American Jews this summer have split vision. One eye is on the trial of the gunman who killed 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The other eye is on the West Bank, where hostilities are reaching a boiling point.
It is that split vision – worries about antisemitism at home, concern about developments in the Middle East – that defines Americans Jews’ discomfort in this era, decades after the battle against prejudice seemed to have been won and 75 years after the founding of Israel.
It is not an easy time.
There have been perilous periods before, to be sure – even after the end of the Holocaust, the most perilous and pernicious of all. But these recent episodes come at a time of deep worry – about the survival of democratic values at home and in Israel; the role of the judiciary in both countries; about the general spike in hate talk and hate crimes in the United States; and divisions among Jews in the way they view developments in Israel and the way they view Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the Middle East, Palestinian strikes against Israeli targets have sown fear in the Jewish state and, in recent days, an Israeli air strike – the first in two years in the West Bank – was accompanied by the destruction of the home of a militant suspected of killing an Israeli soldier in 2022. The eyes-for-the-eyes attacks and responses have unsettled the region once again.
In Pittsburgh, the trial of the gunman at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018 brought a guilty verdict against Robert Bowers, an avowed antisemite who considered Jews “a cancer.”
“In a time of dangerous types of hate-motivated violence, to see clarity in the legal response is both heartening and, one hopes, a sign of better days to come,” said Martha Minow, a former dean of the Harvard Law School and currently the 300th Anniversary University Professor there. “This was a horrific crime, and it affects everybody. I don’t know any Jewish community that hasn’t been affected by this.”
The developments in Pittsburgh offered a glimmer of hope – but also of wariness.
“The shooting absolutely is still with us,” said Rich Fitzgerald, who lives 100 yards away from the synagogue and who, as the Allegheny County Executive, is the region’s top local official. “I hope that synagogue can create a place where the next generation of worshipers can pray at peace.
Indeed, the Squirrel Hill community, site of Tree of Life and the center of the vibrant Jewish community in Pittsburgh, remained wounded – a wound shared beyond the boundaries of Allegheny County.
“What happened in Pittsburgh struck a chord with Jewish communities all over the country,” said Susan Estrich, who was reared in Marblehead and who is a professor at the University of Southern California and a nationally syndicated columnist. “The rising incidents of antisemitism have left everyone troubled. To see a police car sitting in front of the Shirat Hayam synagogue in Swampscott is a startling thing. It’s a stark reminder that what happened in Pittsburgh could happen anywhere in America.”
The developments in Pittsburgh came as it became clear that the Palestinian Authority no longer is exercising any real control of the major cities – from Nablus to Jenin to Ramallah (where it has the most support) to Hebron and Bethlehem – and as four Israelis were killed in a hummus stand a day after seven Palestinians died and several Israelis were injured in a firefight in Jenin. When Israeli vigilantes stormed through Palestinian communities, including Turmus Aya, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, 60 automobiles and 15 homes were set ablaze – unsettling enough that Mr. Netanyahu himself condemned the attacks and argued, “The citizens of Israel are all obligated to respect the law.” The United States also issued a strong condemnation.
All this amid a targeted drone hit that killed three armed Hamas members near Nablus; an Israeli announcement of plans to build 4,500 new homes in the West Bank; Morocco pulling out of a planned conference with Israel; and the former head of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, declaring that Israel was on the edge of apartheid.
“We’ll take an attacking and proactive approach against terror,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant tweeted shortly after three Palestinian militants were killed Thursday in an Israeli drone strike in the West Bank. “We’ll use all means at our disposal and exact the heaviest price from every terrorist.”
Fresh, escalated Israeli military action remains a real possibility.
“Israel is driving itself over a cliff,” said Alan Solomon, the national board chair of J Street, which advocates for a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. “This escalation of violence doesn’t serve anyone’s interests but the extremists. It doesn’t make Israel more secure. It doesn’t make an end to the Israel-Palestinian conflict more likely. It is a move towards permanent occupation and annexation of the West Bank, and that spells the end of Israel’s democracy.”
It also spells the renewal of the long- standing debate about the nature of the Jewish state, its defense profile and its approach to the Palestinian problem that does not seem to go away. Nor, alas, does the problem of antisemitism and hate crimes. Split vision, to be sure. But nearsightedness when broad vision is required, both at home and abroad. Θ
David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.