The murderous assault on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh is a watershed event in American-Jewish history. Several Jewish temples and community centers have been attacked in recent years, but none so violently or with so many Jewish casualties. The “tree of life,” mentioned in the kabbala, which gave the Squirrel Hill synagogue its name, turned on Saturday into a valley of death.
The enormity of the atrocity is bound to shock American Jewry as a whole. It will erase the sense of security – which many will now dub complacency – that has distinguished the Jewish communities of North America from the besieged Jewish communities of Europe. It will turn the warnings of watchdog groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, about the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the United States in the Trump era, to a clear and present danger.
Their illusion that “this can’t happen here” has been shattered. American Jews will wake up the next day to a new and far more frightening future, knowing not only that it has happened here, but that the attack could portend similar assaults in the future.
Like all mass shootings, which occur in the United States with mind-boggling frequency, the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue is bound to spur yet another round of bitter debate between those who will ascribe it to the lack of proper gun control and those who propose, like President Donald Trump, an antidote including the proliferation of guns in the name of self-defense.
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When Trump said Saturday that the attack in Pittsburgh might not have been as bloody if the synagogue had hired armed guards, he was essentially blaming the Jewish victims for their own death; proving, in the process, how detached he is from the sentiments of the liberal Jewish majority, which abhors the unflinching Republican support for guns and their owners.
Trump’s insensitive assertion proved to anyone who still harbored doubt that he is eminently unqualified to reassure liberal Jews in their hour of darkness. Even if the suspected killer, Robert Bowers, was disappointed with what he perceived as Trump’s failure to safeguard white supremacy, the president’s critics will draw a direct line between the attack and the president’s consistent incitement against immigrants – who, in the killer's eyes, are backed by Jews and their representatives.
Trump’s opponents, who presumably include most of the Tree of Life congregation, will see Bowers' rampage as a direct consequence of the implicit encouragement that Trump gives to far-right racist movements –most memorably when he depicted them as “fine people” in the wake of the deadly August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
In this regard, the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue is likely to be intertwined with the dozen or more pipe bombs dispatched to the liberal opponents that Trump has maligned, including former President Barack Obama and Trump’s 2016 Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Unlike Bowers, Cesar Sayoc – the suspected perpetrator of the bombing attempts who was arrested late last week – was a Trump groupie. Still, both fed off the fear, loathing and hatred for foreigners that have flourished in the Trump era as a direct result of his conduct and statements.
In the immediate maelstrom of emotion, it’s hard to project how the letter bombs and synagogue attack will influence the upcoming congressional elections.
The reflex effort by Trump and GOP leaders to disown the perpetrators of both crimes should be familiar to Israelis who witnessed the similar campaign by the Israeli right to shirk off responsibility for the hate-filled atmosphere that incited Yigal Amir to assassinate Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
GOP and conservative pundits say Sayoc is a deranged criminal while Bowers is a Trump-hating Nazi lowlife. Trump’s GOP base will be easily persuaded that Democrats are inflating the incidents for political gain, but for many Americans Trump’s complicity is now proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
And if the support of their own foul-mouthed, race-baiting president wasn’t enough of a burden, the hypocritical expressions of support emanating from Jerusalem – welcome as they may be – add insult to the American-Jewish injury.
Most American Jews abhorred Netanyahu’s overenthusiastic adulation of Trump from the outset. Naftali Bennett, who, as Diaspora affairs minister, quickly announced his trip to the scene of the crime, represents a government and a party that dispute the legitimacy of the Reform and Conservative movements, to which the majority of practicing American Jews adhere. It takes an attack perceived as terror for the Israeli government to embrace American Jewry. Suddenly, the Jewish people are one.
But contrary to the Pavlovian Israeli reaction to terror, the Jews in Pittsburgh were not attacked because of their sympathy for Israel. They weren’t murdered just because they were Jews.
Bowers made clear on social media that he identifies the Jews with HIAS, the refugee-relief organization. Once known for aiding Jewish immigrants from Russia to the United States and then for assisting Jewish refugees after the Holocaust, HIAS has recently stood on the front lines of the campaign for refugees from the civil war in Syria, who, in Bower’s demented mind, are about to erase the white race of America. In Israel, HIAS has been a vocal critic of the Netanyahu government’s policies toward African refugees.
So, in their time of need and despair, American Jews in general, and Pittsburgh’s in particular, are condemned to being comforted by a president whose rhetoric and conduct appalls them and consoled by an Israeli government that rejects them and their values. In their eyes, and in the eyes of the world, the worldviews of both are closer to those of their Nazi assailant than to the values of the Jews who were murdered in cold blood in their sacred house of prayer.