Words can create, words can destroy: A time to move to real discourse


Sitting in Berlin, one of the great contemporary cities of the 21st century, I became aware of some of the recent statements and tweets of Mr. Trump.  It is particularly disturbing to read them here.  Germany, in the 70 years since World War II, has come so far.  It has taken full responsibility for the Holocaust, paid huge reparations, and built a culture that is keenly aware of the continual threats of anti-Semitism and devotes tremendous time and resources to prevention and education.  It is also the country that is showing the most humanity to Syrian refugees, having welcomed well over a half million to their nation of 82 million people.

I find that Germans live with an ongoing awareness of what happened during the nightmare of the Holocaust.  They know that it began with hate speech and a rhetoric that cast Jews and others as inferior.  They know that words and threats must be taken seriously since they have seen the worst of outcomes.  There is little tolerance here for words or actions that threaten a culture that is striving to be humane, accepting, and promoting diversity.

Donald Trump’s tweet about Hillary with a Jewish star and dollar raining down provoked such a reaction that the presidential candidate did ultimately take it down.  However, the damage was already done and only exacerbated by his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, dismissing the controversy saying, “A tweet is a simple tweet, and the bottom line is you can read into things that are not there. You know, this is a simple star.” He said that he thought the backlash was the “mainstream media trying to attack Donald Trump for something that isn’t there.” He also said that criticizing the star is an example of “political correctness run amok.”  Now Trump has shared that he said to his campaign staff:  “Too bad, you should have left it up. I would have rather defended it.” My feeling, like that of his son in law, is that this it was not anti-Semitic but just careless.  However, we do not have room for this kind of carelessness.

This is not political correctness run amok, this is the use of imagery and language that debases Jews, and really every American.  This is not the first time this has happened in Trump campaign. Remember when the candidate claimed that he did not have any knowledge of David Duke?  His campaign has also retweeted images and expressions that come out of White Supremacist sites.

Mr. Trump, as the presumptive Republican nominee for the highest office in America, you need to take more responsibility.  Name calling like “Crooked Hillary”, “Little Marco” and about John McCain, “He's not a war hero…He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured, okay?” is totally unacceptable.  Your comments about the disabled, women, Hispanics and the Muslim people are degrading.  This is not about political correctness, this is about living in the multi-cultural world of 2016, and simple things like respect and civility.

Mr. Trump, I believe most Americans would like to see a robust debate with Secretary Clinton on the most pressing issues of the day:  national security, health care, immigration, education, social welfare the diminishing middle class and a whole host of other issues.

I overheard a conversation recently saying that what Mr. Trump is doing is behaving like a high school student. The other person adamantly disagreed saying we would never let our teenagers or students behave this way.  That is correct.  Insulting others, mocking people, demeaning human beings do not comport with conservative or liberal values. 

Being a president or a presidential candidate is not acting like in the WWE.  American of all backgrounds and political views want presidential candidates who care deeply about this country and are ready to address complex issues in a substantive way.  Your tweet with the Star of David about Hillary does not add to the discourse; it is insulting to anyone of conscience.

In Judaism, we learn that the world was created with words and that each human being has the power to create or destroy the world with words.  Presidential candidates need to use language that provide images that are constructive and portray human beings in a respectful way.

This week as we mourn the loss of the great humanitarian and Nobel Laureate, Eli Wiesel, we can all learn from his insights:  “No human race is superior, no religious faith is inferior.  All collective judgments are wrong.  Only racists make them.”

Mr. Trump, I do not believe that you are a racist.  However, it is imperative that you and your colleagues be vigilant about not letting racist, or degrading rhetoric enter your campaign.  The Republican Party and America needs you use language that portrays a vision of an America that has real values and ideals, even though people disagree on solutions to serious challenges.

Now is the time to take on the mantle of leadership that the Republican Party has given you and make this election about issues and values, about our founding principles of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Most Americans are yearning for this discussion.  We hope that you will be part of it.

Rabbi Lee Bycel is rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa and an adjunct professor in the Swig program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.