Drawing Lines, and Learning Lessons

From the official Michigan.gov website
Official photo on the Michigan.gov website

At a weekend rally in Michigan, President Trump sarcastically intoned the name of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, the woman who had the audacity to actively try and stem the spread of Covid-19 in her state. He exhorted the assembled, unmasked attendees to press her to”open up her state.” The crowd, as Trump crowds did at the mention of Hillary Clinton’s name in the 2016 election, began to chant “Lock her up! Lock her up!” The President replied “Lock them all up.”

In response, Governor Whitmer, whose life, we learned only last week, had been threatened by a serious and terrifying plot by far-right militia members, tweeted this: “This is exactly the rhetoric that has put me, my family, and other government officials’ lives in danger while we try to save the lives of our fellow Americans. It needs to stop.”

Like so many Americans, these weeks leading up to our November 3 national election fill me with anxiety and dread. It doesn’t take a lot to “trip my anxiety wires,” as it were, and have me thinking about worst-case scenarios. When I first learned about the plot against Governor Whitmer that had, thankfully, been foiled, I was overwhelmed with a sense of dismay and disgust at the state of disrepair that our country had descended to. It is egged on by our President, who daily defiles both his office and all of us with his conduct.

But hearing of the President’s remarks at that Michigan rally, and the crowd’s enthusiastic participation, I realized why it was that my reaction was so visceral, and so compelling.  On November 4- just a few weeks from now- we will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of November 4, 1995, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated by religious right-wing nationalist Yigal Amir.

Governor Whitmer, in a comment before this past weekend’s Michigan rally, rhetorically drew a line connecting the President Trump’s harsh and vitriolic pronouncements to potential violence from his right-wing followers. This was, she said, particularly so after he failed to denounce right-wing extremists during the first presidential debate. The President, of course, rejected her claim outright. But we students of history should-no. we must- learn from the pain of our own experience.

In the days following the revelation of the secret negotiations at Oslo that led to a formal mutual recognition by Israel and the PLO on the South Lawn of the White House, anti-Rabin demonstrations erupted across Israel. I recall quite clearly driving to Jerusalem from my sister’s home in Rehovot and seeing these words painted crudely on large boulders by the side of the road: Mavet L’Posh’ei OsloDeath to the Sinners of Oslo. There was no subtlety in the message; the implication was quite clear. Those who had decided upon this course of action for Israel, replacing outright refusal to officially recognize the PLO to a grudging willingness to see if there might be another way to move forward, were guilty of treason and deserved to be put to death. Lost in all this was the fact that Prime Minister Rabin himself had been a harsh enforcer of brutal measures to suppress Palestinian protests earlier on in his leadership.  Mavet L’Posh’ei OsloDeath to the Sinners of Oslo. That became the mantra of the opposition.

The sad truth is that Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was either a witting or unwitting participant in this incitement, depending on how charitably one might choose to parse his words of those days. No one could argue with his right to question the wisdom of the Oslo accords, or the right of any of Israel’s citizens who disagreed. But there is surely a line- and it’s not a fine line- between legitimate criticism and potential incitement to violence. Yigal Amir did not commit his heinous crime in a vacuum. It was no coincidence that, in his warped way of thinking, he linked the language of incitement coming from Israel’s right wing to a rabbinic teaching (the laws of the rodef) about killing your potential killer before he has the chance to kill you. Israel learned, in the most terrible and painful way, that words, particularly from leaders, do indeed matter.

I am so thankful for the effective work of the Michigan State Police and the FBI, who worked together to foil the horrendous plot against Governor Whitmer. Had it, God forbid, succeeded, it would have formally introduced a homegrown American version of ISIS to our country. But make no mistake; the seeds of that kind of violence are here, and they are real. Those people are listening closely to our leadership to see just how far they can go. They’ve already gone much too far.

The best way to honor Prime Minister Rabin’s memory is to learn the hard lessons from his death. Words matter. People listen when political leaders talk. Tragedy is but one crazy person away. Governor Whitmer did exactly the right thing in her exchange with President Trump. She told him to stop. We can- and must- do the same thing on November 3.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.
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