Orthodox-only Israeli views of Pittsburgh massacre show the danger of mixing church and state

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The October 27 massacre of 11 Jewish worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue is accentuating serious rifts within the global Jewish community, and in the underpinnings of Zionism. The dilemma for Orthodox Jewish leaders in Israel has been, How to acknowledge that the murdered were Jewish, without giving any points to the Conservative movement of which they were part –that is, without conceding that their synagogue is in fact a synagogue. For the Orthodox hold a complete monopoly on the Israeli church-state unity, embodying the “Jewish state” notion in a fundamentalist and inherently illiberal way and refuse to recognize more liberal denominations, to which most American Jews belong, since that might erode their state-power hegemony in Israel.

And so more liberal Jews, who have been calling for Jewish unity and solidarity in response to the most grievous anti-Semitic attack in American history, have gotten a rude awakening. And liberal Zionists are being forced to come to terms with the fact that their Zionism is the means by which that orthodox fundamentalist sectarianism actually works; and their power to oppose such fundamentalism as Zionists is limited.


A joint editors’ letter

Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward

In the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre, two main Jewish editors wrote a joint letter with the message that “we are all Jews”. The main authors were Jane Eisner, Editor-in-Chief of the Forward, and Dovid Efune, Editor-in-Chief and CEO of The Algemeiner, and it was signed by a dozen “leaders in American journalism”.

I will regard this letter in a relatively positive light within the greater context, although it contains cynical exploitations of ‘anti-Semitism’ right from the start. The letter opens by reminding us that “[e]arlier this year, our colleagues at the three leading Jewish newspapers in the U.K. published the same front-page headline and joint editorial voicing concern over rising anti-Semitism in Britain’s Labor party”. That joint editorial went under the title “united we stand”, and was another cynical manipulation by the anti-Corbyn movement, warning of a supposed “existential threat to Jewish life in this country that would be posed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government”. That Eisner, Efune et al would use this as their model for an editorial concerning real, rather than concocted, anti-Semitism, is a very sad matter.

Nonetheless, I have other fish to fry here, because my story is how the authors were perceived as too liberal by Orthodox Jewish commentators, because they were calling for “solidarity and respect”, rather than Jewish sectarianism. “[A]s journalists,” the editors said, “we hold a variety of opinions about politics in this country and in Israel; the American Jewish community is diverse, and those differences are reflected on the pages of its media”.

In coming together now, we are not erasing those differences, but rising above them, to issue a call for solidarity and respect, and asking our political and communal leaders to do the same. The gunman who invaded a sanctuary on Shabbat did not distinguish among his victims. To him, they were all Jews.
We are all Jews. Let this horrific massacre be a moment of redemption as well as grieving. Let us argue with each other as Hillel argued with Shammai — with civility. Let us acknowledge our common humanity with other Americans who have been subject to unconscionable violence, too.
Jewish media has a long and proud history in America, and we pledge to continue our mission to inform, reflect and bind our communities, even more necessary in this painful time.

The authors were responding (albeit indirectly) to a feud that was taking place in the Jewish community, because of statements by Orthodox Jewish leaders such as Israeli Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau. Lau refused to recognize that the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was a synagogue, conceding merely that it was a place containing “profound Jewish flavor”.

Because Lau is Orthodox, a stream that has an overwhelming monopoly on politics in Israel, he would not grant legitimacy to another stream of Judaism – Conservative – that the Pittsburgh synagogue belonged to.

This obviously caused outrage in the American Jewish community, where about two-thirds of religious American Jews are affiliated with either the Reform or Conservative movements, both more liberal than the Orthodox (Reform being most liberal). The Reform movement in the US is slightly larger than the Conservative.


