Over the past few days, there has been a lot of criticism of President Trump, even from Republican leaders, over his comments that “many sides” were to blame for violence in Charlottesville, seemingly equating neo-Nazis with left-wing protesters. And yet, not only has President Trump been criticized, but the Orthodox leadership has been criticized for refusing to condemn the president’s response.
The Rabbinical Council of America did issue a statement, first on August 12, condemning the violence and bigotry displayed at the White supremacist gathering but without specifically criticizing President Trump. Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt wrote an article in the Forward criticizing the RCA’s tepid response and the lack of response from Agudath Israel.
Perhaps in response to this criticism and especially after President Trump’s comments in a subsequent press conference, the RCA issued a more forceful subsequent statement today, condemning any suggestion of moral equivalency “between the White Supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and those who stood up to their repugnant messages and actions… Failure to unequivocally reject hatred and bias is a failing of moral leadership and fans the flames of intolerance and chauvinism… [T]his situation rises above partisan politics and therefore we are taking the unusual approach to directly comment on the words of the President.”
In her article, Ms. Chizhik suggested that Orthodox Jews in America may be too afraid to condemn a president unable to call out neo-Nazis because of a shtetl mentality and a fear of upsetting President Trump which could affect his pro-Israel stance. I am heartened by the RCA’s August 16th press release and wholeheartedly agree with it. We cannot create any perception of moral equivalence between the neo-Nazi/White Supremacist movement and those on the political far left. Furthermore, we must sensitize ourselves and educate our children about the danger of even “casual racism,” making racist jokes or off-handed comments and claiming that we were just making a joke and there was no intent to be racist. Racism is determined by more than just intent; it is also determined by impact, and “casual racism” helps fuel a racist climate which must not be tolerated.
Finally, I believe that often the hesitation to criticize the president is not based on a shtetl mentality; rather, it’s based on a Rav Zecharya Ben Avkulas mentality. The Talmud in Gittin cites the famous Kamtza Bar Kamtza story when Rav Zecharya Ben Avkulas refused to offer a blemished sacrifice from Bar Kamtza, even though this refusal would cause the Romans to think that the Jews were rebelling against them. The Torah leaders followed Rav Zecharya’s lead and the Romans interpreted this behavior as rebellion and they attacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. The Gemara then states that the humility of Rav Zecharya caused the destruction of the Temple. Rav Tzvi Hirsch Chajes argues that Rav Zecharya felt that he wasn’t on a high enough level to authorize the decision to offer a blemished sacrifice and he was concerned what “the people would say.”
Why was he so concerned? Because there was a culture of sinat chinam, groundless hatred. Effective leadership can only function in a world bereft of sinat chinam. If there is sinat chinam, if there is a culture of “I hate you because I disagree with you,” then nobody will want to step up and be a leader and take a bold and courageous stance when necessary. If there is a culture of “Gotcha,” of trying to find fault in those with whom we disagree, then even our Torah leaders will stop acting like leaders for fear of constantly being criticized. Unfortunately, we live in a culture when we can’t have an honest political conversation without being judged of being on the alt-left or alt-right. The consequence of this culture is that our Torah leadership may be slow to respond or may not even respond when they clearly need to respond.
So, yes, denounce any hint of moral equivalency between the neo-Nazis and those on the political left. Continue to speak out against racism in all of its ugly forms. But let’s all realize what kind of polarizing world we live in and ask ourselves if we are Republicans, have we made serious strides to reach out to Democrats and if we are Democrats, have we made serious strides to reach out to Republicans. Because if we continue to refuse to engage in serious nonjudgmental conversations with our political opponents, the Rav Zecharya Ben Avkulas mentality amongst our leaders will only grow stronger, and we will lose the chance of any meaningful dialogue between those with whom we disagree.