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Israel’s changing attitudes to antisemitism revealed after Pittsburgh shooting

Benyamin Netanyahu is sending mixed messages. EPA Images

The brutal attack on the Jewish community in Pittsburgh caught the Israeli government off guard. The short and sombre statement issued by the Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, to the killing of 11 people in the Tree of Life synagogue on October 27 stands in sharp contrast to his usual inflated rhetoric when responding to any hint of antisemitism 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 antisemitic attacks.

Despite the Pittsburgh shooting being the deadliest antisemitic attack in decades internationally, Netanyahu did not issue similar proclamations. He neither renounced the rise of antisemitism in the US nor did he call on the 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 antisemitism in the US. For instance, it took him three days to Tweet a brief denunciation of the overtly antisemitic alt-right rally in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017.

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

Different agendas

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 likely have been regarded by the Israeli government as undesirable or even traitorous had they been promoting the same agenda of assisting refugees in Israel.

Flags on the National Mall fly at half-staff to honour the victims of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. EPA Images

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, Netanyahu has formed coalitions with right-wing leaderships internationally. He therefore has embraced some of the world’s bluntest antisemitic 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 antisemitic, 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 antisemitic.

But perhaps what this surprisingly moderate response exposes is Israel’s changing attitude towards antisemitism. Under the leadership of Netanyahu, the Israeli government has been working hard to equate any and all forms of criticism of Israel with antisemitism. 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 antisemitism, it also increasingly seems to have little to say when faced with the real thing.

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