Time To Choose
Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting Is a Moment of Reckoning for American Jews
To support Trump now is to say that his pro-Israel policies are more important than his enflaming of anti-Semitism.
After the 9/11 attacks, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said that countries now had to choose between fighting terror and abetting it, that there was no neutral ground. In his metaphor, you were either sitting in the smoking section, or the no-smoking section.
In the wake of the worst attack on Jews in American history, all of us, but especially American Jews like me, face a similar decision. We either support Donald Trump and the movement of hate he has unleashed, or we oppose it. There is no neutral ground, no justification that the benefits outweigh the costs. You’re in the smoking section, or the no-smoking section.
For American Jews in particular, this is a moment of reckoning. In the Jewish community, support for Trump is lower than it has been for most Republican presidents, but it’s still around 21 percent. The majority of Jewish Trump supporters are either Orthodox or right-wing on Israel—in most cases, both. Among Orthodox Jews—who comprise about one-fifth of American Jews—support for Trump runs as high as 90 percent.
For two years, Jewish Trump supporters have said that the anti-Semitic alt-right isn’t Trump’s fault; that the president is not personally anti-Semitic (after all, his daughter and son-in-law are Jewish); and, most importantly, he has been a staunch supporter for Israel.
This, they say, outweighs whatever reservations we may have about Trump and the bigotry of his most ardent supporters.
As of October 27, 2018, that jig is up.
No amount of pro-Israel policies—no embassy in Jerusalem, no encouragement of settlements, no increased aid—outweighs the existential danger to Jews of the Trump movement’s coddling, or even overt encouragement, of anti-Semitism, racism, and nativism. Even those Jews not motivated by solidarity with Muslims, Mexicans, the media, and others singled out by Trump for opprobrium must now recognize that we Jews, ourselves, are at risk.
Although this should have been clear following the 60-percent increase in anti-Semitic attacks between 2016 and 2017, it is surely undeniable now.
It is beyond obvious that Trump, Fox News, and the “soft” alt-right are guilty of what has been called “stochastic terrorism.” While they are not legally responsible for any individual particular terrorist act, including the slaughter in Pittsburgh, they have, over the past several years, created the environment in which “lone wolves” like Robert Bowers inevitably commit horrific acts.
In the case of stochastic terrorism, those responsible for it may still condemn each individual act of violence. They may sincerely be disgusted by it. But without their acts, it would not have happened. They are responsible.
By way of analogy, stochastic terrorists are like teenagers who put grain alcohol in a punch bowl. They may not be legally responsible when a bunch of kids get drunk, and one gets behind the wheel and kills someone in an accident. But any ethical human being knows that such consequences are unavoidable. Maybe not at every party, but one is enough.
In Bowers’ case, the causal connection is clearer that usual. Bowers parroted talking points not merely of the alt-right, which blames Jews for multiculturalism, but also of the ‘soft right’ like Fox News, which has ceaselessly repeated lies that dangerous “Middle Easterners” are among the current caravan of refugees; that ‘illegal’ immigrants are disproportionately criminals (in fact, the crime rate among undocumented people is lower than that of citizens); that immigration is thus an existential danger to America.
Trump, of course, has also said some of the same things, even though his own advisers know that they are false.
If you think about it, how could someone like Robert Bowers not commit a terrorist act? He’s been marinating in a stew of anti-Semitism, nativism, nationalism, and above all, rage. If not Bowers, then it would have been someone else.
As a rabbi, my heart is grieving with the families in Pittsburgh who now must live with the unthinkable. But as a journalist, I’m not surprised in the least.
Trump supporters can no longer claim that the alt-right’s anti-Semitism is some marginal, harmless phenomenon. They can no longer separate it from acceptable (to them) forms of nationalism, nativism, or populism. It is a package deal; Trump supporters can’t condone hate against one group but not others. To support Trump is to support an environment in which more Robert Bowerses are inevitable.
That goes for Fox News, too, which has served as the administration’s nationalist mouthpiece these past two years. And for all those right-wing pundits who have spread conspiracy theories for years, including, most recently, the claim that the 13 letter-bombs sent to prominent American liberals were a “false flag” engineered by liberals themselves. And for anyone who covers George Soros differently from Tom Steyer or Jeff Bezos.
And no, it does not matter that Trump condemned the attacks, and that the attacker himself believes Trump isn’t anti-Semitic enough. For years, Trump’s leading supporters (and family members) have retweeted overt white supremacists and given platforms to them. Even in his recent condemnation of the 13 letter bomb attacks, he managed only to condemn “political violence,” feeding into the right-wing myth that there is equal violence on both sides, just as there were good people on both sides of the Charlottesville white supremacy march. As if antifa activists punching Richard Spencer or heckling Mitch McConnell are equal to a Robert Bowers, Cesar Altieri Sayoc, or Dylann Roof.
Nor, finally, does it matter whether Trump himself is anti-Semitic, which he almost certainly is not (even beyond his family, many of his longtime business associates, as well as his chief mentor, Roy Cohn, are Jewish). He is either unwilling or unable to see how his vicious rhetoric against immigrants and Muslims supports a right-wing movement that also hates Jews. He is unwilling or unable to see how his furious midnight tweets and shouted insults at rallies encourage tens of millions of Americans to be enraged at the media, Hollywood, and ‘elites’—all of which, in anti-Semitic imagination, are disproportionately Jewish.
He may not get it, but he is responsible. And even if Trump himself can’t see that, we American Jews must.