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Are the Jews Murdered in Pittsburgh 'Purer' Victims of anti-Semitism Than Israeli Jews Killed by Hamas?

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People gather under U.S. and Israeli flags projected on the walls of Jerusalem's old city on October 28, 2018, organized by the municipality to show solidarity with the Pittsburgh Jewish community
People gather under U.S. and Israeli flags projected on the walls of Jerusalem's old city on October 28, 2018, organized by the municipality to show solidarity with the Pittsburgh Jewish communityCredit: AFP

One question has been asked repeatedly on social media since the latest round of violence between Gaza and Israel is why American Jewry expressed so much pain about the attacks on Jews in Pittsburgh while it remains generally silent, bordering on oblivious, about the attacks on Jews perpetrated by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.  

After all, as those asking point out, far more Jews are and have been threatened with death and anti-Jewish hatred by the Palestinian Islamists and their bombs than by the lone anti-Semitic shooter in Pittsburgh.  As one such commentator seeking to equate the two explosions of violence put it: "In both cases, Jew haters have deliberately targeted innocent Jews for elimination."

Of course, it’s not about which answer is right; it’s the fact that we in America and you in Israel have different answers. Israelis have argued American Jews are hypocrites for caring about the Jews of Pittsburgh and not of Sderot. American Jews have a different set of answers.

Mourners gather outside Rodef Shalom Temple following the funeral of brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54 on October 30, 2018 in PittsburghCredit: AFP

There are, to be sure, the simplistic responses to this question.

The murders in Pittsburgh were unexpected and in many ways unprecedented, while the shooting from Gaza is part of a repeating pattern of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis; the actual number of Jews killed in Pittsburgh exceeded the number of Jewish fatalities in Israel during this latest outbreak; or, Jews in America have learned to feel safer there than anywhere else in the world, while Israeli Jews have for most of the state’s existence learned to expect violent and deadly attacks on civilians from their Arab adversaries.

So, the two situations are not at all the same.  Most people will probably be satisfied with these sorts of simple answers because the more complicated ones are, in many ways, more troubling.

What are the more troubling complicated answers?

One, of course, is implied in the question:  American Jews care more about themselves and their safety than they do about Israel and its Jews. 

Another suggests that Israel’s Jews are not innocent victims, as were the Jews at Shabbat prayers in the Pittsburgh synagogue. According to this view, Israelis have brought upon themselves the enmity of Palestinians by their state's occupation, triggering the loathing and continuing aggression against them, while the Pittsburgh Jews and their co-religionists have presumably been good neighbors in America. 

That is to say, anti-Semitic attacks in America are not a response to what their attackers perceive Jews as having done, but rather fueled by 'pure' conspiracist anti-Semitism: the false narrative that Jews by their nature are malefactors, and their institutions like HIAS have evil intentions; that Jews are secretly running the world; ad infinitum and ad absurdum - that the kosher certification of foods is really a stealthy kosher tax on everyone. 

Israelis take cover as rockets are fired from the Gaza Strip, in the southern Israeli town of Sderot on November 12, 2018Credit: AFP

In contrast, this argument suggests attacks from Gaza are the direct result of bad policy decisions by the Israeli government, and the latest – a botched military intelligence operation in Gaza meant to defend against attacks – is only one more example of Israeli-initiated actions that led to this outbreak of conflict. 

Finally, there are those in America and elsewhere who believe that a negotiated settlement between the Israeli government and the Palestinians – even the Islamists among them – that could lead to two states for two peoples would bring about an end to the conflict, the bombs and rockets, attacks and counter-attacks. 

On the other hand, the anti-Semitism that led to the Pittsburgh attack comes from an irrational hatred of Jews that our people have encountered throughout history and which is always there, a virus in history. This virus infected the U.S. at a minimal level for years until the Trump regime stopped inoculating America against it, and allowed - if not encouraged - Jewish, racial, and ethnic hatred to spread.

These more complicated answers, none of which is necessarily correct from everyone’s point of view, are troubling both to Israelis and to those in America who care about Israel and all Jews. That's not only because of their content, but also because they reflect another aspect of the growing divide between American Jews and Israel.

The fact that many American Jews see these answers to be true while Israelis may not simply reflects the gap that separates the two Jewish communities. This divide is no surprise, of course, to those who track the changing relations between Jews in America and Israelis.

President Donald Trump and Melania Trump walk into Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, with Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Ron Dermer and Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers. Oct. 30, 2018Credit: Andrew Harnik,AP

These have been deteriorating for a while, as Israelis and their political leaders have moved ever more strongly toward the right, aligning themselves with Republicans, conservative political groups, evangelicals, fundamentalists and Trump boosters, while the bulk of American Jews have remained in the liberal and progressive camp. Indeed, in the recent midterm elections 80% of Jews voted for Democrats, as they have done consistently. 

Only the American Orthodox Jews who share a right-wing politics, a conservative political outlook and an appreciation for Trump - like so many Israelis - still feel closest to Israel, and indeed were among those who asked the question with which I began this article.

What is perhaps most worrisome about this latest evidence of the truth of what we in sociology have called "the distancing hypothesis," the idea that the next generations of most of America’s Jews are growing increasingly distant from Israel compared to their elders, and care about it less and less, is that there always has been a caveat to that hypothesis, that many observers believed would act to mitigate the inevitability of that distancing. 

That exception was the belief that when enemies of the Jews attack us, from any quarter and for any reason, we all come together.  The assumption was that such attacks would make Jews all realize, wherever we lived, that we are one. 

The sure knowledge that unity in adversity was guaranteed has now been shown to be a myth. In the long run, that should make those who worry about the future of the Jewish people take notice, and start to think how we can find common cause that will diminish the growing distance that right now seems hard to heal.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York

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