After Pittsburgh, American Jews face a choice

The lines are starkly drawn in Pittsburgh—and, hopefully, across the country—in the wake of the Oct. 28 synagogue massacre that left 11 dead. Today, President Trump visited the synagogue, and was joined by the Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer. This took place over the protests of Pittsburgh's Mayor Bill Peduto, who asked the White House to delay the trip in light of the sensitive situation in the city. While the rabbi at the Tree of Life Synagogue, the massacre site, welcomed Trump, many members of his own congregation clearly dissented. More than 35,000 people signed an open letter to Trump from the local chapter of the progressive Jewish group Bend the Arc, stating: "You are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you fully denounce white nationalism." Hundreds demonstrated against Trump's visit under the standard of another Jewish progressive formation, If Not Now, with banners reading "ANTI-SEMITISM = WHITE NATIONALISM" and "ANTI-SEMITISM UPHOLDS WHITE SUPREMACY."

Interestingly, the former president of the Tree of Life Synagogue, Lynette Lederman, was with the dissenters, calling Trump a "purveyor of hate speech" who is not welcome in Pittsburgh.

There were plenty of signs that the protesters were—unequivocally, dramatically—on the right side. From Trump's Soros-baiting final campaign ad in November 2016, through the wave of hate unleashed by neo-Nazis and their fellow travellers immediately upon his inauguration, Trump has played to anti-Semitism in barely veiled terms. After last year's Nazi hate-fest that saw deadly violence in Charlottesville, Trump notoriously blamed "many sides" for the violence, and said there were "fine people" on the side that openly displayed the swastika, marched with torches while chanting anti-Jewish slogans, and committed an act of terror. And in the immediate prelude to the Pittsburgh attack, when George Soros, classically demonized as a Jewish puppet-master, was among the recipients of letter-bombs mailed by a fanatical Trump supporter, a presidential tweet loaned support to the "false flag" theory that the bombs were sent in some sinister design to undermine the Republicans.

(The perennial "false flag" theory raised every time a bomb goes off, or fails to, is a standard trope from the anti-Semitic playbook.)

But just in the days since the massacre, the reasons the protesters were right have become even clearer. Vice President Mike Pence was criticized for appearing at a campaign rally in Michigan where the supposed Jewish voice speaking on the Pittsburgh attack was a "Christian rabbi" (sic) from the Jews for Jesus cult—another unsubtle message that plays to anti-Jewish stigma.

The Israeli reaction has been even more telling. Israeli opposition leader Avi Gabbay (from the "left" Labor Party, no less!) blatantly exploited the massacre, calling "upon the Jews of the United States to immigrate more and more to Israel, because this is their home."

(When Bibi Netanyahu himself tried exactly the same trick after four were killed in an attack on a kosher market in Paris in January 2015, French Jews gave him a resounding "Non!"

To make the problematic nature of the Israeli position even clearer, the country's chief Ashkenazic rabbi, David Lau, refused to call the Tree of Life Synagogue a "synagogue" because it is Conservative rather than Orthodox. Instead, he opted for the equivocal phrase "place of clear Jewish character."

So the Tree of Life congregants were Jewish enough for a Nazi terrorist, but not Jewish enough for Israel's increasingly hegemonic Orthodox establishment.

The politics of the attack itself make things even clearer. The perp, apparently one Robert Bowers, shouted "All Jews must die!" as he opened fire. Less than an hour before the attack, Bowers posted on Gab (a social media site favored by the alt-right, which now seems to be offline): "HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in." This was a reference to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, initially established in the 1880s to help Jews fleeing the pogroms settle in the United States, but now assisting refugees of all faiths and from around the world.

And while Bowers portrayed himself as too extreme even for Trump, he did so in totally Trumpian terms. In his Gab posts, he dissed Trump as a "globalist" who is not "winning." "Globalist" is a term repeatedly used by Trump, which he openly counterposes to his own "nationalist" stance. "Globalist" has also become a clear code-word for Jews on the "alt-right."

Also in the days since the massacre, Trump issued his constitutionally dubious threat to end birthright citizenship by executive order, and said he will mobilize over 5,000 troops to the Southwest border to intercept the caravan of thousands of Central American refugees now making its way north, seeking to make an asylum claim in the US from endemic terror and insecurity, chiefly in Honduras. In a clear play to Islamophobia, Trump floated baseless claims that there are "Middle Easterners" on the caravan too.

So Trump is continuing to abet the terror he hypocritically decried. The notion that Jews are using the swarthy hordes in a conspiracy to undermine (white) America goes all the way back to Klan propaganda of the 1950s that held "Jews behind race-mixing." Liberal Jewish support for desegregation and civil rights was the target of the propaganda then. HIAS and Soros support for immigrants is the propaganda target today. (FactCheck.org actually had to create a page shooting down the conspiracy theory that the migrant caravan is funded by Soros.) But it is essentially the same propaganda.

The Pittsburgh protesters were right. Anti-Semitism is inextricably wedded to white nationalism. In fact, it is ultimately a form of white nationalism. To effectively fight anti-Semitism, Jews must realize this, and make common cause with the other targets of white nationalism: immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and communities of color in the United States, facing demonization and terror from both the resurgent radical right and the police (overlapping entities, of course).

And of course, the question of Palestine and Zionism has long been an obstacle to building this unity. It is more imperative than ever that Jews in the US throw in their lot with the oppressed in the US—and in Palestine alike—and fight white nationalism in all its manifestations here at home, rather than rallying around an oppressive settler state.

Just as all progressives must reject overtures from the populist right that would co-opt our movements into precisely what we should oppose (including anti-Semitism), Jewish progressives must break ranks with Zionism. Which, especially in its current ultra-reactionary posture, is also a manifestation of white nationalism—and openly aligned with Trumpism.

If (Ashkenazic) Jews think they are "white," and that it is in their interest to make common cause with imperial power against the national aspirations of the Palestinians, Pittsburgh is a wake-up call if ever there has been one.