24 AV 5777
Before last Saturday night I didn’t know much about Charlottesville, Virginia, nor had it been on my bucket list of vacation destinations. I still have little desire to spend time there, but it is a location that is now on the tip of my tongue. Its very name now conjures up anxiety and sadness regarding the precarious state of our country. Interestingly, I’m writing this article on a turbulent flight returning from Skokie, Illinois after attending the beautiful wedding of Seth to Aliza, the daughter of our members Sharon and Larry Chambers. Many years ago, Skokie was the site of a Nazi rally in reaction to the large numbers of Holocaust survivors that resided there. Jews have resided in Charlottesville since the 18th century and incidents of anti-Semitism have occurred in the past, however, it is still not clear to me why this rally occurred Charlottesville.
My son is a student of history and the son of a rabbi who attended Jewish day schools his entire life. He is knowledgeable about the Holocaust and rise of the Nazi Party in Germany before WW2. He was horrified by the events that transpired in Charlottesville and the racial overtones targeting Jews, blacks, and other minorities. He posted his thoughts on his Facebook and Twitter pages and he in turn became a target of hate. His picture was photo-shopped with the anti-Semitic words “I love Hitler”. He is coping far better than I would have, but it’s a shame that in 2017 anyone should be ostracized for their positions against hate and intolerance. As a Jew, but also as a human being, he has every right and perhaps responsibility to raise his voice in opposition against the reemergence of the white-supremacy movement and the National Socialist party in the USA or anywhere else. Everyone should be outraged by what is occurring in our backyard.
I tend to shy away from offering political viewpoints but I find myself unwilling to be silent anymore. I feel compelled to respond to the events unfolding around us. It took two days for President Trump to clearly denounce white supremacists for their acts of violence and hatred. I was upset when President Obama refused to utter the words ‘radical Islamic terrorist’ when they were committing acts of violence and terror. I was even happy to hear President Trump allowing those words to be spoken and had hopes that the era of political correctness was over. However, that feeling dissipated when he failed to unequivocally denounce the far right white supremacists. The murder of an innocent civilian and critically injuring American citizens is no less an act of terror than those committed by Muslim extremists. The media on both sides of the aisle is skewed, but became unified when the president’s words of condemnation were not more clear and forceful.
Sometimes one comment, or lack thereof, changes everything. Intellectually, I can understand president Obama’s refusal to utter the words ‘radical Islamic terrorist’. We live in the greatest country in the world, but we also live in a country where many confuse radicalism with extreme expressions of religion. There are many Muslims living in our country that may dress differently than the average American. Their wives may wear hijabs and cover themselves from head to toe. That is their constitutional right as an American and they should never be penalized nor disparaged for practicing their faith in the manner that they see fit. The president may have felt that by uttering those words he would be condemning the innocent masses to the resentment and indignation of their fellow Americans.
White supremacy is not a religion and thus there is no moral equivalency with Islamists. Their objective is to terrorize, malign and demonize minorities. Their hatred stems at least in part from the feeling that their power in society has been taken from them. But this hatred has zero place in our society. Yes, I am a Jew and may be more sensitive than others in regard to this issue. Yet, I believe that for a president who has chosen to say what’s on his mind and never shy away from issues, his leadership regarding Charlottesville was sorely lacking and his judgement skewed.
The Torah portion this week states: ‘behold I place before you today a blessing and a curse.’ Indeed, that is what we Americans are facing today. How we respond often indicates if we chose the blessing or not. I hope that our president will learn from his error in judgement and seek better guidance. King Solomon wrote that sometimes we do things that can never be remedied; ‘m’uvat lo yuchal litkon, a twisted rope cannot be made straight.’ (Ecclesiastes) I think what President Trump failed to do falls into that category. This was a moment when he could have succeeded in uniting us and he was an abysmal failure. Our country needed him to express with conviction his disdain for the white supremacists, National Socialists, and the Nazi party. By condemning that evil, he could have been a uniting force in a divided country, but instead he exacerbated the bitter divide. Unfortunately, waiting two days until articulating his disdain against the Nazi march was too little and too late.
My son’s hurt will be minuscule as his Facebook page is filled with comments of support and disgust over what happened. However, the hurt of our nation is much more difficult to remedy. My intent is not to chastise our president or aim to overthrow the regime. On the contrary, I believe that to overcome the challenges of Charlottesville, our country must stop its partisan bickering. Yes, we may have our opinions and should vociferously discuss them. Yet our freedom is predicated on our commonality. As American’s we believe that we are all equal regardless of our skin color, religion, or politics. If our objective is to unify our citizens, then indeed our strength is fortified by our division. But if our objective is solely to divide then indeed we have no strength at all.
Rabbi Jack Engel