When Rabbi Avi Olitzky expressed his outrage on Facebook over President Donald Trump’s tweets calling on four progressive Democrats of color to “go back” to their home countries, and a subsequent chant of “Send her back!” during a North Carolina rally for the president that was directed toward Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), he didn’t expect the post to go viral. It did, however, and in the first 24 hours, the post had 198 comments, 64 shares, and 343 reactions; 12 hours later it had spiraled into the tens of thousands, he said.
The comments came from around the country; many were in support of Olitzky, who grew up in South Brunswick, is a senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minn., and lives in Omar’s district, but others called for the rabbi’s resignation or firing. He also received death threats.
Later, in a pre-Shabbat post, Olitzky wrote, “The reaction was not only over the top but it far exceeded what I thought might happen,” adding that he “didn’t mean to be a lightning rod in any way.”
Olitzky’s original July 17 post, which he removed after being threatened, stated, “I am a rabbi in Rep. Ilhan Omar’s district. I have had the occasion to meet with Representative Omar and her staff on numerous occasions — including one in Washington in which she graciously invited my father to join me. Even if her previous remarks may be offensive and even if she disagrees with the policies of the current Israeli government, I cannot stay silent today. I stand fully beside her — and her colleagues — and support her in the face of the recent racist tweets of the president. This is not how we engage in civil dialogue. This is not how we do business and politics in this country. We are and have been better than this. We need to be better than this.”
He received several supportive responses, but other posters — whether out of respect for Trump or because of animosity toward Omar, who has been accused of anti-Semitism in her criticisms of Israel, and introduced Proposal 496 in the House, legislation that promotes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) — were incensed.
Marnie Mockenberg, for example, commented, “Here’s a local Rabbi defending Ilhan Omar! This is a prime example of Jewicide and Civilization Jihad by our hands. What a dumb Dhimmi!” (A Dhimmi is a non-Muslim living in a country under Muslim rule.)
Bradley Eisenberg commented, “he is my rabbi and I’m embarrassed.” Neither Mockenberg nor Eisenberg responded to NJJN’s requests for comment.
Here in Olitzky’s home state, the president’s tweets inspired many local rabbis to respond, though the pushback from congregants was minimal. Some focused on what they viewed as the inherent racism of the tweets, and others made comparisons to the long history of Jews not belonging.
On his Facebook page, Rabbi Avi Friedman of Congregation Ohr Shalom-the Summit Jewish Community Center, drew Likes and Shares (but no comments) for saying that Trump should not use Israel as a “fig leaf”; and Rabbi Danny Geretz of the West Orange partnership minyan, Maayan, called the president’s tweets “bullying” and said that not labeling it as such would be a missed opportunity to educate and would perpetuate the problem.
On his blog, Rabbi Robert Tobin of B’nai Shalom in West Orange called Trump’s words “revolting, revealing, and wrong,” and, addressing the president, wrote, “Unlike other children of privilege who turn their wealth towards those in need from a sense of gratitude and care, you declare them unwelcome in your America.” In an email to NJJN, Tobin said the tweets were inherently racist. Trump “never told a white male (Bernie Sanders, for example), go back to your country. No one can seriously say he doesn’t treat people that are African American, Hispanic, or Muslim differently (negatively).”
Some local religious leaders reacted to the tweets and the chant in their sermons. Both Rabbi Inna Serebro-Litvak of Temple Shalom in Succasunna and Rabbi Mark Mallach of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield drew lessons from Balak, last week’s Torah portion, and spoke about the power of words. Mallach pointed out that people need to learn how to listen for the truth, while Serebro-Litvak suggested that hateful rhetoric can “boomerang,” and the words will “snowball” during the ensuing fight and become increasingly hurtful.
Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange said to NJJN that he told his congregants over Shabbat that Jews should be particularly sensitive to similar language. “We, who have heard such comments directed toward our people over the centuries, should cringe when we hear our leaders say such things.”
Rabbi Hannah Orden of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit sermonized on the importance of belonging, and took issue with the president’s attempt to undercut it. “These four women are not only American citizens; they have been democratically elected as public servants,” she said. “There is a serious problem in a democracy when the person in the highest office suggests that anyone who does not agree with him does not belong here,” adding that, “No American should ever be subjected to people chanting ‘Send her back.’”
In an email to NJJN, Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet in Montclair wrote that the president’s comments “were racist — full stop.”
In addition, “The president’s claim that he is attacking [the congresswomen] because they hate Israel, is itself an anti-Semitic trope. Such rhetoric, in addition to being wrong, furthers anti-Semitic myths that the U.S. is beholden to Israel and that American-Jewish interests are synonymous with Israel’s.”
Rabbi David C. Levy, American Jewish Committee’s New Jersey regional director, called the president’s remarks “inappropriate, offensive, and eerily reminiscent of a darker time in our nation’s history.” The negative responses don’t bother him. “Taking a stand online will always invite both praise and criticism,” he said. “What’s important is that your tweets are aligned with your values and mission and not a concern for the responses they might invite.”
In the aftermath of Olitzky’s Facebook post, his congregation went into full-swing damage control. On Friday afternoon the other senior rabbi, Alexander Davis, sent an email in support of his colleague to the entire membership, and the Minnesota Rabbinical Association issued its own statement of support. Still, Olitzky acknowledged that some congregants won’t be appeased. “There may be members of the community that we lose over this,” he told NJJN. “But the truth is, we’re a large enough synagogue” to withstand the loss.
Olitzky noted that he called out Omar for her anti-Semitic tweets in March and April, and he said he has been in continuing contact with her office about her positions. He is currently finishing up an op-ed regarding Resolution 496, the legislation promoting BDS that Omar introduced on July 16.
The original purpose of his post, he explained, was less about supporting Omar than it was defending her as a victim of hate. “It was more about speaking out against the racist rhetoric that the president was using.”
He sees it as his job to call out hate wherever he sees it. “The hate is there both on the left and the right,” he said. “This is not a Trump versus Omar situation. This is about how do we bring our country back together and try to make it heal.”