Analysis

For Trump and Netanyahu, San Diego Synagogue Attack Is an Inconvenience Best Sidelined and Ignored

Unlike liberal Jews after Pittsburgh, Chabad won’t accuse the U.S. President of complicity or the Israeli prime minister of collaboration

A candlelight vigil is held at Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church for victims of the shooting incident at the synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego, California, U.S. April 27, 2019.
\ JOHN GASTALDO/ REUTERS

1. The attack on Chabad of Poway near San Diego is being described as a “hate crime” but may leave its mark on history as an act of terrorism.

With the exception of the tragic death of Lori Gilbert Kaye, who went to shul to say kaddish for her mother, John Earnest’s murderous attack did not yield the casualty count usually associated with terrorism - but his brief shooting spree nonetheless strikes fear and apprehensions in the hearts of American Jews and beyond.

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The shooting assault dashed hopes – or perhaps illusions - that Pittsburgh would never be repeated. It marked all synagogues, regardless of their orthodoxy, as potential targets. It will force hitherto free and open houses of worship to beef up security measures, thus confirming their risky status.

Their Jewish congregants will hopefully keep on attending, but only after thinking twice, for the first time in their lives, about their safety.

A San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputy secures the scene of a shooting incident at the Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego, California, U.S. April 27, 2019.
\ JOHN GASTALDO/ REUTERS
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One miserable racist armed with an AR-type assault weapon will have stirred a gnawing fear that constitutes a direct threat to one of the most vital organs of the American Jewish community. The Poway attack impinges on every Jew’s right to worship and, as a result, compromises the communal campfires of American Jewry as well.

It is, by all classical definitions, an act of terrorism. According to 18 U.S. Code § 2331, domestic terrorism “involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State... and appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.” Whatever Earnest’s intentions, the Poway atrocity could certainly “intimidate” many American Jews.

2. If the perpetrator had been a Muslim, the Poway murder would have been quickly and automatically dubbed “terrorism”. In 2019 America, however, just as many people have trouble defining a White Christian as a terrorist as many Israeli Jews have when confronted with terror acts perpetrated by members of their own religion.

And for the leaders of both countries, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, terrorism that imbibes its hatred from white supremacism rather than radical Jihadism is an inconvenience that mars their overarching narrative. They will pay their respects, say the right things, and try to put Poway behind them.

A candlelight vigil is held at Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church for victims of the shooting incident at the synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego, California, U.S. April 27, 2019.
\ JOHN GASTALDO/ REUTERS

3. Their task will be made easier, first and foremost, by the cold reality of the casualty count. If Earnest had been more courageous and possibly more enterprising, the attack on Chabad of Poway might have resulted in a death toll similar to or even higher than the one incurred in the October, 2018 attack on the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh.

Human nature and the public’s attention span being what they are, the single death and handful of wounded in San Diego will limit public outrage and ease Trump and Netanyahu’s efforts to move on.

4. It also makes a world of difference that the synagogue attacked in San Diego belongs to Chabad. Unlike much of the local membership of Tree of Life and the Jewish liberal leadership that identifies with the Pittsburgh temple, Chabad has no bones to pick with either Trump or Netanyahu, and that’s putting it mildly.

Conversely, Trump and Netanyahu – along with their mutual friend Vladimir Putin – are well disposed towards Chabad and will be extra careful not to tread on the worldwide movement’s toes.

Trump was thus prompt and effusive in expressing sympathy for the Poway victims and in condemning the anti-Semitic hatred that motivated the assailant. Not only did Earnest express hatred for “Trump the Zionist”, the U.S. President knows that Chabad, at least, won’t point out that less than 24 hours before the attack, Trump refused to back down from his controversial statement about “fine people in both camps” after the neo-Nazi riots in Charlottesville. This, despite the fact that many Americans, Jews and non-Jews, draw a direct line from Trump’s odious equation to Pittsburgh and now San Diego.

Netanyahu and his representatives, for their part, won’t feel the need to rush to the front line of Trump’s defense, as they did after Pittsburgh, which angered many American Jews.

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And they won’t be trying to prove, as they did after Pittsburgh, that American Jews face a far greater threat from radical Islam than they do from homegrown right-wing anti-Semitism; not only for fear of offending Chabad but also because the claim, spurious from the outset, sounds downright ludicrous in light of the empirical evidence to the contrary.

5. The relative restraint shown by Netanyahu and Trump won’t stop their minions and mouthpieces, however, from pointing fingers in every possible direction but their own. In the hours after the San Diego attack Twitter was already awash with absurd efforts to pin responsibility for the attack on the terrible female triad in Congress, Omar/Tlaib/Ocasio-Cortez, as well as the offensive New York Times caricature that showed Netanyahu as a dog leading a blind kippah-wearing Trump.

In fact, even though it was quickly retracted, the New York Times flub garnered far more angry rebukes than the cold-blooded murder of a Jewish worshipper in California. Israel’s Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan was quick to equate the caricature with “Nazi propaganda”. He was less forthright in blasting the real and far more lethal Nazi-wannabe in San Diego.

Thus, the bobbing and weaving, the posturing and the spinning, the indignant attacks and the disingenuous defenses all broke along expected political lines. Which is as clear an indication as any that in the wake of the second shooting attack against a Jewish synagogue in U.S. history, absolutely nothing will change. And that a third attack, with potentially far more devastating results, is virtually unavoidable.

6. Efforts to divert attention away from right-wing extremists to Islamic terrorism grate on the nerves of many American Jews anyway. In liberal communities across the U.S., the identification and sympathy expressed by local Muslim communities in the wake of Pittsburgh and now San Diego is a significant source of consolation. The feelings of solidarity with other minorities that feel threatened, including Muslims, is another symptom of the widening rift between American Jews and the Israeli government, as well as their own. 

Which only leaves the bulk of the American Jewish community feeling more isolated than ever before. They were already estranged from the Trump administration, increasingly frustrated by Israel’s own ethnocentric government and will now be forced to reconsider their place and sense of security in their own surroundings.

It was only a few years ago that American Jews were said to be living in a golden age of public acceptance and esteem. If those were the best of times for American Jews, San Diego is another omen that they could soon be facing their worst.