In these days following the Charlottesville fiasco, it is time to take a hard look at ourselves. Among the minority of Jews who voted for Trump, some continue to accept arguments along the lines of “but someone else is also a sinner.” (“The alt-left is just as violent” etc.) Among progressives, if Facebook is an indication, too many self-effacing people explain that despite their awareness of white privilege, they hope that their partners in struggle will deign to acknowledge and join their condemnation of Nazis marching in an all-American college town. The Forward published a ridiculous article suggesting the American Nazi Richard Spencer was correct in his racist misrepresentation of Zionism and Israel. Thank God, Yom Kippur is almost upon us. The Charlottesville march of the Nazis and the mistakes made in response to it show us how much we have to repent.
Nazis, my friends! We are talking about a march of Nazis and the inability of the president of the United States and of too many Americans just to come out and condemn them and their anti-Semitism. The American commentator Walter Russel Mead tweeted “… Nazis bad. Ditto Commies. The South deserved to lose. USA deserves our service and love. Civility and tolerance matter. Why is this so hard?” We also saw a notable lag between the march, the murder, and the public recognition of the anti-Semitic bigotries. How did that striking aspect of the event escape the notice of reporters on the scene?
One of the most enlightening dysfunctions occurred, not in the United States, but here in Israel. It took our prime minister days to issue an anemic, unfocused English language condemnation in the form of a tweet: “Outraged by expressions of anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism, and racism. Everyone should oppose this hatred.” Our president, Reuven Rivlin was more eloquent and pointed: “The very idea that in our time we would see a Nazi flag — perhaps the most vicious symbol of anti-Semitism — paraded in the streets of the world’s greatest democracy, and Israel’s most cherished and greatest ally is almost beyond belief.”
But Rivlin is not the prime minister, and Netanyahu’s slavish toeing of the Trump line (to the extent there is a discernible Trump line) brought the stature of this country’s government to a new low in the eyes of people, Left and Right, who value human rights and human dignity. Mr. Netanyahu has from time to time made a pretense of speaking on behalf of the entire Jewish people. Here, offered an opportunity to confront anti-Semitic evil in the country that is home to about three-quarters of the Diaspora, he waffled. He was indecisive. His response lacked commitment and passion. The demand that the prime minister of Israel show leadership when Nazis march is not a question of political parties or of any of the issues that so divide our Israeli public square. Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres, must equally be spinning in their graves.
How does this impact on us, the Jewish Human Rights community? If any of us thought that our Jewish human rights organizations could pursue our struggles separately, surely now we must put these thoughts aside. We have one struggle. Eighty or 90% of us live in the US and Israel. In these communities above all, the struggle for recognition by all peoples that all human beings are created in the Divine Image and enjoy inalienable rights, the lesson that Judaism first taught the world, will have to be prioritized. Charlottesville showed us that we have much work to do. We will not succeed if we hold back, if we ask permission, or wait for our dysfunctional leadership to do their jobs before we teach the truth of Torah about human rights and human dignity. We must come together, collaborate, teach, learn and struggle together. Now more than ever.
Rabbi Ed Rettig is the Chair of Shomrei Mishpat, Rabbis for Human Rights.