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Why American And Israeli Jews View Pittsburgh So Differently

Reactions to the terrible shooting in Pittsburgh have revealed the deepening rift between American and Israeli Jews. As an American who is also a recent immigrant to Israel, I find myself in an awkward position.

The murderer in Pittsburgh did not just make anti-Semitic pronouncements, but specifically acted because of the activities of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and because of American Jewish support for immigration. The Jews needed to be murdered, according to his ideology, because not only are they not welcome here — they are also trying to help bring in others who are not welcome here.

In the United States, Jews are a minority that was initially viewed as “the other” and only gradually became part of the American “us.” The experience of Israeli Jews is the opposite: We are the majority group, with hegemony over power and culture.

This is why the politics of this tragedy, both in the United States and in Israel, are so fraught with issues of identity, xenophobia and multiculturalism. For so many U.S. Jews, myself included, the rhetoric of President Trump and others on the right is one which enflames hatred against immigrants and anyone labeled as “the other.” Trump’s platitudes condemning anti-Semitism not only failed to comfort us, but are downright offensive.

My great-grandparents were immigrants and my grandparents faced institutional anti-Semitism which barred them from professional opportunities and social organizations. But my generation of American Jews grew up with anti-Semitism largely as a collective memory rather than lived experience.

Yet clearly there are still those who view us as a dangerous “other” that needs to be stamped out. American anti-Semitism, according to the ADL, has increased in recent years and does not exist in a vacuum. It is part and parcel of a greater xenophobic, white nationalist ideology which seeks to define who is a part of “us” and therefore welcome in our society, and who is “them” and thus unwelcome.

The hatred which motivated the attack in Pittsburgh was fueled by this rhetoric. Trump did not need to say something clearly anti-Semitic to help incite this attack. By supporting conspiracy theories which link George Soros and other wealthy Jews to waves of illegal immigration, he has made the connection in the same way as the person who pulled the trigger. Jews support immigrants, and neither group is welcome in our society.

In Israel, the script of Jews seeking to be accepted into the majority culture is flipped. Israeli Jews have faced even more violent anti-Semitism than American Jews, but it is part of a nationalist struggle rather than a question of immigration, assimilation and multiculturalism.

Sadly, as Jews in the U.S. are being reminded that they are not yet completely welcome, too many Jews in Israel are busy reminding minority groups that they are not welcome, either. The recently passed Nation State Law accomplishes little other than sending a message to Israel’s minority populations that they are part of the “them” and are not to think of themselves as part of “us.”

The treatment of African refugees in Israel also demonstrates how easily some Israeli Jews can ignore our history and our tradition’s focus on the welcoming of the stranger.

The ways in which inclusion and exclusion play out in the Jewish communities in Israel and the U.S. create a rift after the most recent tragedy. The highest-ranking Israeli official to visit Pittsburgh has been Naftali Bennett, Minister of Education and of Diaspora Affairs. Yet Bennett was a promoter of the Nation State Bill and helped dismantle a multi-national agreement to compassionately solve the African refugee crisis in Israel. He is one of the leading voices of racism and xenophobia in Israeli politics.

Trump, too, has visited Pittsburgh, despite continuing to encourage racism and xenophobia on the right, the very ideology that led to this tragedy.

My only hope is that reasonable Israelis and Americans can begin to bond together by rejecting xenophobia — both within their own and in each other’s governments and societies.

It begins by understanding the inner workings of each other’s societies and governments. American Jews need to know that Naftali Bennett is not a representative of Israel seeking to comfort American Jews: He is a representative of the racist elements of Israeli society which American Jews need to learn about and denounce. And Israeli Jews need to stop viewing Trump as a great supporter of Israel and recognize that this support is simply a divisive curtain which allows him to call himself a friend to the Jews on one side of the curtain while inciting the anti-Semites and racists on the other side.

I realized through my experience making aliyah this year that I am one of a precious few people that move to a new country out of choice. The vast majority of immigrants do so out of need, whether they are fleeing from violence or economic despair. If anything, it has given me even more admiration for those people who uproot their lives in one place and move to another in search of a better life for their children.

If it has been this hard for me, with all of my economic, educational and emotional resources, then I cannot imagine how hard it is for the family in Central America who makes the dangerous journey to the United States, or the young person from Africa who leaves everything and everyone they know for a chance at a better life in Israel or in Europe.

I am proud to be part of a tradition that emphasizes welcoming the stranger and compassion for the outsider. Yet my people were attacked in Pittsburgh because of these values and because of those who hate not only Jews, but anyone identified as the “other.”

The greatest rejection of this hatred, and a response which will honor the memories of those who perished, is to vote into power those leaders who uphold our Jewish values rather than trample upon them. If this is not a cause worthy of American and Israeli Jews coming together, then I do not know what is.


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