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The meaning of Charlottesville
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The meaning of Charlottesville

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fter the Charlottesville fiasco, highlighted by President Donald Trump’s unscripted remarks drawing a moral equivalency between the neo-Nazi, KKK, and white supremacist marchers and the counter demonstrators, Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) described the president as lacking the “stability” and “competence” to be successful. Other senior leaders of the Republican Party were also sharply critical. Following a series of defections, Trump was forced to disband the American Manufacturing Council, a group of corporate CEOs established to advise the president on his domestic manufacturing initiatives, Trump’s natural constituency if there ever was one. All three of the non-Orthodox rabbinic associations — Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist — decided not to participate in what had become an annual High Holy Days conference call with the president. Yet, according to a CBS News survey, 67 percent of Republicans approved of the president’s response to Charlottesville. What is going on here? 

First, let me be clear about where I stand on Trump. In a column last October, I favorably quoted the conservative columnist Bret Stephens, then of the Wall Street Journal, now of The New York Times, who described candidate Trump as “manifestly unqualified to be president in any way, shape, or form.” After Charlottesville, Stephens penned an op-ed excoriating the president’s Jewish supporters, calling Trump “a Jabberwock president, nonsensical, menacing, and beyond reason.” (By the way, “Jabberwocky” is a Lewis Carroll nonsense poem about the killing of a creature called “the Jabberwock.”) I agreed with Stephens in October, and I certainly agree with him today. If Trump were to leave office either via resignation or impeachment, I would breathe a sigh of relief — even as I harbor serious misgivings about the prospect of a Mike Pence presidency. 

While I believe it is inadvisable for the organized Jewish community to call for Trump’s removal from office — if that day comes, I hope it is the leadership of the Republican Party that takes the initiative — I believe we have an obligation to always speak truth to power. When the president says things, or pursues policies that we believe are immoral, we should not hesitate to respond assertively. By and large that took place in the wake of Charlottesville. Not only did progressive Jewish organizations speak out; even the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the leading organization of Orthodox rabbis in North America, condemned the president for equating the white supremacists and “those who stood up to their repugnant messages and actions.”  

I’m troubled that some conservative pundits can’t resist using Charlottesville as an opportunity to remind us that there also is a modern form of anti-Semitism on the far-left that is cloaked in the campaign against Israel’s legitimacy. In fact, the Jewish community in recent years has recognized this challenge, and has poured a huge amount of energy and resources into fighting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The reality is that we now face an alarming new threat — the growing movement in the United States of violent, Jew-hating white supremacists who feel emboldened because of statements made by the president and others in his administration. Countering with references to the danger of BDS every time we examine the problem of growing right-wing extremism is unhelpful, as it could diminish the focus we need to effectively respond to this new threat. 

It is good that New Jersey Jewish organizations are taking a lead role in confronting the security issues that we and others face in this hyper-charged atmosphere. One example: the Aug. 29 community program at Rutgers University initiated by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey. The program — which was scheduled to feature briefings by New Jersey Attorney General Chris Porrino and Director of New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness Jared Maples — is intended to help the Jewish community and its interfaith partners better face new challenges in terms of security and bias incidents. Also, Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ executive vice president/CEO Dov Ben-Shimon wrote in a recent blog post about a new security platform his federation will soon role out to enable his chief security officer to quickly alert Jewish institutions to any safety threats.  

However, there is another dimension to this situation that I believe has not received adequate attention. I wrote in that same column last October that it would be a serious mistake to regard most Trump supporters as being aligned with his crude ethnic stereotyping, xenophobia, and misogyny. Today, I believe only a small portion of the aforementioned 67 percent of Republicans who approve of Trump’s handling of Charlottesville side with neo-Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists. The large majority simply see themselves as being deprived of the American dream because of global market forces and a paralyzed political system. On Nov. 8, they regarded the president as the leader most capable of restoring that dream to them, and they continue to think so, despite growing evidence to the contrary. 

I found echoes of this analysis in the American-Jewish journalist Peter Beinart’s Aug. 22 op-ed in the Forward, “The One Thing Jews Should be Doing to Combat White Supremacy.” The Jewish community is successful, well-established, and politically influential, Beinart points out. Therefore, instead of merely circling the wagons for self-protection, we must also “confront the dysfunction in despair that leads some of our fellow Americans to scapegoat us.” In addition, he wrote, “Combating the hopelessness and misery that afflicts many rural and de-industrialized American communities wouldn’t only benefit young white men at risk of turning to organized racism. It would also benefit their neighbors, some of whom are Latino and black.”  

I agree. Beinart argues that American-Jewish organizations should oppose the assault on Obamacare and upper-income tax cuts “that widen the chasm between America’s rich and poor,” and push for increased funding for treatment of opioid addiction, “the kind of issue that American Jewish groups don’t typically consider part of their agenda.” We also should be lobbying to expand training programs that will enable workers to gain the necessary skills to find good-paying jobs in an increasingly high-tech and communications-based economy. Most important, we need to stress repeatedly that criticism of the president is not synonymous with criticism of his supporters, and further, their understandable frustrations need to be recognized and validated. 

This should be the responsibility of the private sector too, not just the government. Apple has rolled out a curriculum to community colleges to teach students how to write code to create apps for iPhones. The company claims that last year 150,000 new jobs were created through the App Store. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook told The New York Times that the community college system was specifically chosen for this initiative because “it is more diverse than the four-year schools.”

We are living in precarious times. Instead of unifying us, the president’s vitriolic and divisive rhetoric only contributes to the toxic political climate. Responsible Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, must search for a path around petty partisanship for the sake of America, the land that we love. They must come together not only to unequivocally repudiate anti-Semitism, racism, and bigotry of all types, but, also, to pursue enlightened socio-economic policies that will enhance the quality of life for all Americans and make it more difficult for extremist ideologues to win over potential adherents. Besides being a moral obligation, it is in our fundamental self-interest as American Jews to exert leadership in advocating for such policies.

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