It is the month of Elul, a time for introspection…
We had our concerns.
The Trump administration had come to power with the active support of a small but vocal coalition of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. While certainly not all who voted for Trump were of this ilk, none of them seemed to be dissuaded by the litany of shocking statements and promises candidate Trump made. Guided by Steve Bannon, Trump labeled Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers. He retweeted white supremacist messages filled with hate and lies, and stated that Muslims should be banned from entering the United States.
There were those who rationalized those actions and explained away Trump’s coddling of right-wing hate groups as simply a matter of electoral opportunism. Once he was elected, the apologists cited the prominent role Trump seemed to have assigned his Orthodox Jewish son-in-law and the presence of mainstream politicians such as Reince Priebus, whom he chose as chief-of-staff. They ignored Trump’s decision to bring Steve Bannon into the White House as chief strategist, and to bring others who harbored racist ideas as administration staff and aides along with him.
It wasn’t a secret. It was often reported that before Steve Bannon rose to take a prominent role in Trump’s election campaign, he proudly took credit for transforming the conservative Breitbart News Network into a platform for the so-called alt-right, a euphemism created by the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer to categorize an amorphous hodgepodge of groups united by white racialism and Islamophobia. Many of these groups also are viciously anti-Semitic. They have been excited by Trump’s ascension to power, and he has unabashedly echoed their themes at his post-election rallies, which seem to be a realization of the Orwellian “two minute hate.”
In the immediate aftermath of the election, hate crimes surged. While the volume of these incidents has fallen off over time, since the inauguration we have suffered terrible hate crimes. The list is too long to enumerate but just two examples: in February, a man shouting slurs at two Indian immigrants in a Kansas bar shot them both, killing one. In May, two men were killed and a third injured by a knife-wielding assailant as he defended two Muslim women from a man with a history of racist and anti-Muslim remarks and social media posts.
And then, this summer, came Charlottesville.
Truth be told, the violence around Charlottesville began much earlier and not even in that town. In June 2015, during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Dylann Roof killed nine people. Roof, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, targeted one of the oldest black churches in the United States, long associated with the struggle for civil rights, in an attempt to ignite a race war. What happened instead, in response to the violence, was a movement calling for the removal of Confederate monuments in public places. Many of those monuments had been erected with a wink and a nod to white supremacists opposed to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
In 2016, in response to this new and growing movement, a park in Charlottesville, with a statue of Robert E. Lee standing in it, was renamed Emancipation Park. In May and June 2017, the park became the locus of a number of white supremacist protests. Jason Kessler graduated from posting anti-immigrant and white supremacist screeds online and became a key organizer in a program to bring together a number of factions that had been protesting against the renaming of the park. The “Unite the Right” rally was planned for August 12, 2017 at Emancipation Park and involved several neo-Nazi organizations, including Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute, white supremacist factions including the Ku Klux Klan, and a range of other nativist and far-right groups.
On August 11, about 100 neo-Nazi and white supremacist demonstrators marched through the University of Virginia campus in the city shouting racist, misogynous, and anti-Semitic slogans, inciting fights with counterdemonstrators, while clergy held a planned ecumenical and interfaith service in opposition to the Unite the Right rally.
On the morning of August 12, Unite the Right demonstrators began to gather early, shouting anti-Semitic slogans. Eventually, about 500 demonstrators and about 1,000 counterdemonstrators faced off at the park. Many of the demonstrators and some of the counterdemonstrators were armed with weapons including guns. DeAndre Harris, a black teacher’s aide, was attacked in a parking garage by a group of six white supremacists wielding pipes, poles, and wooden slabs. The assault was caught in photographs and on video, leading to the arrest of some of those involved. In a separate incident caught on tape, a demonstrator shot at the ground in front of a black counterprotester. At 11 a.m., Charlottesville declared a state of emergency; about 40 minutes later, police cleared Emancipation Park and 100 far-right demonstrators moved to a park about two miles away.
At about 1:45, a car was driven into a group of counterdemonstrators, killing Heather Heyer, a deeply caring and much-loved paralegal at a local firm, and wounding 19 others. A neo-Nazi sympathizer, James Fields, was arrested on second degree murder and other charges. He had been photographed earlier in the day holding a shield with the logo of a white supremacist group.
The fuse that had been lit in Charleston in 2015 exploded in Charlottesville in 2017.
With America suffering from the most open violence against minorities since the 1960s, the president who had vowed to “make America great again” spoke to the nation from his New Jersey vacation home. In a statement many have said was penned by Bannon, Trump said: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides.” Trump’s failure to denounce the bigotry of the Unite the Right groups or the murderous violence perpetrated by its adherents explicitly, and his attempt to spread the blame for that violence to counterdemonstrators, shocked many in this country. It stood in sharp contrast to the statement of German chancellor Angela Merkel, who declared, “It is racist, far-right violence, and clear, forceful action must be taken against it, regardless of where in the world it happens.”
White supremacist and neo-Nazi groups were ecstatic. The leader of the free world had given them a pass. Daily Stormer editor Andrew Anglin applauded the fact that Trump had “outright refused to disavow” the Unite the Right groups. “People saying he cucked are shills and kikes,” wrote Anglin. “He did the opposite of cuck. He refused to even mention anything to do with us. When reporters were screaming at him about White Nationalism he just walked out of the room.”
“Cuck” is short for “cuckservative” — a combination of “cuckold” and “conservative” the alt-right uses to describe white Republicans “who are participating in the displacement of European Americans,” according to Richard Spencer.
Another Daily Stormer writer noted, “Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate… on both sides!”
Trump’s declaration drew much condemnation from across the political spectrum. Business leaders reacted against Trump’s position. The CEO of Merck, Kenneth Frazier, one of the few African-Americans to head a major U.S. corporation, resigned from Trump’s American Manufacturing Council on August 14. In less than an hour, Trump launched a twitter attack against Merck. Frazier had been at the White House only a month before to promote an agreement between Merck and two other companies to create 1,000 jobs. CEOs spoke out in favor of Frazier and many resigned from advisory councils, leading to the councils’ dissolution.
Advised by his new chief of staff, John Kelly, on August 14, Trump issued a new statement in an attempt to control the criticism, saying, “To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered. […] Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” The following day, however, Trump defended his August 12 statement, repeating his broad-brush explanation that there was “blame on both sides.” He defended it again at a Phoenix rally on August 22, lending support to those protesting the removal of Confederate monuments.
Bannon was forced out of the White House on August 18, but only after giving an interview critical of Trump the previous day. He immediately returned to Breitbart, saying, “In many ways I think I can be more effective fighting from the outside for the agenda President Trump ran on.”
What if he is correct in that assessment?
Richard Cohen, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “There’s a virus in our country. It’s a virus called ‘hate’…When we look at the number of hate groups, we’ve seen an increase in the past 15 years. When we look at people engaged in online hate, like people who are registered users of something like [the white supremacist website] Stormfront, you’ll see an increase.”
This is the month of Elul, a time of introspection.
The shofar is sounded each day in Elul to help us prepare for the High Holy Days. The shofar calls out to us as individuals and as a community to inspire us to action; in the call, we hear the challenge to prepare for Ashamnu. On Yom Kippur, the synagogue is turned into a heavenly court and we stand and declare “Ashamnu. We are guilty.” It is not a personal but a communal guilt. We all are responsible because someone in our community is guilty. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh means that all Jews are responsible for one another. There is no longer any place for apologies. The Jewish community is judged in toto, and therefore it is incumbent upon us to unite in a political and ideological rejection of Trump.
Every year, U.S. rabbis have organized a conference call to speak with the president of the United States before the Jewish High Holy Days. This year, rabbinical groups representing the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements issued a joint statement announcing: “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 Nazis, ‘alt-right’ and white supremacists who brought their hate to a peaceful community. They must be roundly condemned at all levels.”
That statement, which has replaced the traditional phone call, thunders of justice.
How then are we to understand the equally loud (but twice as vile) announcement from the Zionist Organization of America, which has invited Steve Bannon to speak at its annual gala, at what will be his first public appearance to be scheduled since he was forced out of the White House? Ashamnu
ZOA’s President Morton Klein has confirmed that Bannon is to speak at the celebration. In response to reports that Bannon will introduce major ZOA and Trump donor Sheldon Adelson, Klein said “All I can tell you is Steve Bannon is going to be at the dinner. I don’t know if he’ll be introducing Adelson but that it is a special appearance by Steve Bannon.”
Former Senator Joe Lieberman will share the stage with Bannon. Ashamnu
So will U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Ashamnu.
So will Chris Ruddy, who is Newsmax’s CEO and the author of Trump’s inaugural address. Ashamnu.
Klein also invited former White House staffer Sebastian Gorka. Ashamnu.
What are the antibodies to this virus of hate? Are they to be found in fawning sycophancy? No!
Here are the antibodies, the voices of religious leaders speaking out against prejudice. They are found in a free and independent press that Trump derides and seeks to discredit in so many of his tweets. They are found in vocal opposition swelled by voices of the prominent and the modest that shout together, with the strength of a shofar, that we do not judge people by the color of their skin, or their place of birth, or their ethnicity, or their religious profession. We judge people by the content of their character. When these voices combine in open expression, they bring strength against the virus called hate, not only by virtue of their numbers but because they engage something most powerful of all, the still small voice of conscience.
We as a community of Jews made up of individuals of conscience must not sit back in silence.
Together let us resolve to shout out against racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and all the other forms of prejudice. Let us join together in support of the democratic norms and values our President seems so eager to erode.
Elul is a time of introspection for the triumph of evil is for good men to remain quiet and do nothing. History teaches us the risk of our silence.
Hiam Simon of Englewood is the past chief operating officer of Ameinu, the leading progressive Zionist membership organization in the United States. He lived in Israel for many years, where he was the dean of students at what is now the Alexander Muss High School, and he served in the IDF as a noncommissioned officer in the artillery.
Dr. Mark Gold of Teaneck holds a Ph.D. in economics from NYU. He is on the executive board of Partners for Progressive Israel, a member organization of the American Zionist Movement and an affiliate of the World Union of Meretz.