Michael Starr
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In Squirrel Hill’s Aftermath: Unity, Not Division

The President is responsible for creating a polarized atmosphere, but so are Democratic leaders and average Americans

It didn’t take long for the horror of the Squirrel Hill shooting to become politicized. Commentators on all sides have begun to point fingers at one another. The hot take is, from Haaretz to the Atlantic, that the Trump presidency and anyone supportive or tolerant of him are responsible for the shooting, and they should be punished and shunned accordingly. This includes Republican Jews and Israelis. Instead of more division and fear-mongering, this terror attack should be used as a fulcrum for unity and compassion. This can only be done by recognising commonality and rejecting outrage.

It’s easy to use tragedy as a political weapon. In a political polemic, “A Prayer for Squirrel Hill—And for American Jewry”, Atlantic contributor Franklin Foer asserts that the Trump presidency is just as responsible for the shooting as the actual perpetrator. In Haaretz, this sentiment is echoed by David Rothkopf, with a piece entitled “Trump Didn’t Pull the Trigger on Jews in Pittsburgh, but He Certainly Prepped the Shooter”. While it will be hard for the US president’s detractors to swallow, Trump is not responsible for these deaths. Only the man who pulled the trigger can be shamed in such a manner.

While the Trump government has certainly backed bad ideas and foolish comments, he has not called for the death of Jews. It would be odd if he did. His daughter is Jewish, after all. Nor has he called for the bodily harming of immigrants, who were in part the source of the Pittsburgh shooter’s ire. Politically charged rhetoric is not the same as incitement. True incitement must explicitly call for violence toward someone. Otherwise, there is very little that separates normal political speech from that advocating for violence. If politicians are to be held responsible for the violence of unsolicited extremists, then every single person in the public sphere has blood on their hands. As Trump is responsible for the Squirrel Hill shooting, so too would Bernie Sanders for the congressional baseball shooting, and Barack Obama for the 2016 Dallas shooting. After all, Sanders heavily criticised Republicans, and Obama police officers.

What Donald Trump is responsible for is creating a divisive atmosphere in society, and in that way, he has no more blame on his shoulders than the average American. Every side of the political spectrum has engaged in divisive politics, and there is only dishonesty in pretending otherwise. Republicans and Democrats have cast each other as sinister villains in the stories they tell to voters. These stories are designed to create gulfs between people, and to capitalize on their division. From these cracks in society, extremists have bubbled up. They have found purchase for their footing, not in the support, condoning or ideology of politicians, as many would have you believe, but in the very nature of radical partisanship. Without any understanding and compassion for the opposing side, the other become unknowns. By and large, fear comes from uncertainty, and in the societal gulfs –  that usually contain civil discourse and honest discussion – anxiety, ostracisation, and uncertainty can turn the other into a scapegoat, an enemy, or an obsession. The Squirrel Hill terrorist was an evil individual that operated in this gap. He hated Jews, he hated immigrants, and he even hated Trump, who he apparently claimed was controlled by the Jews.

The way to fill in the gaps where extremists, like the shooter, grow is not with more division. Unfortunately, this is what many activists, politicians, and journalists are contributing. Foer for example, calls for “shunning Trump’s Jewish enablers. Their money should be refused, their presence in synagogues not welcome.” Making membership to a congregation dependent on private political beliefs not only welcomes congregational witch hunts, but suspicion between brothers.  An enabler could be anyone from a supporter to someone who is apolitical, creating a large net of guilt. Shuls are one of the few places where American-Jews of all stripes can meet and treat each other like the fellow citizens and human beings they are. Instead of American-Jews comforting each other over the Pittsburgh tragedy, they would instead cause greater harm to the American diaspora by turning on each other.

This shunning seems to apply to Israelis as well. In Haaretz, Talya Wintman asserts that Benjamin Netanyahu’s condolences “mean nothing” and that “he doesn’t really care about the safety of U.S. Jews”. David Simon, creator of The Wire, went even further, stating that the Israeli government had blood on its hands, and shared responsibility for the attack. Association with Trump is now enough grounds for exile and expulsion from the Diaspora Jewish community. More than this, Israelis, working with Trump to maintain the existence of Israel and save other Jewish lives, get no consideration for the threats to their own lives. American Jews, often in the pages of Haaretz, have argued for the inclusion of BDS supporters, anti-Zionists, and terrorist mourners in the Diaspora Jewish community, and have met any allegation by Israelis that those people are threatening Israel with unbridled outrage. Yet now the same newspaper supposes the same in reverse, association with Trump now even worse than even advocating for the destruction of the Jewish state.

The way to fill in the divides is by accepting that most Americans and most Jews have more in common than they don’t. They all like Football. They all like Hollywood movies. And Republicans and Democrats both want the US to thrive. The United States might not seem like it now, with all the charged rhetoric, but it is a wonderful country, with good citizens. It needs to be recognized that these citizens often disagree on how the country should be run, but this shouldn’t make them enemies. A political disagreement must be seen as a debate and negotiation on how to compromise to find the best policies for the nation, not a civil war.

Likewise, Jews on each end of the political spectrum have thousands of years of unique common experiences to bind them together. They share much of the same history, the same sense of humor, and the same religion. A decade of intense political disagreement is not worth the exile of large segments of the Jewish community from a synagogue.

The shooting was a terrible crime, committed by one evil man. Despite the accusations that he is responsible, Trump has offered his hand in condolence. So has Netanyahu. In the spirit of unity, their political opposition should accept these hands rather than slapping them away. Hands locked, they could find that the greatest thing in common is that they all abhor the violent terrorist attack in Pittsburgh. Then maybe some good can come out of the atrocity, and as the Jewish community heals in the wake of this evil, so too can American society heal the gulfs that divide.

About the Author
A veteran of the IDF and Israel advocacy, Michael Starr is currently a MA student for Government, Counter-Terrorism, and National Security at IDC Herzliya. To receive updates on new articles, follow Michael on Twitter at @Starrlord89.
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