The call for unity is rebuffed by Orthodox Jewish publisher

The editors letter calling for Jewish unity, solidarity and respect, was met with contempt by certain leading Orthodox pundits, such as Jewish Press publisher (and illegal settler) Dovid Schwartz, who wrote an article titled, “How the Left Snookered Jewish Newspapers into Attacking Trump and Legitimizing Non-Orthodoxy”. If this piece were not relating to a very sad and serious event, it would be downright hilarious. But it deserves a special focus, as it shows how serious a risk this “legitimizing of non-Orthodoxy” is perceived to be.

Schwartz points out a supposedly insidious dog-whistle applied by the authors, which no-one out there but Schwartz was sharp enough to notice:

Then came the dog whistle segment: “We also condemn the climate of hate that has been building for some time now […] from irresponsible political leaders who engage in hateful speech and who are abetted by the silence of others.”

Why did no one notice this? Wait for it… because it was a Tuesday!

I believe it’s absolutely OK for Jewish American newspapers to condemn the president’s behavior. But to lure unsuspecting Jewish editors on the busiest day of their production cycle—Tuesday, on a week when they know their readers are hungry for touching and comforting coverage of the Pittsburgh murders – that’s just vile.

I mean, logical, right? Why not wait for Wednesday?

Dovid Efune, editor of Algemeiner

But it gets worse.

At which point Eisner and Efune pulled out their second dog whistle:

“The gunman who invaded a sanctuary on Shabbat did not distinguish among his victims. To him, they were all Jews.”

Shenanigans! The ‘universalist’ Jewish Eisner, Efune et al were using this massacre to attack Jewish sectarianism!

Aye, Eisner and Efune were using ancient Jewish codes to legitimize the illegitimate and suggest a sense of Jewish unity and empathy. Schwartz further elucidates:

The dog whistle is in the Hillel and Shamai comparison.

The Pharisees, forefathers of Rabbinic Judaism, invented a wise method of resolving the severe disputes between those two academies of halachic rulings, stating: “These, and these, too, are the words of a living God.” Both schools strongly argued with one another “leshem shamayim,” for the sake of heaven. Which is why both schools’ rulings were adopted into our Rabbinic law.

How dare the two ‘leftists’ invoke such a comparison? For heaven’s sake! Don’t they know how cheap a trick this is, to enter the deepest recesses of the Jewish soul from the backdoor? And on a Tuesday of all days?

That, Schwartz points out, was really the point of it all – to legitimize other-than-orthodox streams of Judaism – the Reform movement, “which rejects halacha altogether”, and the Conservative movement, “which has taken its latest version of halacha in a direction no self-aware Orthodox person would follow”.

Schwartz suggests that the authors simply “used the blood of a pogrom” to gain “religious equivalency”:

Using the Jewish blood from a recent pogrom to gain religious equivalency, even legitimacy, from an Orthodox newspaper like The Jewish Press was immoral and reprehensible. Both Eisner and Efune should be ashamed of themselves.

That’s not a dog-whistle. That’s just fact, as it were – revealed by Schwartz, protector of the true faith.

The moral of the story – Jewish editors, don’t be so gullible:

Finally, the obvious moral of the story: Orthodox Jewish editors, next time you get an email from the Forward – read it a couple of times before you send it to the printer.

Better yet, one would suppose, Orthodox editors should send it through Dovid Schwartz, he will sniff out the dog-whistles in no-time. Especially on a Tuesday, for heaven’s sake…

Thus, Schwartz “reveals” the nefarious plot of the Jewish “left”, in supposedly duping other Jewish publications (even the Jewish Press itself) to supposedly exploit the Pittsburgh massacre for an illegitimate purpose: criticizing Trump and legitimizing non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

This is indeed the level at which this discussion exists, as Jewish Orthodox leaders and pundits desperately try to avoid having the Pittsburgh massacre serve as any sort of win for other streams of Judaism.


