Election Day gravitas

This Tuesday is Election Day.

Tuesday is our day to respond to the growing hatred in America — especially hatred against Jews — that cost the lives of 11 worshippers in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue last Shabbat.

Tuesday also is our day to send President Trump a message: This is your fault, and you need to fix it now.

The severe spike in anti-Semitic incidents began in mid-2015. Jew hatred suddenly exploded in America, going up 34 percent in 2016, and another 57% in 2017, according to the ADL. In 2016, according to the FBI’s statistics, there were more acts committed against Jews and Jewish institutions than were committed against all other religious groups combined.

What happened in mid-2015 that could explain this horrifying rise in hate?

Simply stated, that was when the haters came crawling out of their holes. They did so, by their own words, because that was when there arose a candidate for a major party’s presidential nomination who spoke their language, and promoted their agenda. Donald Trump.

Hate groups, especially the violence-prone ones such as the Ku Klux Klan, suddenly felt more emboldened than ever before. Their ranks even may be growing again. Chris Barker, who heads one of our nation’s most active Ku Klux Klan chapters, crowed as much to a British newspaper, saying he has “never seen the Klan grow at the pace it’s growing now….”

That Trump is their Enabler-in-Chief is what Chris Barker and his evil ilk say — not what I say, or what left-wing pundits say, but what they say. It is what David Duke says. Duke — the white supremacist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist, Holocaust denier, and onetime KKK Grand Wizard — was thrilled with Trump because, he said, Trump embraced “most of the issues…I’ve championed for years. My slogan remains ‘America First.’”

That is significant. “America First” is the slogan Trump says defines his presidency — and his use of that phrase is part of what the haters mean when they say Trump speaks their language. “America First” has been a virulently anti-Semitic catchphrase since before World War Two. It is a direct lift from Charles Lindbergh’s pre-World War II virulently anti-Semitic “America First Committee.”

At Charlottesville last year, Duke said this: “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump,” adding that “we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.”

To Duke, taking America back means taking it back from the Jews. In Charlottesville, that horrible night, one of the chants was “Jews will not replace us.” Charlottesville, Duke said, was the fulfillment of Trump’s vision for America.

After the president’s widely criticized performance at the Helsinki summit, Duke said this:

“[In] my lifetime, I have never seen such a courageous attack on the whole of the…Zionist Occupied Government of the United States, and the Zionist Occupied Media! Today Trump is a Hero…! Bravo Trump! Bravo Russia! Bravo to all the true American Patriots who put America first…before the Zionist Deep Evil State ruling American Media and Politics.”

From the day in 2015 when he announced his candidacy, Trump has used such catchphrases, all taken from the White Nationalist playbook. On October 22, he went further than ever before when he called himself “a nationalist,” a word favored by the haters here, and by some of the most evil haters in history. Remember, please, that “Nazi” is shorthand for “the Nationalist Socialist Party.”

October 22, by the way, was the day the first of 14 pipe bombs appeared (this one at the home of George Soros), launching a week of hate ending in a day of horror, and included an attempted mass shooting in a black church in Jefferson, Kentucky. Because the perpetrator could not gain access to the church, he went to a nearby supermarket and killed two shoppers.

That is the true face of this country’s “nationalists.” Of course, the far left also harbors hatred for Jews and always has, but the great threat to us today comes from the violence-prone extreme right.

Here is a frightening fact about hate groups: They do not all hate the same sets of people. They all specialize — except when it comes to the Jews. We are the one hate they all have in common.

We saw that in Charlottesville. That was supposed to be a protest against removing a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public square, but the “protesters” goose-stepped through the streets wearing swastika armbands, with their right arms raised in a Nazi salute. They shouted anti-black slogans along with anti-Jewish ones. The Jews of Charlottesville were in great fear that night. Here is how the Atlantic reported it: “As Jews prayed at a local synagogue…, [white supremacists] dressed in fatigues [and] carrying semi-automatic rifles stood across the street….Nazi websites posted a call to burn” the synagogue to the ground. The worshippers snuck out the back of the building, and took the Torah scrolls with them.

The Atlantic then sought to explain why Jews were targeted at what essentially was an anti-black rally: “Anti-Semitism often functions as a readily available language for all manner of bigotry…,” it noted. “In the world sketched by white supremacists, Jews hover malevolently in the background, pulling strings, controlling events, acting as an all-powerful force backing and enabling the other targets of their hate.”

To back this up, the Atlantic quoted University of Chicago historian David Nirenberg, who has spent his career studying anti-Jewish movements and beliefs. “Ever since St. Paul,” Nirenberg told the magazine, “Christianity and all the religions born from it — Islam, the secular philosophies of Europe, etc.—learned to think about their world in terms of overcoming the dangers of Judaism. We have these really basic building blocks…for thinking about the world and what’s wrong with it…by thinking about Judaism.”

Consider this: After the horrors of Charlottesville, the KKK’s Chris Barker thought it would be fun to be interviewed by a Latina journalist for Univision. He told her that groups such as his soon would burn out all immigrants from America. When asked how they planned to “burn out” 11 million immigrants, here is what he said: “We killed six million Jews the last time. Eleven million is nothing.”

We are the glue that unites all haters.

The man who opened fire on worshippers at the Tree of Life professed no love for Donald Trump — because Trump has too many Jews around him. What prompted his horrific act, however, was Trump’s over-the-top statements about the caravan of people from Honduras and elsewhere fleeing violence in their home countries and now approaching the U.S. border — a caravan some Trump supporters, including at least one Republican member of Congress, claim is being paid for by George Soros, with help from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Trump, by the way, admitted to journalists on camera on October 23 regarding his absurd anti-caravan rhetoric, “There’s no proof of anything. There’s no proof of anything. But there could very well be.” That has not stopped him from repeating his claims over and again — a tactic we know only too well from one of its most successful advocates, the Nazi propaganda minister Paul Joseph Goebbels.

Trump encourages the extreme right in other ways as well. He openly advocates violence against liberal journalists and praises those who engage in it. In his two budget requests to Congress so far, he has refused to fund an Obama-era grants program that gives money to organizations working to counter the damage done by white supremacist extremism, especially on campuses.

Exodus 22:20-23 deals with the mistreatment of the powerless, but it cannot decide whether it is addressing one person or many people. The commentator and grammarian Abraham Ibn Ezra said this was deliberate. The Torah was warning us, he said, that if we see a stranger being oppressed, or a poor person, or a widow, or an orphan, and we do nothing to stop it, or if we know of such oppression, but we do not speak out against it, and we do not take action to root out that evil, then we are as guilty of the crime as the actual oppressor.

The famous philosopher and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it a bit more gently: “In a free society, some are guilty,” he said. “All are responsible.”

That is what we must think very carefully about on November 6 and beyond.

Before casting our votes (or before deciding not to vote at all, which is a vote in itself), we must think very carefully about whether we want to encourage the Enabler-in-Chief, or whether we want to send him the message that he needs to change his tactics before it is too late.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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