Over the last generation, mass shootings have become commonplace in the United States, including several in houses of worship. But they still have the capacity to evoke horror.
That is particular true with those at synagogues. The shooting at a Chabad House in Poway, California on the last day of Passover, like the even more deadly attack at a Pittsburgh synagogue last October, is particularly horrifying for American Jews.
Americans may worry about the still statistically small chance of their children being caught in a school shooting or of some other example of mad violence without it influencing their behavior or their political views.
But this kind of violent episode seems to make many members of the otherwise prosperous, accepted and secure American Jewish community feel as if they are living in an Eastern European shtetl bracing for the next pogrom. The notion that they are personally vulnerable to violent anti-Semitism is something that shakes many to their core.
This is important not only because of the tragedy itself, but also because U.S. Jews have been conducting a lively debate about which sort of Jew hatred is a greater threat.
Conservatives have argued that the expressions of anti-Semitism on the left - mostly focused, as has been the case in Europe - on Israel, have not only become more common, but also represents a wider and more influential constituency than the tiny number of adherents of hate groups on the right.
- The New York Times fuels more anti-Semitism than Trump and Republicans? That's bullshit
- After synagogue shooting, Poway Jewish community mourns: ‘We’re so afraid’
- Trump says white nationalism is not on the rise. Here are the facts
- When a white supremacist murdered Muslims, Jews were blamed. How did that happen?
But the mass following of a hatemonger like the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, the considerable influence of pro-BDS members of Congress - who also sometimes dabble in anti-Semitic tropes, like Ilhan Omar - or even the spectacle of an otherwise respectable institution like The New York Times publishing an anti-Semitic cartoon, as it did this week, pale in importance in the eyes of most Jews when compared to slaughter in a synagogue.
The act of a single armed extremist invoking the same language about Jews not "replacing" white Europeans (as the alleged Poway shooter appears to have done in an online screed) that was chanted at the August 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia is the sort of thing that profoundly affects most American Jews in a way that Omar’s anti-Semitic tweets fail to do. The far right’s ability to shake up the Jews may be out of proportion to their actual numbers and non-existent influence in the corridors of power.
But such incidents - like the Charlottesville rally, which scared the daylights out of American Jews because the torchlight rally held there seemed to be a replay of Nazi Germany - fits with traditional stereotypes about who it is Jews should fear most.
That is why the aftermath of the Poway shooting will - as almost everything does these days - lead to a discussion about Donald Trump.
It was telling that the reaction to the Poway shooting from the Anti-Defamation League not only correctly pointed out the persistence and virulence of anti-Semitism but also by made a not very subtle reference to the president. The statement by ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt condemning the shooting ended with a call for "people in position of authority, from elected officials to tech CEOs, need to stand united against hate and address it, not only after it happens, but by enforcing norms and standing for our shared values long before such a crime takes place."
The ADL has spent the last two and half years blaming Trump for what it argues is a surge in anti-Semitic incidents even when such arguments were proved false (as in the case of bomb threats that were made by a disturbed Israeli teenager) and damaged its credibility by sometimes engaging in blatant partisanship against the GOP.
But most Jews largely accept the group’s argument that Trump’s discarding of "norms" is fueling anti-Semitism in spite of the fact that the Poway shooter, like the one in Pittsburgh, despised Trump because of his support for Israel and friendship for the Jews.
Former Vice President Joe Biden had a larger audience in mind than the Jews when he invoked Trump’s controversial reaction to Charlottesville during the rollout of his 2020 presidential campaign. But his rallying cry that Trump’s statement about there being "very fine people on both sides" was indicative of a threat to the nation’s values particularly resonated with Jews.
Trump’s utterance conflated the debate over whether to take down Confederate statues - the controversy that was the cause of the Charlottesville rally - with the presence of neo-Nazis whom he subsequently condemned. His stubborn failure to clarify that statement - which is always his knee-jerk reaction to being scolded for inappropriate remarks - lent weight to the notion that he was "dog whistling" to racists and has allowed Democrats like Biden to tie him to hate groups.
Trump is arguably the most pro-Israel American president ever, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the Golan as Israeli, withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and attempts to hold the Palestinian Authority accountable for its subsidies for terrorists. His personal connections to Jews - including a daughter who is a convert and his Jewish grandchildren - also undermine the foolish claims that he is an anti-Semite.
But in the eyes of a Jewish community that is overwhelmingly liberal, arguments about Charlottesville from the ADL and Biden are more persuasive than anything Trump might do for Israel, let alone the evidence of growing hostility to Israel and pro-Israel Jews among the Democrats’ left-wing base.
Groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition are planning on redoubling their efforts to leverage his backing for Israel and the Democrats' shift to the left into more Jewish votes for Trump next year.
But instances of right-wing violence like the Poway shooting demonstrate that such efforts are likely to fail, no matter how much Trump condemns it, or how flimsy arguments about the alleged connection between the president’s comments and anti-Semitism might be.
Most American Jews aren’t afraid of Ilhan Omar or Hamas. But they still fear Trump, as much as they fear far-right shooters.