Merav Amir: Strategy informs Israel’s response to Pittsburgh

Memorials outside the Pittsburgh synagogue where 11 people were killed. Picture: Jeff Swensen/Getty
Memorials outside the Pittsburgh synagogue where 11 people were killed. Picture: Jeff Swensen/Getty
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The brutal attack on the Jewish community in Pittsburgh caught the Israeli government off guard. The short and sombre statement issued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the killing of 11 people in the Tree of Life synagogue on 27 October stands in sharp contrast to his usual inflated rhetoric when responding to any hint of anti-Semitism in Western Europe.

For instance, in response to the killing of four people in a Kosher grocery store in Paris in January 2015, Netanyahu called on the Jews of Europe to migrate to Israel: “To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the state of Israel is your home.”

Similarly, after a shooting in a synagogue in Copenhagen which left two dead later that year, he claimed that: “Once again Jews are murdered on the soil of Europe just for being Jews. This wave of terror attacks is expected to continue, including these murderous anti-Semitic attacks.”

Despite the Pittsburgh shooting being the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in decades internationally, Netanyahu did not issue similar proclamations.

He neither denounced the rise of anti-Semitism in the US nor did he call on American Jewry to find a safe haven in Israel.

But this is not the first time that Netanyahu’s rhetoric has changed when referring to the growing issue of anti-Semitism in the US. For instance, it took him three days to Tweet a brief denunciation of the overtly anti-Semitic alt-right rally in Charlottesville in the summer of 2016.

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Indeed, Netanyahu’s belated response was widely criticised at the time.

This measured response can be partly explained by the often fraught relationship the Israeli right-wing government has with the majority of the Jewish communities in the US. As research repeatedly shows, most American Jews hold liberal and progressive views, and are alienated by the nationalistic and conservative Israeli leadership which has been in power for more than a decade and a half.

Indeed, the activity of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which the Pittsburgh shooter identified with his victims, would probably have been regarded by the Israeli government as undesirable or even traitorous had they been promoting the same agenda of assisting refugees in Israel.

Similarly, many American Jewish communities have increasingly been voicing harsh criticism of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, both in Israel and in the occupied territory. To aggravate this growing rift, these communities also mainly identify with the moderate trends of Judaism, the Reform and Conservative movements, which consecutive Israeli governments have refused to officially recognise.

But there is more at stake here than the growing alienation between the Israeli government and the majority of American Jews. Aiming to counteract the EU’s critical stance towards the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestine,

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Netanyahu has formed coalitions with right-wing leaderships internationally. He therefore has embraced some of the world’s bluntest anti-Semitic leaders, including Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

It should therefore come as no surprise that Netanyahu has not confronted his ally in the White House. Trump may insist he not anti-Semitic, but it is increasingly clear that Trump and many of his supporters are not simply racist towards African Americans, Latinos and Muslims, but are also deeply anti-Semitic.

Perhaps what this surprisingly moderate response exposes is Israel’s changing attitude towards anti-Semitism. Under the leadership of Netanyahu, the Israeli government has been working hard to equate any and all forms of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

Consequently, it seems more willing to disregard the anti-Jewish sentiments of overseas far-right movements when they are not explicitly linked to a critical stance towards Israel. And so it is not only that the Israeli leadership conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, it also increasingly seems to have little to say when faced with the real thing.

Dr Merav Amir is a lecturer of human geography at Queen’s University Belfast. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence.