Naftali Bennett: Blaming Trump for Pittsburgh shooting is ‘unfair’


NEW YORK (JTA) — Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett defended President Donald Trump against critics who have tied Trump’s rhetoric to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

Bennett, who heads the religious Zionist Jewish Home party, also told JTA on Tuesday that Saturday’s shooting, which took place at a Conservative synagogue, should have no bearing on the internal Israeli debate over whether Israel should recognize non-Orthodox Jewish movements.

Bennett is in the United States to represent the Israeli government in the wake of the shooting, which killed 11 and injured six. After visiting Pittsburgh, he met with Jewish leaders in New York to discuss securing Jewish institutions.

In the days since the shooting, critics of Trump have condemned his anti-immigrant rhetoric for inspiring the alleged gunman, Robert Bowers. Before entering the synagogue, Bowers vilified the Jewish refugee aid group HIAS in an online post.

Trump visited Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where the shooting took place, on Tuesday. Thousands of demonstrators gathered to protest the visit.

But Bennett said connecting Trump to the attack is wrong. He said Trump has been a good friend to Israel and has strongly condemned anti-Semitism. Bennett referenced the president’s moving of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, as well as his actions against Iran.

“Using the horrible anti-Semitic massacre to attack the president is unfair, it’s wrong,” Bennett told JTA in a phone interview. “He condemned anti-Semitism in the strongest possible words. Clearly President Trump is a great friend of Israel and of the Jews. There is no excuse for anti-Semitism. Anti-Semites have been around for thousands of years. Unfortunately we hear it from right and left.”

In Israel, the shooting has fueled a debate on the Orthodox monopoly over religious policy there. Deputy Minister Michael Oren, who grew up in the United States, called on the government to recognize non-Orthodox movements in the wake of the attack. Israel’s haredi Orthodox Chief Rabbinate recognizes only Orthodox marriage, conversion and rabbinic certification, among other matters.

Bennett affirmed the Jewish character of Saturday’s victims. But he said the shooting, and the debate over Israel’s domestic religious policy, are separate matters.

“A Jew is a Jew is a Jew in Israel and all around the world,” he said. “Regarding what are the specific religious and marriage policies in Israel … that is not, right now, in a new debate. Regarding that, we have our internal discussion.”

Bennett, the son of immigrants from the United States, added that while Jewish institutions in the U.S. need to take another look at their security procedures, they do not need to become fortresses.

“We don’t want to turn every synagogue into Fort Knox,” he said. “We want people to be able to lead their lives. Looking at the facts, we do need an increase in the degree of security. I think we have to balance the picture.”

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