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The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Definition of Anti-Semitism

Israel's response to the hate crime in Pittsburgh shows how anti-semitism is redefined.

President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during their joint press conference, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Benjamin Applebaum)

After the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, there is disagreement about the extent of Trump's responsibility. Although the white supremacist echoed the President's recent rhetoric, Israel's government is unwavering in its support for Trump and don't hold him accountable. Is Trump responsible? I asked this question to the Rabbi at my local Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn.

On the Shabbat of October 27, 2018, a white supremacist opened fire inside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 elderly Jewish people. Before committing this hateful massacre, he posted:“I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Not only is his post terrifying and filled with hatred for the Jewish people, but it also reveals the rationale for the attack, and essentially, is his manifesto.

“In fact, such events are connected with one another and motivated by a coherent political ideology.” – Kathleen Below

The shooter believed in the conspiracy that Jews were trying to take over the country and destroy white people by letting in immigrants. His ideas and actions did not spontaneously appear but are key components of the white power movement’s coherent worldview. According to Kathleen Below of The Daily Beast, “[The white power movement] understood the stakes of this conspiracy as tantamount to racial annihilation: that is to say, they believed that social issues like immigration, abortion, LGBT rights, and more were thinly veiled attempts of a Jewish conspiracy to threaten the future of the white race.” The shooter thought that Jewish people were an existential threat to him and his white race, and sensed an urgent threat which must be confronted. No matter how it looks (“Fuck your optics”), the time to attack was now (“I’m going in”).

The shooter’s earlier posts are clear; Trump’s fear-mongering about an immediate threat of a violent “caravan,” which he invented for political gain ahead of the election, created the sense of urgency in the white supremacist and pushed him to act. The greatest fears of his white power worldview were not only legitimized by the 45th President of the United States but appeared to be manifest in the Tree of Life Synagogue. His posts about incoming invaders refer explicitly to Trump’s invented border crisis, as well as his accusation that Jews are orchestrating and helping the transport of those migrants, like Trump’s recent rhetoric about the “caravan” being funded by globalists (Jews) like George Soros. As a result, the shooter took aim at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization which helps settle refugees in the U.S., by posting “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people.” Both the conditions and motivations for the attack revealed in the shooter’s posts were created and legitimized by Trump, with exception of the sole criticism that he wasn’t anti-Semitic enough.

So is Trump responsible? I asked this question to the Rabbi at my local Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn. He insisted there is “no connection,” and that the men who conduct these attacks are insane. Therefore, it is unfair to blame Trump, who is an important and good friend to Israel. When pushed to think about the similarities in rhetoric and beliefs between the white supremacist and the President, he said that we must protect our border and cannot let everyone in. Anti-semites do and think these things on their own. His words echoed that of Minister of Education of Israel, Naftali Bennett, who defended Trump agaisnt accusations of anti-semitism and responsibility for the attack.

Despite the overwhelming support for Trump amongst Orthodox Jews, one would think that the evident connections between him and the attacker were so apparent that one could not ignore the President’s influence and responsibility in enabling the massacre. However, in thinking this, one fails to remember that today, for the state of Israel and most Jewish people, ultimately what determines if someone is anti-Semitic is their stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict. If someone supports Israel’s occupation of Palestine, both fiscally and in their rhetoric, then their anti-semitism is ignored. For the friendship with Israel makes one immune to charges of anti-semitism, even in the case of enabling a massacre. While the opposite extreme exists for those who oppose or critique Israel, claiming one is an anti-semite for questioning the state’s human rights violation. This is done to shut down conversation and silence critical voices. Even Jews themselves aren’t immune to this charge and are labeled self-hating-jews if they critique Israel.

Regardless of one’s position on actual Jewish lives or their similarities to historic anti-Semitic movements, the sole determinant of one’s anti-semitism is their stance on Israel. This is troubling because it equates critiquing the Israeli government with hating Jewish people, especially when Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, is happy about the election of Brazil’s new tyrant. A man who shares many of the beliefs and strivings with the white power movement.

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