“Climate of hate” and white-nationalism

Eisner, Efune et al were right to mention the “climate of hate”, even if it was in general and in passing, because the Pittsburgh massacre was directly connected to anti-immigrant white-nationalism – a connection that Jewish leaders seem very wary of mentioning. The white-nationalist shooter was very clear in his awareness of the Tree of Life synagogue being affiliated with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and of the fact that its aid was to non-Jewish immigrants. Thus, the claims that the attack was solely anti-Semitic are misleading. It was also anti-Semitic, but it was predominantly white-nationalist. In their desperation to change the subject, Israeli leaders such as Education and Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett (also Orthodox) may try to equate the ideology of the shooter with Palestinian solidarity, but the reality is that it had nothing to do with that.


Chief Israeli rabbi won’t acknowledge the synagogue, Netanyahu tries to do damage-control

Back to the denial by Rabbi Lau, about the synagogue not really being a synagogue but rather a place with a “profound Jewish flavor.” Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to do damage-control for Lau’s denial by saying:

“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”.

But the feud was only one earthquake within a series of seismic shifts that have been occurring in recent years between Israel and American Jews. Last year, bowing to Ultra-orthodox political pressure, Netanyahu backed down from an already government-approved plan to establish an egalitarian (men and women) area of worship for non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Orthodox tradition is based on gender separation, and the more liberal streams were calling for gender integration.

Minister of health Yaakov Litzman, leader of the United Torah Judaism party, minced no words in describing how Netanyahu’s reversal was instrumental in alienating the more liberal streams, particularly Reform: “The government’s decision to freeze the Western Wall arrangement sends a clear message to the entire world: The Reform do not and will not have access or recognition at the Western Wall.”

To be sure, the discussion of What Rabbi Lau said and didn’t say is ongoing. This Tuesday, the Connecticut Jewish Ledger published an apologetic piece on Lau, suggesting that he was misinterpreted, and that he did say “synagogue” at a point. Andrew Silow-Carroll, who speaks Hebrew, refers to the original Makor Rishon Hebrew interview with Lau, arguing that his description of the place as one of “profound Jewish flavor” was simply an “emotional” one.

Silow-Carroll does not link to the original interview, and wants us to take his word for it, because he speaks Hebrew and most of his readers probably don’t. But I do. And I’ve looked at the original. Lau is clearly asked to relate to the synagogue definition by the interviewer (this is my translation – note, I prefer to translate the common “profound Jewish flavor” to “definite Jewish character” instead, as I think it is more correct).

“But is it a synagogue?”, the interviewer asks. Lau responds:

 “Jews were murdered in a place that for the murderer was considered a place with a definite Jewish character. A place with Torah books, Jews with Talits, there are Sidur books there, there are people who came there for the need of being near to God. Therefore, the murderer came precisely there in order to murder, and not to another place. This is what the anger and pain are about”.

It’s even worse than Lau downgrading the synagogue to a place of “definite Jewish character”. Lau is even hedging that this is merely the perception from the murderer’s point of view. And Lau is simply ditching the question.

True, in a passing rant, Lau uttered the word “synagogue” in rebuffing the focus in media and social media upon the Orthodox vs other streams in this context:

“There’s no reason to mix this subject in there. We are speaking about Jews who were murdered because they were Jews. What is the question anyway? I cannot hear nor understand what discussion there can be about such a question. They were murdered because of their being Jewish. Does it matter which synagogue or version they pray?”

So yes, Lau did say “synagogue” at a point, in a very general way. Yet when asked very directly about whether the Tree of Life synagogue was indeed a synagogue, he wouldn’t answer it affirmatively.

Thus, Silow-Carroll’s piece is a sectarian whitewash. To his credit nonetheless, he does note that the Israeli Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef did not mention “synagogue” at all in his reference to the attack. Yosef:

“I was shocked to hear about the murder of innocent Jews in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, simply because they were Jews, by an abhorrent murderer who was driven by anti-Semitic hatred. My heart is with the bereaved families and with all of our Jewish brothers and sisters who live in the U.S.”

