POLITICS
08/23/2017 04:42 pm ET

Jewish Groups Cancel High Holidays Call With Trump Over Charlottesville Comments

In a statement, the groups accused Trump of emboldening "those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia.”
The annual pre-High Holidays conference call is a tradition started during President Obama's second term in office.
Carlos Barria / Reuters
The annual pre-High Holidays conference call is a tradition started during President Obama's second term in office.

Four major U.S. Jewish organizations have announced that they will not convene an annual conference call with the president leading up to the High Holidays.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbinical Assembly, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism released a joint statement on Wednesday accusing President Donald Trump of making statements that embolden “those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia.”

“We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year,” the statement said.

The annual conference call with rabbis, organized by the four groups included on the statement, takes place in the days leading up to the Jewish High Holidays. The tradition has been in place for roughly eight years, according to a representative from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton held similar briefings, though the tradition wasn’t formalized until President Barack Obama took office, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

In their statement, the groups referred to comments the president made during and after neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan rallies in Charlottesville, Va. devolved into violence, resulting in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer at the hands of a white supremacist.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said Jewish organizations were “very much prepared” to do the call until the events transpired in Charlottesville.

As members of white supremacist, neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate groups marched through the streets of Charlottesville, they carried banners emblazoned with swastikas and shouted slogans like “blood and soil,” a phrase inspired by Nazi propaganda.

Outside the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue nearby, men with semi-automatic rifles reportedly lined up as worshippers prayed inside. After their services, congregants exited through the back in fear for their safety.

“This is an existential question of safety and security for us right now,” Pesner told HuffPost.

Trump initially blamed the clash that ensued between white supremacists and counter-protestors on violence from “many sides.”

He later “clarified” his position by specifically condemning white supremacists and neo-Nazis in a prepared statement, saying: “Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs.”

But the next day Trump reiterated his original comments, telling reporters: “You had a group on one side who was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent, and nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now.”

He added: “You have people who are very fine people on both sides.”

The president’s comment drew criticism from leaders across the political spectrum. Rabbi Emeritus Haskel Lookstein, who sponsored Ivanka Trump’s conversion to Judaism, was among those who fiercely criticized Trump’s defense of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists.

Trump has previously failed to strongly condemn anti-Semitism and has been accused of courting white supremacist groups in statements and tweets that nod to their world views.

“We pray that President Trump will recognize and remedy the grave error he has made in abetting the voices of hatred,” the Jewish groups’ statement affirmed.

Read the full statement below:

The High Holy Days are an opportunity for reflection and introspection. As the leaders of major denominations in American Jewish life, we have been deeply engaged in both, considering the events of the Jewish year that is ending and preparing spiritually for the year to come.

In so doing, we have thoughtfully and prayerfully considered whether to continue the practice in recent years of playing key roles in organizing a conference call for the President of the United States to bring High Holiday greetings to American rabbis. We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year.

The President’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia. Responsibility for the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, including the death of Heather Heyer, does not lie with many sides but with one side: the Nazi, alt-right and white supremacists who brought their hate to a peaceful community. They must be roundly condemned at all levels.

The High Holy Days are a season of t’shuva for us all, an opportunity for each of us to examine our own words and deeds through the lens of America’s ongoing struggle with racism. Our tradition teaches us that humanity is fallible yet also capable of change. We pray that President Trump will recognize and remedy the grave error he has made in abetting the voices of hatred. We pray that those who traffic in anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia will see that there is no place for such pernicious philosophies in a civilized society. And we pray that 5778 will be a year of peace for all.

HuffPost

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