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Israeli Leaders Come To President Trump's Defense On Questions Of Anti-Semitism


At the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Friday, members of the Jewish community locked arms and prayed to mark the Sabbath and to grieve. In the weeks since the hate-crime shooting, there's been a focus on whether President Trump's rhetoric could be encouraging anti-Semitism. Israeli leaders who often speak out beyond their borders on the issue of anti-Semitism have been eager to come to his defense. It's a view that has divided the U.S. Jewish community. But it is in keeping with the tight bond Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have forged. NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us now from Jerusalem to talk about it. Welcome to the program.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's go over some of the comments that Israel's leaders have made.

ESTRIN: Sure. Well, first, Israeli officials have defended Trump against criticism that there is any line to be drawn between Trump and the white nationalist who carried out this attack. Here is what Israeli government Minister Naftali Bennett told Fox News.


NAFTALI BENNETT: Blaming President Trump for this horrific massacre is unfair. It's flatly wrong. President Trump is a great friend of Israel, of the Jewish state. His family is Jewish. He came out, I guess, with the most powerful words I can recall. He said that anyone who is out to destroy the Jewish nation - he will destroy them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then the other thing that Israeli officials have done is they've deflected the focus on white nationalism. And they put this act of anti-Semitism in a different context. First of all, Minister Bennett, who we just heard from, drew a parallel with Palestinian attacks on Israel. He said the same hand that shoots rockets at Israel from Gaza is the same hand that shot bullets in the Pittsburgh synagogue. And then Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, told Fox that you can find anti-Semitism on both sides. Here's what he said.


RON DERMER: This is the action of the extremes. It could be neo-Nazis on the right. It could be militant Islamists on the left. It could be all sorts of people in between. Anti-Semitism is not a product of one side of the political spectrum.

ESTRIN: And he said anti-Semitism has been growing in America much before Trump took office.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why would they be taking this approach?

ESTRIN: Well, speaking to analysts about that here, they are very clear about this. They say Israel and Trump need each other's support. They have each other's backs. Trump has adopted Israel's position on Iran, the Iran deal, on moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. And on Israel's side, it's come to Trump's defense when he's accused of anti-Semitism.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And, of course, there's an ideological union - right? - because the government in Israel is conservative, right-wing. And so is this president.

ESTRIN: Absolutely. And I think in the shooting, you've seen that split between the U.S. Jewish community, which is much more liberal - the majority of Jews did not vote for Trump - and Israel, which - the majority in Israel is very supportive of Trump and is more conservative.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How is this shooting resonating more widely in Israel?

ESTRIN: We've heard a lot of different responses here that have sparked some controversy. First, we heard from Israel's Labor Party. The head of the party called on American Jews after the shooting to move to Israel. That was controversial here to suggest that the U.S. is not a safe place for Jews. There was also some controversy because an Israeli Orthodox chief rabbi stopped short of calling the Tree of Life synagogue a synagogue, which sort of highlights that debate about whether there's lack of tolerance in Israel for liberal Judaism. And the Israeli government Minister Bennett - he traveled to Pittsburgh. He met with Jews there. He said he felt very, very welcome there by the Jewish community. And there was a kind of an interest of projecting unity. But I've been speaking with progressive Jewish leaders, one liberal American rabbi, Jill Jacobs. Here's what she said.

JILL JACOBS: We as Jews, as the American Jewish community, are terrified of the growing white nationalism. And it's white nationalism that's being supported and winked at from the very top. And so when somebody like Naftali Bennett comes to Pittsburgh and uses this as an opportunity to thank Trump, that's a sign that Israel is not actually standing with American Jews against the anti-Semitism that is being supported and enabled by the president himself.

ESTRIN: She said Israeli leaders were tone-deaf in their response.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem, thanks so much.

ESTRIN: Thanks, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.