According to Silow-Carroll, though, this omission is ok, because “his statement clearly embraces the Pittsburgh victims as fellow Jews”.


Zionism and Jewish Orthodoxy

This takes us to politics, and to the political connection between Zionism and Jewish Orthodoxy, which as mentioned has the overwhelming monopoly on politics in Israel. Writing earlier this year on the Israeli “slouch toward Gilead” (on this site), Israeli and formerly Orthodox Yossi Gurvitz noted how “there is one main difference between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews: In Israel, Judaism is governed by the state according to the Orthodox thinking”. Gurvitz notes why it is so difficult for the non-Orthodox global Jewish community, which largely supports Zionism, to confront the Jewish Orthodox exclusivity:

“Yet the Zionist majority cannot face Orthodoxy, precisely because it is Zionist”.

Indeed, the Pittsburgh terror attack has exposed the fissures and fears inherent amongst various Jewish communities in the world. The Israeli Orthodox leaders try to limit the damage to their exclusivity, yet in doing so they only expose their hypocrisy. Even Israeli leaders like Netanyahu and Bennett who then try to limit the damage from these statements, cannot but expose the Israeli hypocrisy in pandering to the ideology which is behind the hate.

Letters by more liberal Jews such as the one by Eisner, Efune et al, are generally frowned upon by leaders of the Jewish Orthodoxy, because it is clearly not in their interest that this event, or any event, would erode their religious-political hegemony and monopoly over Israel and Zionism, and those liberal-Zionists can hardly mention that matter directly, as they risk being further alienated by the Orthodox, who have a Zionist monopoly.

Thus, many Jews are beginning to see that it’s hard, maybe impossible, to separate religion and politics in this. Jonathan Cook, writing in The National, notes how

“[f]or the first time, overseas Jewish communities are being faced with a troubling dilemma. Do they really wish to subscribe to a Jewish nationalism in Israel that so strongly echoes the ugly rhetoric and policies threatening them at home?”

Having noted Netanyahu’s bromance with the newly elected neo-fascist Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (who promised to visit Israel and move the embassy to Jerusalem), as well as other close relationships with various fascist leaders, Cook summarizes:

“In short, Israel’s leaders are not simply placating a new wave of white-nationalist and neo-fascist leaders. They have a deep-rooted ideological sympathy with them”.

This is a paradigm wherein the Jewish Orthodox religion is directly implicated, indeed instrumental in, an ultra-nationalist, conservative, far-right, exclusivist, anti-immigrant political wave. And the Orthodox movement doesn’t seem to want to break that, even in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh terror.

This one event may be a cause of some serious soul-searching amongst Jews, as to whether their support of the Jewish State is really something that can be considered benign. The many non-Orthodox Jews may begin to consider whether their idea of “we are all Jews” can so lightly brush upon the Jewish Orthodox religion-and-state marriage, and whether they can continue their support for the Jewish State as part of their “we are all Jewish” notion and wish. They may have to start speaking about Zionism as the elephant in the room. They may need to start talking about the fact that the intrinsic Zionist conflation of religion and state (embodied in the concept of “Jewish State”), is something that Judaism may not be able to survive, if it is to rescue itself from the further plunge into the fundamentalist national-religious abyss, if it is to ensure any sort of legacy of being a religion of peace.

H/t Michael Lesher

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“The gunman who invaded a sanctuary on Shabbat did not distinguish among his victims. To him, they were all Jews.” If I went into a building with the name Tree of Life Synagogue I would assume the congregants were all jews and not baptist. What a weird comment. Speaking of… Read more »

@Marnie ” low and behold among the dignitaries was a huge zionist turd” Did the HZT do his Charlie Hebdo shuffle pushing his way to the front ? As for Israel not existing in 1918 well in Ziological terms it has been since forever and has never gone away. (Darwin… Read more »

“to remind people that it is de jure and de facto”

No. It isn’t. Not even remotely. Take your thugs and crawl away.