Dear Mr. President:
Over the past two weeks, to the consternation of a good many of my colleagues and friends, I have strongly defended both the integrity of your office and the legitimacy of your dismay with Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu by publicly, and unequivocally, calling upon him to cancel his forthcoming address to a joint session of our Congress. For a wide variety of reasons, chief among them the insertion of Israel as a wedge issue in American politics and the public contempt being shown for you and the material support that you have shown Israel throughout your presidency, I believed the Prime Minister to be making a serious mistake.
Throughout your tenure in office (I voted for you twice), I have believed that the Republican attacks against you were designed more to frustrate any creative initiative you might have had than to serve the best interests of the country, and many of the less-than-favorable opinions of your presidency that were offered from certain quarters of the Jewish community were unfair and uncalled for. I am both a proud American and a passionate Zionist, and though I did not agree with you on every issue or statement as relates to Israel, on balance I believed that eight years of George W. Bush had unrealistically conditioned the American Jewish community to expect an American President to think and act like a right-wing Zionist. Unfair, I thought, and thoroughly unrealistic.
But Mr. President, in the same spirit of candor with which I expressed my displeasure with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I am obliged to state just as clearly and unambiguously how very troubled I was/am, and utterly dismayed, by the comments you made in your interview with the Vox.com website regarding the murder of four Jews in the kosher supermarket in Paris, on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
You said that while there are many issues that are of concern today, “It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.”
I’ve read the transcript of this comment countless times, in context, and I remain stunned. Do you really think, even for a moment, that the shooting of those people was random violence against “some folks in a deli?” The attackers themselves made it clear that they were looking for Jews to kill, and that the attack was a premeditated, well-planned terrorist incident.
What has made all this even more offensive to me and so many others are the tortured attempts of White House press secretary Josh Earnest to explain what you meant, that “They weren’t killed because of who they were, but because of where they randomly happened to be,” and also State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, who offered that “there were not all victims of one background or one nationality.” Mr. President, they were all Jews, killed because they were Jews, by people who were out to kill Jews, in the name of radical Islam. If their killing was random, then so was the killing of every person of color who died at the hands of a white racist.
Mr. President, as I see it, I have two choices here. The first is that I can choose to believe that you were simply speaking very carelessly to a media outlet with which you felt comfortable, not being particularly careful in choosing your words, and what you said came out sounding far different from what you would insist your true feelings are. Maybe. But the problem with this choice is that it leaves me wondering if what you said when you weren’t being careful was what you truly feel, in which case, my problem remains, and is huge.
The second choice is that you said exactly what you meant to say, which leads me to the almost inexpressibly unhappy conclusion that you are genuinely clueless about the true nature of the threat of Islamic fundamentalism and, of course, its implications not only for the West, but also for Israel (and for Jews).
If this second choice is true, then the next exquisitely unhappy conclusion that I am obliged to draw is that I have no faith at all in America’s negotiations with Iran. How can I have faith that our negotiators understand Israel’s existential concerns with a potentially nuclear Iran if our commander-in-chief doesn’t understand the difference between random acts of violence and anti-Semitic murders, and seems almost clinically incapable of identifying violence perpetrated by radical Islamists as a major issue of our times, and not reducing it to just another instance of “religion acting badly.”
As I said in a similarly painful and difficult letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, it brings me no pleasure at all to have to write you with such a difficult message. I have great respect for your office, and enormous appreciation of the blessings of this country. But it is precisely because I am so disappointed and concerned that I feel constrained to write. I trust you will understand.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.