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Jewish labels are meaningless to anti-Semites

How an out-of-context comment from Israel’s chief rabbi about a Pittsburgh synagogue doesn’t need to widen the Israel-Diaspora divide.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau didn’t intend to say anything that would wound American Jews in the wake of the mass slaughter at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue. In an interview with Israel’s Makor Rishon newspaper, Lau made it clear that his goal was to express solidarity with the victims and to state that violence against Jews was intolerable.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Despite that, Lau still managed to create a firestorm that will take its place alongside other incidents that will be cited as proof of a widening divide between Israel and the Diaspora. When he refused to explicitly acknowledge that the 11 Jews slaughtered by shooter Robert Bowers died in a synagogue at a Shabbat service, he seemingly confirmed the worst stereotypes about the rabbinate’s contempt for non-Orthodox Jews, pouring salt into a wound that Jewish leaders should be doing everything to help heal.

But instead of doing further damage to Jewish unity, this incident ought to do the opposite. What happened in Pittsburgh should impress upon both Israelis and American Jews that we are up against the same enemies, who are as uninterested in our denominational labels as they are in our politics.

How did it happen? Let’s call it a journalistic ambush.

Lau started out by saying the following:

“I’ll say one simple thing: Any murder of a Jew in any corner of the world because they are Jewish is unforgivable; it’s a crime that cannot, under any circumstances, be ignored.”

But things started to get tricky when he was asked the following question:

“In the ultra-Orthodox media, they refused to refer to the Tree of Life as a Conservative synagogue, but as a ‘Jewish center’ in the best case.”

Lau answered by deflecting the attempt to switch the topic to the dispute about pluralism, saying:

“They were killed because they were Jews. Does it matter which synagogue or liturgical tradition they pray in? We are talking about Jews. We don’t need to create issues at painful moments. I have a deep ideological disagreement with them about Judaism about its past and the consequences for the future for the Jewish people for generations. So what? Because of that they are not Jews? Jews were killed in a place that for the killer was a place of clear Jewish character. A place with Torah scrolls, Jews in tallits, there are prayer books, there are people who went there to be closer to God. Because of that, the killer specifically went there and not somewhere else. That is why there is pain and anger.”

Seen in context, it’s clear that the chief rabbi was not seeking to insult Conservative Jews. He was actually making it clear that he understood the victims were there because they were people of faith whose loyalty to Judaism made them a target.

Yet while the attacks on the rabbi that followed the interview may be unfair, it’s also true that he wouldn’t come out and specifically say that Tree of Life was a synagogue, just like the places where his fellow Orthodox Jews pray in Israel.

That was enough to generate to a storm of criticism that soon landed on the rabbi’s head. Some prominent figures in the Conservative movement reacted angrily, and the press also unloaded on Lau with both barrels for denying the legitimacy of the synagogue victimized by the rabidly anti-Semitic shooter.

At that point, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt compelled to weigh in on the matter, saying in a tweet that “Jews were killed in a synagogue. They were killed because they are Jews. The location was chosen because it is a synagogue. We must never forget that. We are one.”

It would have been far better for all concerned if Lau would have been more explicit in saying that Tree of Life was a synagogue. Conservative and Reform Jews have a legitimate beef with the rabbinate and the Israeli government for their refusal to recognize their rabbis, in addition to the way Lau, in particular, helped torpedo a compromise plan for expanding the area for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.

But Lau’s a prisoner of politics and feared his haredi Orthodox critics would lambast him for recognizing the legitimacy of non-Orthodox movements. As it is, if they actually read what he said, they’ll probably be mad at him anyway for suggesting that it’s possible to get “closer to God” in a Conservative synagogue.

But there’s a broader point to be made that ought to transcend our arguments about pluralism—one that infuriates members of the movements to which 90 percent of affiliated American Jews belong.

Robert Bowers didn’t care what kind of synagogue he was attacking. Motivated by age-old myths and hatreds, his purpose was to kill all Jews, not just some in one denomination. The same is true of those who launch missiles from Gaza at Israeli towns and cities, or who seek to stab or shoot any Jew they can reach. The same can also be said about those who attack Jews in Europe, a place where a rising tide of anti-Semitism—espoused by both immigrants from the Middle East and left-wing elites who hate Israel—is a much greater problem than in the United States.

Americans and Israeli Jews have become increasingly indifferent towards one another’s concerns. But what Pittsburgh must do is remind us all that in spite of our very different circumstances, we share common enemies who are blithely unconcerned about our internal religious and political differences.

Seen in that light, our denominational labels are as meaningless as our endless backbiting about settlements, borders or what we think about Netanyahu and his policies. As hard as it may be to do, Jews need to seize every opportunity to think less about those labels and more about the common past and destiny we share. When we do that, we see that what we call our synagogues isn’t as important as the idea that the Jewish people need to stick together, and that what we have in common is still greater than our differences.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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