It was chilling to hear neo-Nazi agitators chant: “Jews will not replace us.” Jewish Americans should be on the front line opposing extremism and the “alt-right.” Yet, Jewish leaders and major Jewish organizations have so far failed to coordinate their response to events in Charlottesville.
They seem paralyzed by fear and disbelief.
In November 1938, German and Austrian Jews were shocked by Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” when the homes and shops of Jews were ransacked. Charlottesville could be the precursor to violent anti-Jewish pogroms. Kristallnacht in America: extremists attacking synagogues, torching Jewish-owned businesses, and lynching Jews.
Jewish Americans are in denial. They do not believe that Nazism could take root in the United States, a country that heralds principles of pluralism, tolerance, and diversity.
The American Jewish Committee called Charlottesville “horrifying,” “sickening,” and “repugnant.” It urged Trump to use his “incomparable bully pulpit” to denounce the violence. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations condemned hatred, calling for healing the rifts in society. The Anti-Defamation League called it “horrific” and demanded an action plan.
But there is no coordinated action. No full-page advertisements in newspapers; no joint statements; no marches; no Jewish perspective on cable news.
Jewish leaders want President Donald J. Trump to assuage the situation. But Trump cannot be part of the solution, as long as he is part of the problem. Trump did not directly incite violence in Charlottesville, but his polemical rhetoric creates conditions conducive to violence. Instead of bringing the country together, his words divide us further.
Moreover, Trump’s moral authority was undermined by blaming “many sides.” His credibility was further eroded by doubling down on moral equivalency.
This summer my daughters and I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. We talked about the meaning of “never again” and the need to oppose injustice in all its forms.
In times of crisis, each person must be counted as a force for good in the world. I carry a quotation from Pastor Niemoller in my wallet:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me —and there was no one left to speak for me.
We can choose to act against intolerance and bigotry. Jews should not only be at the forefront of the struggle for Jewish rights. Jews must oppose racism and bigotry targeting African Americans, as they did during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Jews must oppose Islamophobia, and discriminatory immigration policies. Every Jew was once a refugee, seeking sanctuary and a new homeland. This is a moment when people must rise to the occasion, in service of what’s right.
Gary D. Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin cringed during Trump’s news conference on August 15. Both Cohn and Mnuchin are Jewish. Both have a personal history of corporate social responsibility and social activism. How can they be a part of an administration that abets neo-Nazis? Why have they not resigned?
In moments of national crisis, we would normally look to the President to lead a national dialogue. The White House would create a blue-ribbon commission to develop a suitable policy and programmatic response. This is not possible with the Trump administration. Trump is ethically compromised. Blaming “two sides” disqualifies him to lead a national initiative on reconciliation.
People must take action when the President is derelict and the heads of major Jewish organizations speak in platitudes. Rabbis across the country should engage their congregants in a discussion on human values and social action. Student associations should meet on campus to organize against hatred, racism, and anti-Semitism. Community organizing can be a tool for resistance.
Dialogue is critical to forging common purpose, countering intolerance, bigotry, and hatred.
David L. Phillips is an author and social commentator. He works as Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.