Shabbat of horrors: 10 things to know for October 28
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Shabbat of horrors: 10 things to know for October 28

As a Jewish sanctuary becomes the scene of a bloodbath, recognizing the depth of the tragedy also means pointing fingers, for better or worse

Tammy Hepps, Kate Rothstein and her daughter, Simone Rothstein, 16, pray a block away from the site of a deadly mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood on October 27, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/AFP)
Tammy Hepps, Kate Rothstein and her daughter, Simone Rothstein, 16, pray a block away from the site of a deadly mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood on October 27, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/AFP)

1. Day of enough: Orthodox Jews generally do not use phones or computers over Shabbat, and as my colleague Judah Ari Gross noted after turning his on after the 25-hour day of rest hiatus, it’s “one of those weeks where turning your phone back on after Shabbat just really sucks.”

  • Had it just been a mail bomb scare from a guy who drives a van with swastikas and dreams of a return of Hitler, it would have been enough.
  • Had Israel just suffered yet another weekend of rocket barrages from Gaza, (this time with Syria and Iran taking part,) it would have been enough.
  • Had it just been West Bank clashes, incendiary balloons in Jerusalem, a rising death toll from floods in Jordan, it would have been enough.
  • But then came the poisoned cherry on the mudpie of a weekend, the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in US history — the sum of all the fears and warnings and hate that’s been spreading like gangrene on a stinking wound — a shooting at a synagogue during Saturday morning services, leaving 11 people dead and a Jewish community forever scarred.
  • Dayenu.

2. A sanctuary defiled: For 2,000 years, the synagogue has been the movable holy of holies for the Jewish people, an altar of community, a safe space from the hate outside. Only in the worst of times is that sacred seal broken: pogroms, the Holocaust, waves of terror.

  • Make no mistake, had what happened in Pittsburgh happened in Poland 80 years ago, or been carried out by a Muslim, words like pogrom or terror attack would flow naturally from headlines and tweets, condemnations and Facebook posts.
  • The fact that it did not and does not, neither in the English or Hebrew press, does not take away from the enormity of the massacre. It is just another thing to think about (like Israel Hayom’s ill-timed and cryptic wraparound full front page ad asking “Is Iran Here *something to think about”).
  • Instead, front page headlines refer to what happened as a “nationalist shooting” (Haaretz), “synagogue massacre” (Times of Israel, Israel Hayom), and “massacre of worshipers.” (Yedioth Ahronoth.)

3. Still screaming ‘death to the Jews’: Semantics aside, there is still recognition in the Israeli press of the depths of the tragedy, with outlets giving wide space to coverage from Pittsburgh.

  • Yedioth Ahronoth finds no shortage of Israelis in the neighborhood to talk to. One man gives details that aren’t in the American press though some of those, like exactly where cops were shot, he likely would not know unless he was on the SWAT team.
  • Other details are more reliable, like: “After he surrendered they arrested him and he was still screaming ‘death to the Jews’.”
  • Israel Hayom quotes a member of the Jewish community saying “There’s a big Jewish community here and we never experienced a thing like this. Most of us don’t even lock our doors at home.”
  • (In fact in 2000 a racist shooter did kill a Jewish woman and attack a synagogue in Pittsburgh.)
  • Haaretz interviews the rabbi of nearby synagogue Rodef Shalom, who says they called off the service when they realized what was happening.
  • “I think everyone is surprised when something like this hits so close to home, literally. But at the same time, we are not surprised. We all knew the rhetoric of hate could lead to this kind of situation. There is a numb sense of shock, yes, but there is also a sense that when you have so much hate, this is what happens,” he says.

4. The result of hate: Indeed the politicization of the tragedy started almost immediately, even before the victims were named. JTA’s Ron Kampeas, reporting on a Havdalah vigil quickly organized by teens who had first gotten together in response to the Parkland school shooting, writes that people broke out in chants of “vote vote vote.”

  • “A man who is so hateful and anti-Semitic should never have able to get his hands on a gun,” he quotes Cody Murphy, 17, saying. “This man was a Nazi and he took 11 lives because they are Jewish. We are allowed to be angry.”
  • Stephen Cohen, co-president of New Light Congregation, which rents space at Tree of Life, is quoted telling AP “when you spew hate speech, people act on it. Very simple. And this is the result. A lot of people dead. Senselessly.”

