan left as on the nationalist right.

Second, we know one thing that did trigger Bowers— Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the venerable Jewish nonprofit that aids Jewish and non-Jewish refugees. Two hours before his rampage, Bowers posted on Gab: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”

I get that Trump has used harsh and divisive rhetoric, but does that mean he’s responsible for this bigot’s rage at HIAS and his DNA-level rage at immigrants?

My point is not to defend Trump but to argue that we’re missing the bigger picture. Choosing the murder of 11 Jews in a synagogue as yet another opportunity to target Trump distracts from the evil act itself. It makes it about politics, not human hatred. It keeps us all in partisan-fighting mode.

I’d be saying the same thing if a far-left, anti-Zionist Jew-hater had committed this atrocity. I’d be imploring the Right not to exploit the tragedy to bash the anti-Zionist Left. I’m not naïve. I know that virtually everything these days has become political.

But if there were ever a cause that merits putting our political differences aside, how can it not be fighting anti-Semitism?

As ADL leader Jonathan Greenblatt wrote in the New York Times on Sunday, “People of all faiths and ideologies must speak out clearly and forcefully against anti-Semitism, scapegoating and bigotry in our society.”

To put it more bluntly, should we focus our energies against Trump or against Jew-haters? Greenblatt’s predecessor, Abe Foxman, agrees that Trump “needs to change the rhetoric he uses to explain his policies,” but, as he said on JPost, “Trump is part of the problem but not the problem. We have to make him not the problem because we don’t want to politicize anti-Semitism, which is a disease of both the Left and the Right.”

How useful was it for Jewish Trump critics in Pittsburgh to release a statement saying, “President Trump, you are not welcome in Pittsburgh…” followed by a series of demands? Even if those demands are the height of morality, it’s embarrassing to use a moment of public grieving to target a president.    

Our community pays a heavy price when we allow our political ideologies to get in the way of the great Jewish imperative of our time. Instead of uniting to fight a common foe, we are digging in and turning on each other.

Instead of discussing strategies to anticipate and fight Jew-hatred of all kinds, we’re fighting over which political side is more responsible.

If we’re serious about honoring the lost souls of the Tree of Life, we must transcend our obsession with politics and unite around the ultimate Jewish cause of fighting anti-Semitism. If we fail to do that, the only ones who will celebrate will be the anti-Semites– both right and left.