David Harris

Dear President Trump: Aftermath of Charlottesville, Part II

Dear President Trump,

I wrote on Monday morning urging you to reconsider your exceptionally ill-chosen words of Saturday – “on many sides” – following the tragic events in Charlottesville.

Shortly afterward, and I’m sure unrelated to my plea, you did so, or at least seemed to do so. I felt your new take on Charlottesville may have been somewhat devoid of passion and authenticity, but at least it was a start in the right direction, however late it might have been.

But barely 24 hours passed before you stood up again and reverted to your Saturday thinking, leaving Monday’s words in the dust. Indeed, your newest comments have rightly provoked outrage and dismay in wide swaths of the country, including within the Republican Party.

When I was a visiting faculty member, leading a course on the politics of memory, I asked my graduate students what were the most important safeguards against outbursts of deadly hatred and intolerance.

To a person, their first answer was the tone set by political leadership, beginning at the very top. They also mentioned the roles of religious and civic leaders, the media, schools, and, of course, families, but they kept returning to the first category, citing both positive and negative examples in history.

Sadly, the inescapable message received yesterday from your words will only inflame feelings in this country, drive a deeper wedge among Americans, and convince many that you really do see a moral equivalence between white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members, on the one hand, and those who oppose them on the other hand.

Mr. President, there is no moral equivalence, nor can there be – not when one side wishes to celebrate the racist, secessionist Confederacy and chant “Jews will not replace us,” and the other side represents the voices of inclusion and diversity; nor when one side resorts to violence, leading to the murder of a young woman and injuries to 19 others, and the other side is the target.

As our nation’s top elected official, you are meant to be our moral leader-in-chief and our unifier-in-chief. Yet, sadly, you have abdicated both roles. Your remarks of Saturday and yesterday make that painfully clear, not to mention the five days that have passed without a visit to the family of Heather Heyer or your absence from her funeral today.

I fully understand that hatred was not born in this country as a result of your presidency. Indeed, in the decade of the 1990s, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) led a national campaign with the theme “No one is born hating.”

We sponsored many advertisements in newspapers and helped build coalitions to stand against violence in the name of bigotry.

Here’s an excerpt from our statement in The New York Times on August 29, 1999:

“Enough is enough. Hatred is spreading – with fatal consequences. It struck in Illinois and Indiana over Independence Day weekend. African Americans, Asian Americans, and Jews were the victims. It struck again at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles, wounding five Jews, including children, and killing a Filipino American postal worker… Action is necessary now. As a start, Congress must hold full-scale hearings on groups that preach hatred and glorify violence… Hate groups must be fought through education, law, and political will.”

So, no, it’s not a new phenomenon in the current era, but what is new is the delayed, hesitant, and contradictory reaction of our nation’s leader, when precisely the opposite response is so desperately needed.

I might add that those Congressional hearings are once again urgently needed as well.

And I also understand that violence and intimidation are not just tools of the far right, but have been used by the far left as well. Coming from parents who experienced the full force of both extremes in Europe, I don’t ignore one at the expense of the other.

But in the case of Charlottesville, unlike what happened at a baseball field in Virginia or at UC Berkeley, this was not about the far left, with its violent elements, setting the stage, but rather those who want to separate us by racial identity, create a hierarchy among us, and take a page from the Third Reich in how to deal with the Jews – which, presumably, applies every bit as much to your family today as it does to mine.

Mr. President, for many Americans, finding a path forward that narrows the differences and builds greater cohesion may seem like an impossible task. Yet as long as you are the occupant of the Oval Office, surely it needs to be among your foremost obligations, together with protecting our national security.

For the sake of us all, I can only hope that wise heads, who are determined to set us on that path, will prevail in the weeks and months to come. The national stakes couldn’t be higher.

David Harris

About the Author
David Harris is the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
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