Dear Mr. President:
As we enjoy this holiday weekend and celebrate our country’s Independence Day – a time that brings great pride and introspection about what this country means and should stand for – I feel compelled to send you this missive.
I should begin by telling you that I not only voted for you but that tears came to my eyes when you were elected in 2008 because I deeply felt the momentousness of the occasion. I was proud of you, of the democratic party, of the electorate, and of our great country. And, just as I celebrate groundbreaking Jewish Americans like Louis D. Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, I celebrated your election because, in addition to believing in your policy ideas, I understood that representation at the highest level matters to those who have never had it. In this same vein, I hope to be celebrating the first woman president shortly.
Your recent remarks after the horrific homophobic massacre in Orlando struck me as particularly affecting. I was moved by the vision of America you described, a vision I share. In discussing why you don’t use the phrase “radical Islam,” you admirably expressed concern about how using certain rhetoric may harm Muslim Americans, who may be subject to discrimination because of their faith. We have seen how rhetoric against Mexican Americans and LGBT Americans endangers members of those communities. You recognize that words are powerful and should be chosen carefully. You also reminded us that in this country we don’t have religious tests, that we value pluralism, diversity and openness, and you described an inspiring Air Force Academy commencement ceremony at which cadets of all sexes, races, sexualities and religions applauded each other. As you said, “That’s America. One team. One nation.”
Similarly, your words after the shooting in Charleston moved me. Just as folks have pointed out that the Orlando shooting targeted the LGBT community in one of its safest spaces, you remarked that the Charleston shooting was particularly heartbreaking because it occurred “in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace.” You added that Emanuel AME Church is “more than a church,” that it “is a place of worship that was founded by African Americans seeking liberty… a church that was burned to the ground because its worshipers worked to end slavery…a sacred place in the history of Charleston and in the history of America.” You rightly discussed our dark history involving attacks on black churches and noted that “hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals.”
This very weekend we lost Elie Wiesel, who you described as “one of the great moral voices of our time, and in many ways, the conscience of the world,” and who you came to know “through his account of the horror he endured during the Holocaust simply because he was Jewish.” Among his many crucial contributions, Wiesel taught us that “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” He implored “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” As you stated in your remarks about him, Wiesel’s “life, and the power of his example, urges us to be better.” And, echoing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s comment that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Wiesel observed “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.” So, in his honor, I now urge you at this critical moment in history – one in which Jew hatred is on the rise, including most dangerously among those who describe themselves as anti-racists – to do better when it comes to the Jews and Israel.
I urge you in this manner even as you are nearing the end of your presidency because you are a symbol of this country. Jewish Americans and Jewish communities around the world that are under siege need your leadership, clarity, empathy and love. Just as London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan will make challenging the alarming rise in anti-semitism a priority, this is a time to stand with Jewish Americans and Jews around the globe.
Israel is not only the historic homeland and nation of the Jewish people but also the spiritual center for the world’s Jews and the modern nation that serves as a refuge for Jews of every skin color and nationality, including those ethnically cleansed from all the neighboring Arab countries. In other words, Israel is our safest space. Every attack on Israel is thus as traumatizing and concerning as an attack on a storied black church or a popular LGBT nightclub. The words you use to address Israel’s defensive wars, security tactics and other policies are as powerful as the words you use to describe issues that may impact Gay Americans or Black Americans or Muslim Americans.
As you must know, Jews are the second most likely targets of hate crimes in America, just behind LGBT Americans. Jewish schools and places of worship often require additional security, Jewish college students fear for their safety and their free speech rights, and prejudice against Jews, including those who openly express that, just like all other peoples, Jews have a right to self-determination and to defend themselves from terrorism in their own country, affects how we live, study, work and pray.
It is easy to speak out against Holocaust deniers, white supremacist groups which provide fodder for Donald Trump’s Twitter account or those who target Jews with an echo symbol on Twitter. These are the obvious things to stand up to. This is why so many were disappointed in your failure to stand up to Iran’s blatant anti-semitic rhetoric and genocidal threats. However, the more serious challenge of our time that I ask you to take on is the age old anti-semitic tropes and myths that are repackaged by anti-racists and used to demonize Israel, thereby endangering Jews there and everywhere. In fact, the failure to understand how Jew hatred works differently from other hatreds allows otherwise good people on the left to erase and excuse anti-semitism.
I know you have done much to provide for Israel’s security, including sharing intelligence and providing defensive weapons systems. But, imagine how much more secure Israel and the world’s Jews would be if instead of playing neutral or blaming Israel’s settlement policy for violence you strongly denounced the Jew hatred taught to the Palestinians and the wider Arab world as the crux of the Israeli-Arab conflict. This lack of clarity and denial of the truth gives encouragement to the terrorist groups and the countries who bankroll them, which will never accept a Jewish state, wherever its borders may be. Just as some worried that the Orlando massacre was improperly universalized, similarly you should unequivocally state that Jews are killed in Israel and in the West Bank, in Paris, and elsewhere, for being Jews.
A recent series of studies showed that the more attention that is focused on crime victims the more we engage in victim blaming. In contrast, focusing attention on the perpetrators reduces victim blaming. In the context of Israel, it is time to stop focusing attention on each and every Israeli policy and start focusing it on the perpetrators of Jew hatred and those who are the true threat to peace, including the groups leading the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank that encourage and incite terrorism, reward the families of terrorists, erase and deny Jewish history and connection to the land, and refuse to move the peace process forward by making demands that threaten the security or Jewish nature of Israel.
In closing, I ask you to heed Wiesel’s words. We must name and fight all hatreds. We must not be neutral. Specifically, we must continue to fight the scourge of anti-semitism. America, like Israel, is a light unto the nations. But we must never rest if we are to continue shining and leading the way.
Ariel David Chesler