Pittsburgh (Part I)
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
President Donald Trump did not cause Robert Bowers to enter the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh during Sabbath services and shoot down eleven members of the congregation who had gathered there to worship. Trump is not the reason that there are anti-Semites in America. President Trump also is not responsible for the data in the Anti-Defamation League’s scary report that there was a rise of 60% in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017. He does bear responsibility for what he did and/or did not do as President.
It is patently clear that Trump refuses to recognize that one of the fundamental roles played by a President as public leader is to be the major force for national reconciliation. At a time of national pain and suffering, Presidents need to empathize with those in pain. This is what George W. Bush did after 9/11 and what Barack Obama did repeatedly after numerous shooting incidents, and what Presidents throughout history have done.
America has a long history of bigotry and hatred towards all minorities, woman, immigrants, and perceived sexual deviants. There is imbedded in America a sad long history of violence and hatred of the “other.” Certainly, since the release of the Kerner Commission Report in 1968, most public figures and scholars have accepted the fact that America had a very long, ugly history of violence.
While anti-Semitism has been present in the U.S. at least since the middle of the 19th Century, it did develop with various manifestation thorough the 20th Century, although only with isolated incidents of physical violence against Jews. America denied opportunities to Jews in jobs, education, housing, etc., but there were only a few instances where Jews were attacked or murdered because they were Jews. While there was much latent anti-Semitism that percolated beneath the surface, Jews made their way and overcame many of the social, political, economic, and cultural obstacles which were placed in their way. Never were Jews attacked as they were in Pittsburgh by a dedicated, believing anti-Semite. The challenge for the Jewish community to consider and reflect upon and for which they ought to demand answers from their political leaders is why did this happen—now.
The problem with this question is the nation’s public leader refuses to admit or even consider that he might well have contributed to the polarization and anger which has stirred the hatred and prejudice running through the country. Being President is much more than merely winning elections. It is demonstrating that sometimes politics needs to take some time off. Clearly and appropriately, Donald Trump wants the GOP to maintain control of Congress in next week’s mid-term elections; but President Trump only wants to feed red meat to his supporters. Winning is the only thing that matters to him and there are too few votes to be gained in trying to pretend at this point in the campaign that he genuinely cares about those who have become the targets of the venom he is spewing forth to the delight of his base.
America has become more and more polarized certainly since 2008 and probably for almost 40 years. Some Presidents and public leaders have sought to ameliorate the hostility and to address the crisis as compassionate leaders. This is not what is transpiring in America today.