(October 31, 2018 / JNS)
On Saturday, a madman entered a synagogue in Pittsburgh and slaughtered 11 Jews. It was a horrific, heinous crime. But sadly, rather than reminding us what’s important and bringing Jews closer together, it seems to be dividing us apart.
In the past, after terror attacks in Israel plunged our country into mourning, I have looked at my Instagram feed and felt resentment towards my American brothers and sister, who seemed to be living life as usual, posting pictures of their cute kids and delicious meals while families in Israel have been shattered.
“How cold. How detached,” I thought to myself.
Now, strangely, I find myself on the other side.
My American family is suffering and scared, but since they are so far away and since the images are not flooding my own social-media news cycle, I feel slightly detached. And I lament that. Even though the technology brings us closer, the distance is still real.
After having this experience, I will be more forgiving in the future. But I pray I won’t need to be.
Maybe it’s also the nature of the horror that has caused the disconnect. From Israel, the alleged gunman, Robert Bowers, looks like a nut—some kind of American psycho with an arsenal and cultish delusions of Jewish world domination.
This massacre must not be minimized or excused in any way. But it was, ostensibly, an isolated one, committed by a deranged lone actor. He probably belonged in a mental hospital with good (Jewish) doctors and padded walls.
Robert Bowers is an enemy of the Jewish people, but the Jewish people are not at war with Robert Bowers.
The nature of the fight against anti-Semitism in America and Israel are very different, which also leads to a divide and disconnect.
While American Jews feel a growing concern over the kind of anti-Semitism bred out of conspiracy theories and blood libels, in Israel, our terrorists are numerous, organized and motivated by a collective national hatred, which makes our struggle a daily existential one.
Everyone can agree that Robert Bowers is pure evil. But imagine a scenario in which Bowers was actually a respected teacher who taught his young students or followers to kill Jews systematically in a society with many like-minded teachers and leaders. Imagine that his society backed his teachings, and that his government paid for weapons and weapons training. Imagine if he knew that after his death, his family would be cared for.
That is how many of us in Israel think about the jihadist terror that we face from the Palestinian Authority, from Hamas, from Hezbollah and others. We are at war with a systemized, mechanized, effort to kill Jews and destroy Israel. An army of Robert Bowerses.
Sometimes, it feels like our American brothers and sisters don’t get what we’re facing here in Israel, with some even suggesting that the violence against is justified. Maybe this tragic moment will bring us closer in understanding what dangers we both face.
That is my hope, and why I remained determined not to take part in what seems to be a firestorm of politicization which has activated every American.
So massive and heated is the discourse that from Israel, American looks like one big reality TV show, one featuring a society caught up in some kind of desperate inner psychological battle. It seems that they don’t view themselves like we see them—as people who are privileged to live in what is, at the end of the day, a great country with wonderful freedoms and opportunities, but rather relish engaging in needless and infighting.
Every day, the American news reports seem fixated on left vs. right, MSNBC vs. Fox News, and anything else that might provide an opportunity for division. And it’s always, always, about finding someone to blame: Trump killed those Jews; guns killed those Jews; Netanyahu killed those Jews; whites killed those Jews; incivility killed those Jews.
So powerful is the reactionary atmosphere of hatred that when Israel’s Minister of Education and Minister of Diaspora affairs dropped everything to fly to Pittsburgh and show solidarity and offer comfort to the community, some American Jews, in a hyper-judgemental ultra-polarized mode, claimed that they did not want him there because he supports the settlements—is a racist, a killer, a Zionist.
Indeed, Bennett heads the leading nationalist party. But he is also a democratically elected minister in the government of Israel. His portfolio includes keeping our brothers and sisters around the world close to Israel.
So forget the man for a minute. Is there no respect for the office which he occupies? The nation he democratically represents? The State of Israel, not Bennett, was coming to the Diaspora to grieve and show support.
Can we not set aside the arguments to come together? Should not the value of unity defeat the value of winning a political point in this moment?
Moreover, if you do look at Bennett the man, he was an officer in one of Israel’s most elite special forces units. This man led clandestine missions to strike at the enemy and save Jewish lives.
Ask yourself: When was the last time you stayed up for 48 hours straight in dangerous enemy territory, trained and prepared to strike a hardened enemy of the Jewish people? Have you ever physically stopped a Robert Bowers from committing the next heinous murder against a Jew? Naftali Bennett has. Doesn’t he deserve enough basic respect to welcome him in this moment of crisis?
Many good people were taken from us in Pittsburgh, murdered in a horrific fashion. I think that if we could ask them now how they would like us to commemorate their untimely deaths, they would say: come together, sisters and brothers, over our tragedy. Let’s not disappoint them.
Remember: Left and right, Orthodox and Reform, American or Israeli, we are all one people. If ever we are to bridge the left-right rift and the Diaspora-Israel divide, this is the moment.
Yishai Fleisher is the international spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron.