This weekend, America commemorates the legacies of two great presidents. Their greatness could be seen in their intolerance of intolerance.
When confronted by fears of anti-Semitism from the Jewish community of Newport Rhode Island, President George Washington wrote his famous response:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support… May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
When confronted with a nation more divided than ever following centuries of institutionalized racism and a cataclysmic Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln gave his famous “House Divided” speech. It’s interesting that in this speech, Lincoln did not advocate unity at all costs. Unity for its own sake can never be the ultimate goal. What he was looking for was a nation united for a just cause, in this case the abolition of slavery. Unity with a common purpose can bring people with diverse views together.
February is Black History Month in the US, a time to recall Martin Luther King Jr, who said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King abhorred all hate, but specifically referenced the evils of anti-Semitism.
But when given not one, not two, but three easy opportunities over the past two days to address concerns over a documented rise in hate, particularly directed against Jews (and New York Jews have seen a doubling of hate crimes in 2017), President Trump 1) blamed the victim, stating that the “other side” is responsible for attacks on Jews, rather than the white supremacists he refuses to condemn, 2) took it personally, though no one accused him of being anti-Semitic, 3) expressed absolutely no sympathy for those whose young children attend schools in the dozens of Jewish Centers that have faced bomb threats, 4) treated reporters rudely who dared to ask about it, 5) invoked the endorsement of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has thereby become Trump’s enabler-in-chief.
Or 6) gloated about his electoral college margin.
The answer is 7) all of the above.
So let’s line ’em up:
Abraham: “A house divided cannot stand.”
Martin: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.”
George: “To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no indifference.”
Donald: “I killed it in the Electoral College!”
Because I am a pulpit rabbi, I aim, to the greatest degree possible, to temper my language and aim for consensus. It’s getting more difficult do that by the day. Today’s news conference was for me just about the last straw. But let me take one more shot at dealing with this rationally and calmly.
American Jews have no reason to fear an onslaught of hate directed against us. A poll this week shows that Americans are warming up to religious groups, and Jews are at the very top of the list. In some ways, Jews have never been more secure here.
They like us! They really like us!
And yes, there are Jewish grandchildren in the White House. That should be something to celebrate. In normal times, it would be.
But the form of hatred being incubated by this administration, whether deliberately or tacitly, is every bit as virulent as those Middle Eastern strains that are being so zealously targeted. The terrorism of Quebec City and Charleston was every bit as hateful and murderous as the terrorism of Orlando and San Bernardino. To ignore white supremacist racism is to continue to incubate it, which only proves what so many have suspected all along – that the populism upon which this presidency exists can only be sustained by same kind of xenophobic nativism that ignited it in the first place, one that has been disastrous to free societies everywhere.
Really, Mr. President, I don’t want you to fail this test. I want to kvell over your beautiful Jewish grandchildren. So I earnestly suggest that the next time the softball is lobbed in your direction, put on your listening ears and wait for the questioner to finish. And then say, with every ounce of empathy you can muster:
“I get it. You are nervous and you have reason to be. All these threats, all these incidents, are wrong. Extremism is bad on all sides, whether Islamic or White Christian. Or Jewish, for that matter. Let’s all try to get along better. I believe it was President Washington who said something about tolerating no bigotry. Well, we shouldn’t tolerate it now either. We should make people feel welcome everywhere. Whenever hate is directed against anyone or any group, I’m going to call it out unequivocally. It’s time for this to stop!”
Happy President’s Day.