5. Pointing at Trump: Whereas Americans are mostly beating around the bush, though, Israelis have no such compunction about pointing a finger directly at President Trump.

  • “Trump let the disgusting genie out of the bottle, he gave neo-Nazis security to march in the streets and run over a woman in Charlottesville, he gave white supremacists freedom to beat blacks in the street, he freed anti-Semitism in America and he has no intention of changing his ways, both because he can’t and because he views himself as the victim here,” Yedioth’s Tzipi Smilovitz writes.
  • Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev notes that “When Trump said on Saturday that the attack in Pittsburgh might not have been as bloody if the synagogue had hired armed guards, he was essentially blaming the Jewish victims for their own death … Trump’s insensitive assertion proved to anyone who still harbored doubt that he is eminently unqualified to reassure liberal Jews in their hour of darkness.”

6. Stream of hypocrisy: Trump isn’t the only one being pilloried. Shalev and others also see hypocrisy in Israeli leaders’ embrace of the victims, given the fact that Tree of Life is a Conservative synagogue.

  • “They are Conservative, a religious stream discriminated against and humiliated in Israel. They are, according to their beliefs, progressive and egalitarian, or in Israeli parlance, leftists,” Nahum Barnea writes.
  • “In their time of need and despair, American Jews are … consoled by an Israeli government that rejects them and their values,” Shalev says.

7. Blame the Bibi: Others are more direct in blaming Netanyahu, including former British MP Jenny Tonge, who writes in a since-deleted Facebook post: “Absolutely appalling and a criminal act, but does it ever occur to Bibi and the present Israeli government that it’s actions against Palestinians may be re-igniting anti Semitism?“

  • More surprising is this tweet from Atlantic writer Julia Ioffe:
  • After she came under attack for the statement, she responded to some of her critics:

8. Understanding Squirrel Hill: If you want to understand the Squirrel Hill community without all the BS, you can do no better (in my opinion) than to read this column from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette executive editor David Shribman, who lives there.

  • “Precisely because everyone knows everyone around here — the one immutable Squirrel Hill truth that is at once irritating and comforting — the news that raced down the street as noon approached Saturday was about a rare stranger in this peaceful place: dread,” he writes.

9. Blockade contest: Like many other weekends, this weekend saw heavy clashes with Gaza, including a large volley of rockets, though unlike other weeks, this time it was Islamic Jihad doing the shooting, at the direct bidding of Iran and Syria, according to Israel.

  • “Hamas wasn’t only surprised by the volley of rockets, but it was also forced to pay the price, and the price was high,” writes columnist Daniel Sarouti in Israel Hayom.
  • Reflecting Israelis’ frustrations with the situation, Gaza border area resident Matan Tzuri writes in Yedioth that Israel may have a blockade on Gaza, but Hamas has a blockade on Israelis living near the border.
  • “It’s not the same as Gaza, but it’s definitely a blockade with respect to a population living in a free, democratic state, and mostly a strong one,” he writes. “It’s absurd that they are the ones that are putting a form of blockade on us.”

10. Shake your Qaboos: It’s not all bad news. Things looked on the up and up with Israel’s relations with some regional neighbors over the weekend, after Netanyahu made a secret visit to Oman and Sports Minister Miri Regev made a very public visit to Abu Dhabi, where Israeli judokas competed under their national flag for the first time.

  • Haaretz’s Zvi Bar’el notes that the visit was especially important given Oman’s close ties to Iran, and the Saudis barely raising a peep about it. But, he notes, there is a lot going on behind the scenes.
  • “Here we have Oman, on whose soil was born what President Donald Trump called ‘the worst agreement ever,’ hosting with pomp and circumstance the Israeli prime minister, his wife and his entourage, and no less importantly, the Mossad chief,” he writes. “It’s not superfluous to ask why the Mossad head of all people joined the visit, and it wouldn’t be baseless to assume that the Mossad had a hand not only in planning the trip but also in assisting [Sultan] Qaboos in his rule for years.”
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