Politics & Policy

Politicizing Mass Murder at a Synagogue Misses the Point

Signs at a march in memory of the victims of the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., October 30, 2018. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)
Blaming Trump for Pittsburgh is easier than facing the truth about anti-Semitism.

When President Donald Trump went to Pittsburgh on Tuesday to offer condolences at the site of the massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation, many in the city and in the Jewish community rejected the gesture. As far as the thousands who turned out to protest his visit to the synagogue as well as to some of the mourners of the eleven congregants, Trump wasn’t merely unwelcome but was at least partially responsible for the attack.

While not every one of Trump’s critics went as far as to call Trump an anti-Semite, those attacks reflected what appeared to be the conventional wisdom about the shooting in much of the mainstream media since the slaughter that disrupted a Sabbath service. From the moment that the news broke about the attack, there has been more discussion about Trump’s role in supposedly fomenting the bloodiest attack on Jews in American history than about Robert Bowers, the radical right-wing shooter. Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about illegal immigrants as well as his equivocal remarks about last year’s racist march in Charlottesville, Va., were depicted as giving a green light to Bowers, making the president an enabler of anti-Semitic violence.

So although Tree of Life’s Rabbi Jeffrey Myers welcomed the president, it was not surprising that many in Pittsburgh and the overwhelmingly liberal Jewish community did not. Nor did local elected officials choose to join Trump’s appearance, in which his Jewish daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka and Jared Kushner, and Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, also took part. Indeed, Pittsburgh’s mayor and Bend the Arc, a group of left-wing Jews, demanded that he not come to the city.

Yet the problem here was not just that accusations that Trump is guilty of or indifferent to anti-Semitism are clearly false. The attempt to shift the blame for the attack onto the president may be politically motivated. But it also reflects a more instinctual desire on the part of many Americans to put the horror of the massacre into a context that is easier to understand than one that is rooted in age-old myths about Jews more than in contemporary politics.

That Trump is guilty of coarsening the tone of American politics is not in question. His outrageous attempt to conflate opposition to the removal of Confederate statues with support for neo-Nazis in Charlottesville lent weight to the charges that he has pandered to alt-right racists. It’s also true that his willingness to engage in demagoguery about illegal immigration provided ammunition to his critics in this instance. He didn’t merely state his determination to foil the attempt of those in a Honduran caravan to enter the country and claim asylum. He depicted the caravan as an “invasion” of criminals and potential terrorists, enabling opponents to connect him to Bowers, who apparently chose to attack Tree of Life because of its support for HIAS, a Jewish group that aids refugees and immigrants.

But even if Trump has done little to calm the waters and often acts as if he believes it is in his political interest to keep the pot boiling, the widely accepted notion that he has set in motion a wave of anti-Semitism since his election has little basis in fact. Whatever his other faults might be, Trump is no anti-Semite. Even if one dismisses his embrace of his Jewish family members, he has arguably been the most pro-Israel president in history. His administration is not only staffed by many Jews — a point that earned him the enmity of Bowers — his Department of Education has taken on the issue of anti-Semitism on college campuses, a cause that President Obama pointedly refused to pursue.

The chief piece of evidence for the assertion that he has emboldened anti-Semites is the claim by the Anti-Defamation League that anti-Semitic attacks rose sharply in 2017. In its annual audit of anti-Semitism, released last February, the ADL stated that there was a 57 percent increase in such incidents. But those numbers were inflated by the inclusion of 163 bomb threats, to Jewish community centers and other institutions, that the ADL assumed at the time were the work of right-wing extremists encouraged by Trump. The perpetrator turned out to be a deranged Israeli teenager, but the ADL left those incidents in its survey. The vast majority of the incidents reported by the audit were cases of vandalism, in which the motivation isn’t always clear.

More to the point, the number of violent acts against Jews fell in 2017, from 37 to 19, although the ADL and Trump critics hyped the report as documenting that attacks have increased. Indeed, what happened in Pittsburgh is far from the first shooting attack on a Jewish target, but previous incidents were blamed on the assailants, not national leaders.

Of course, any kind of anti-Semitic attack is troubling and should be deplored no matter how often it occurs, but to treat a total of fewer than 2,000 incidents, in a country of 325 million people, as an epidemic of hate is, at best, hyperbole. At worst, it is a politically motivated exaggeration. When one considers that Jonathan Greenblatt, the new head of the ADL, is a former staffer in the Clinton and Obama administrations and has adopted a partisan tone against Trump, the hyping of these statistics as evidence of Trump’s culpability becomes more understandable.

Equally bogus has been the allegation that attacks on liberal megadonor George Soros by Trump and other Republicans is evidence of anti-Semitism. For his foundation’s advocacy of democracy and free speech, the government of Hungary has attacked Soros in terms that are redolent of anti-Semitic rhetoric. But in an American political context, Soros is, like fellow billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, just another sugar daddy for GOP opponents. Claims that Soros is a puppeteer pulling the strings of left-wing politicians are no different from Democratic attempts to demonize the Koch brothers or other Republican donors.

The same is true of accusations that the use of terms such as “globalist” to describe critics of Trump’s trade policies, or to describe his embrace of the term “nationalist,” is a dog whistle to anti-Semites. Whatever those words might have meant in other contexts, in America in 2018 they don’t mean the same thing as they might have in other times and places where they might have betokened a tilt toward the far right.

Nor is it fair to conflate Bowers’s hate crime with the belief that those in a Honduran caravan heading through Mexico to the U.S. border should not be granted asylum. Whatever the motivations of the murderer might have been, the effort to delegitimize and brand as racist any arguments in favor of enforcing immigration laws or against amnesty for illegals already here is about partisan politics, not fighting hate.

That much of the anti-Semitic agitation in the country is either related to the efforts of critics of Israel to demonize the Jewish state or to the work of the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan also undermines the narrative about Trump. But the principal fallacy behind the Left’s attempt to weaponize anti-Semitism to aid the anti-Trump “resistance” is the failure to understand that Bowers’s assault was the product of traditional anti-Semitic themes and myths that long predate the Trump era.

As scholar Ruth Wisse has noted, anti-Semitism was the most successful ideology of the 20th century, being a virus that morphed from fascism to Nazism to Communism and then Islamism. This trend has continued in the 21st century, with the persistence of traditional right-wing Jew hatred along with a rising tide of anti-Semitism that has swept across Europe and then to American college campuses, where it operates largely under the false flag of anti-Zionism and support for boycotts of Israel. That trend has nothing to do with Trump and everything to do with the fact that Jews remain a convenient scapegoat for extremists of all political and religious stripes.

There is much to lament in our current political culture. But what happened in Pittsburgh is a product of a deeper malady for which no contemporary political cure is evident. A world in which we can neatly place the blame for Pittsburgh on a political foe whom liberals already despise is less frightening than a more complex reality. Trump is a friend of the Jews and Israel as well as a symptom of a destructive political trend that has helped loosen the bonds of community in a way that has fueled polarization. But he is not responsible for the actions of an unhinged extremist acting in the same manner as such people have done many times before.

If we acknowledge that despite his flaws Trump is neither an anti-Semite nor the reason for anti-Semitic violence either here or elsewhere, then we are forced to confront the same frustrating truth about this virus that previous generations struggled with. It’s easy to see why putting this in a political context is more comforting, but those who do so are engaged in a futile search for meaning in anti-Semitic hate crimes. That can do nothing to help us understand what happened in Pittsburgh.

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