Given the scope of the tragedy in Pittsburgh this past weekend, Israel sending the Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett to represent the country at a mass vigil was an odd choice.
Here we have the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the 242-year history of the United States, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the self-proclaimed leader of the Jewish people, doesn’t come to comfort American Jews himself?
Just for perspective, Netanyahu showed up in France within two days of the ISIS-claimed attack on the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris, which left four Jews dead in January 2015. Bennett joined him for that trip, where they attended a mass rally in Paris.
Moreover, the actions and words of the prime minister and his government in the two cases speak volumes about the narrative they want to spin out of these tragedies.
After Paris, Netanyahu lost no time in lecturing to European Jews about the imminent danger they were in and where they truly belonged.
"I wish to tell to all French and European Jews - Israel is your home," Netanyahu said a day after the attacks. "If the world doesn't come to its senses, terror will strike in other places as well." And after the attacks, he declared: "I went to Paris not just as the prime minister of Israel but as a representative of the entire Jewish people...to convey the Israeli position against those who want to kill us."
After Pittsburgh? A much more pareve message. "Israel stands at the forefront with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, with all Jewish communities in the U.S. and with the American people," Netanyahu said a day after 11 people were gunned down in a Conservative synagogue. "We stand together, at the forefront, against anti-Semitism and displays of such barbarity."
No calls on the U.S. Jewish community to learn its lesson like the French and move en masse to Israel. No declaration that he speaks in their name.
At a community meeting in Paris after the attack, Netanyahu stated: "Radical Islam… is the enemy of the world," and went on to enumerate the jihadist groups from Hezbollah to Hamas, Al-Qaeda to ISIS, as critical terror groups.
His government pressured the families of the four victims to bury them in Jerusalem. At the funeral, Netanyahu had fiery words for the allies of the Muslim perpetrators. "The time has come for all civilized people to unite and uproot these enemies from our midst," he declared.
After Pittsburgh? Not a single word about uprooting white nationalism. No enumeration of the anti-Semitic far-right groups, the neo-Nazis and the white supremacists threatening Jews in America and around the world.
So, why didn’t Netanyahu come to America in solidarity with the Jewish people, why didn’t he urge them to move to Israel and why didn’t he call for a united war against violent white nationalism?
In a word, politics - of a particularly unsavory kind.
If Netanyahu were to make the significant symbolic gesture of traveling to the U.S. to join the mourning there, he would send a message that Jews are as unsafe under U.S. President Donald Trump as he indicated they were in Europe.
He would have to face the inconvenient truth that Trump’s xenophobic, anti-refugee rhetoric was part of the backdrop of the attack.
He would be reinforcing the narrative that Trump has emboldened the anti-Semites in his base, whom the president refuses to repudiate.
If Netanyahu were to declare war against pro-Trump white nationalists, he would be putting his friend in the White House in a very uncomfortable position. And Netanyahu's primary loyalty is to Trump, not U.S. Jews, many of whom are highly critical of him.
Speaking of American Jews, Netanyahu has little to gain from a solidarity trip with them.
He has already created tensions with the U.S. non-Orthodox community over his backtracking on the Western Wall plaza agreement. Just last week, he miffed Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders by forming a backchannel with lower-tier rabbis to undermine them. Furthermore, he has disturbed American Jews with his xenophobic attitude toward Israel's African asylum seekers. This is hardly the time to show his face to these people.
He also knows that calling for mass immigration from the United States is a non-starter with American Jewry. It was upsetting enough for French Jews when they heard him lecture about where they should live. Moreover, calling on them to immigrate out of safety concerns undermines the narrative of a safer America under Trump – see above.
Finally, let’s face it – white nationalist Christians just don’t interest Netanyahu the way Islamists do. Islamists threaten Israel, while white nationalists vote for Republicans in the United States and various pro-Israel parties abroad. Why would Netanyahu call attention to this?
So, he sent Bennett to console the mourners, which is almost a cruel joke for American Jewry. Just last week, Bennett snubbed the largest annual U.S. Jewish get-together, after AIPAC – the General Assembly of Jewish Federations. Had he bothered to make the 45-minute journey, he could have said at the vigil in Pittsburgh on Sunday night something along the lines of, "Last week we were celebrating Jewish solidarity, today we mourn together."
Instead, he tried to distract them from his insulting gesture by equating white racists who fire guns at Jewish worshippers to Palestinian militants who fire rockets at Israel.
And back in Israel, Pittsburgh doesn’t get a single mention on the hourly bulletins on state-run Israeli radio, less than 48 hours after the attack. It has been overtaken by the crash of an Indonesian plane, disrupted service on the Jerusalem train and El Al pilots.
Sadly, Israel won't take any real action in the wake of Pittsburgh beyond the formal declarations of solidarity.
But Pittsburgh may end up being the key symbolic watershed when U.S. Jews saw, clearly, that in the face of terror from the anti-Semitic far right, rather than from Muslim extremists, Israel's head of government preferred to look away.
Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz and adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University’s International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. Twitter: @stevekhaaretz
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