Sunday November 4, 2018
Naftali Bennett speaks during a vigil, to remember the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018. Credit: Brendan Smialowski / AFP
One stunning encounter that took place during Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to the United States last week encapsulated the distance between Israeli officialdom and American Jews reeling after the worst attack on their community in the country’s history.
That moment came for Bennett during an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, after he winged his way to the United States to attend the funerals of the victims of the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.
After paying his respects, Bennett was quickly off to New York to make the rounds of the studios and conference rooms of major Jewish organizations to take full advantage of his unexpected trip to North America to raise his profile – after all, he makes no secret of his aspirations to the prime ministership.
From the moment he landed on U.S. soil, Bennett in his discussion with council members insistently defended President Donald Trump against accusations that the poisonous xenophobic tone and outlandish conspiracy theories he peddles bore any connection to the massacre in Pittsburgh. Bennett paired this with an equally problematic message that the threat of anti-Semitism in America was overblown.
“This is not in any sense Germany of the ’30s, it doesn’t resemble that in any possible way,” Bennett declared confidently, according to a report in the Jewish Insider.
He was confronted by 89-year-old Edward Bleier, a former Warner Bros. president, media pioneer and Jewish philanthropist who, disgusted by Bennett's obversation, gave him the schooling he badly needed. He noted that the Israeli minister is poorly educated when it comes to the Jews of the Diaspora, their history and sensitivities.
“Some of us are older than you are and we recall the pre-war period in America when the Nazis convened in Madison Square Garden and paraded on 96th Street with brown shirts and swastikas. And the rallying cry of the anti-Semites was ‘America First.’ So my hair stands on end when I hear an American president invoke that line,” Bleier told him.
It was a rare moment: An American Jew confronting one of the pack of Israeli officials who saw it as their role to act as Trump’s political armor, shielding him from any responsibility for Pittsburgh.
Most grieving American Jews were polite and deferential to Bennett and the parade of other Israeli officials whose remarks inspired headlines like “Israel Defends Trump Amid Synagogue Shooting Criticism,” “Israeli Minister Calls it Unfair to Link Trump With Synagogue Shooting” and “Trump Finds Support After the Pittsburgh Massacre, From the Israeli Government.”
The fury, resentment and disgust of American Jews toward Israel’s representatives only came pouring out afterward, in private conversations and across social media.
In the opinion pages and comment sections of Jewish outlets, commentators like former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro opined that Israelis had one job while America was “sitting shivah” – to listen, not lecture them on how they should feel or who they should blame, and certainly not on the eve of critical U.S. elections.
Shapiro recalled how, as ambassador, he was always careful not to bring politics into houses of mourning. And yet, long before this Shabbat, when we marked seven days since the murderous Pittsburgh attack – a symbolic shivah – American Jews got an earful from their Israeli brethren as to which political leaders they should or shouldn’t blame.
It is something they have always made an effort not to do when the shoe is on the other foot. In their countless “solidarity missions” over the years when Israel was feeling attacked, broken and vulnerable, American-Jewish leaders always held back from telling Israel what to do as it mourned and buried its dead, after the all-too-frequent wars and terror attacks.
Whenever Diaspora Jews have dared step out of line, speak out, disagree or point out missteps by their Israeli counterparts, they are always scolded and shut down.
The typical reaction to such chutzpah is: “How can anyone who hasn’t lived in Israel, hasn’t served in the IDF or sent their children to serve, who hasn’t huddled in a shelter as missiles have fallen, seen friends and neighbors die in terror attacks, possibly understand what Israelis are going through?”
Daring to voice a partisan opinion on what is happening while parachuting in for a photo opportunity is seen as unacceptably audacious by people who, while they may be fellow Jews, have no skin – or blood – in the game.
Over the past week, when American Jews expected comfort and support, Israeli government officials instead offered carefully honed political talking points: It is “unfair” to assign responsibility to the president, they lectured. Trump is the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House. He has Jewish family members, therefore any implication that he is either anti-Semitic himself or encourages anti-Semitism with his populist “America First” rhetoric is outrageous.
These arguments were inevitabley followed up by the “both sides” defense: That Farrakhan-style leftist anti-Semitism is equally as bad and dangerous as white supremacist Soros-bashing xenophobia.
The relationship between Israel and the overwhelmingly liberal non-Orthodox American-Jewish population has been no picnic in recent years. Memorable low points in the relationship: The crisis over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing Congress in order to lobby against the Iran deal, over the objections of the Obama White House; and the furious reaction by liberal non-Orthodox streams after what they viewed as betrayal over the Western Wall deal.
But until this moment, nothing has left American Jews feeling that they are being physically abandoned by their Israeli brothers. Never before has the State of Israel so blatantly demonstrated that it will protect its own political interests at the expense of American Jews.
Not only did Israel’s leaders choose Trump over American Jews, but they did so easily, naturally, without hesitation, leaping to the defense of a political leader who is actively and openly fanning the flames of hatred that now has an unprecedented death toll.
That they did this, and did so before the bodies of 11 American Jews – brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers – were even buried, was experienced as a stab in the back that, even if it does heal one day, will leave a scar.
The image of the president touching down in Pittsburgh against the wishes of the mourners, no national congressional leaders or local politicians agreeing to be seen greeting him, accompanied only by Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer as a political flak jacket will remain an indelible image.
Like Bleier’s memories of the Brownshirts in Madison Square Garden, it may fade but will never be forgotten.