An assessment: Is Charlottesville a watershed moment for American Jews?

August 17, 2017
U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions about his responses to the deaths and injuries at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville as he talks to the media with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (L) at his side in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York, U.S., August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Moral clarity is an important part of political life. Thus, that the first few days after Charlottesville were dedicated to shock and indignation is understandable. Pragmatic assessment of a situation is also an important part of political life. Thus, it is time to examine Charlottesville and its consequences with clear eyes and search for its true practical meaning.

I will try doing this from a Jewish perspective.

What is the Jewish perspective?

There is a wider definition of a Jewish perspective in this case and a narrower one. The wider perspective is to argue that all elements of this crisis have something to do with a Jewish perspective. For example, according to this perspective the questions concerning the fate of Robert E. Lee statues across America – e.g., should they stay or be removed? – are Jewish questions. They are Jewish questions because Jews in America have something to say about them, and because many of these Jews will be using Jewish sources and their understanding of Jewish morals to formulate and justify their positions on this matter.

A narrower Jewish perspective is the one of Jewish survival. Of course, such an approach to Charlottesville is somewhat problematic, as Jews, rightfully, feel that they have a lot to say about the larger issues haunting America. But in other ways the narrow approach is useful. It is useful because it does not involve debatable notions about the meaning of Jewish values. It is useful because it is more focused and hence can allow a clearer analysis.

I will stick with the narrower approach.

The perspective of Jewish survival

The American Jewish community is one of the most impressive in Jewish history. It is vibrant and strong, confident and influential, self-sustaining and outward looking. It is truly a marvel, the jewel in the Jewish crown.

All Jews ought to want this community to keep thriving.

So the question about Charlottesville is as follows: was this an event that somehow threatens the continuous thriving of the American Jewish community?

To answer such questions, we need to examine the different scenarios that could potentially lead to Charlottesville becoming a watershed event in the life of the American Jewish community.

How many neo-Nazis?

Neo-Nazis are generally bad for Jewish survival. They make the lives of Jews less comfortable, they make Jewish institutions vulnerable, they impose on every Jew a dilemma: Is Judaism important enough for a Jew to take the risk of a clash with bigoted and violent people?

There were Jew haters in Charlottesville – that we know. Their numbers were not great – that we also know. According to many reports, “Hundreds of white nationalists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and others were involved, by some estimates, in what Heimbach, leader of the Traditionalist Workers Party, called the nation’s biggest such event in a decade or more.”

So, it was “hundreds.” And it was the “biggest such event in a decade.” If the biggest such event can only draw hundreds of racists, the threat to Jews does not seem significant, not if we count the sheer visible power of these groups of anti-Semites.

What is the public’s reaction?

The public has no inclination to support the type of racist rhetoric and views that we’ve seen in Charlottesville. Support for the Ku Klux Klan is 2 percent, according to a recent survey. Support for “white nationalists” is 4 percent. Only a quarter of Americans said in this poll that the response of President Trump to events in Charlottesville was “strong enough,” with a majority believing it was not strong enough – thus emphasizing that in their view condemnation of the racist demonstrators should have been stronger.

So the Jews are worried, and should worry, about a small number of neo-Nazis. But they currently have no immediate reason to worry that America is becoming less tolerant towards Jews or more supportive of racist groups. Is it likely that Charlottesville will be a watershed moment from which racist groups benefit? It is possible, but not likely.

What about the President?

The President clearly erred in his response to Charlottesville. His press conference was hardly his finest moment.

It was not his finest moment because, yet again, he proved to be deaf to the society over which he presides. There is also context to what a president must say at a certain time. Educating Americans on the importance of heritage and of statues, or on getting all the facts before making statements, or on the perils of using clubs on demonstrators – all this has a time and place. But in the context of Charlottesville, after a woman was murdered, after demonstrators chanted abhorrent slogans against other Americans, the president failed to grasp the moment. He failed to grasp that when he spoke in the same sentence or the same paragraph about “bad people” on “both sides.” What the good people hear is him putting all bad people on the “same moral plane.”

What does this tell us about Trump? It does not tell us that he is a racist or a bigot. It does not tell us that he supports racists or bigots. It does not tell us that he puts political priorities before morality (no sane person can see him politically benefiting from the occurrences of the last few days). It tells us what we already know – that he is an undisciplined, disorganized, contrarian, immature president. It tells us bad enough things about him, without us having to attribute to him what he did not intend to say.

So what about the President?

If you accept my understanding of the President’s actions and words – admittedly, a relatively benign understanding of it – worries about the president ought to also be benign. Yes, there is reason to worry, because a key element in keeping fringe groups isolated and small is to have them delegitimized by the political system, and the president was not clear enough in doing that.

Still, because I assume that Trump is not a secret admirer of white nationalist groups, I also assume (and hope) that he will find the time to make his position clearer, and that he will instruct his administration to keep these bad people subdued.

But many Americans would not accept my understanding of the President’s actions and words. These Americans believe that the president is a supporter of white nationalist groups and their ideology. These Americans believe that Trump’s intention is to aid and abet the rise of groups with ugly ideologies.

If they are correct, there are two reasons for worry. One, support from the president gives these movements credence and prestige that they never had, and thus could gradually draw more Americans to support them. Two, support from the president means a less vigilant effort by the administration to battle against these groups. For example, it could mean a less than vigilant effort to identify and arrest Americans who act violently against Jewish institutions.

What will Jews do?

The response of Jews to Charlottesville is also important as we ponder our question: was this an event that somehow threatens the continuous thriving of the American Jewish community?

Jewish response to anti-Semitism, or to the threat of anti-Semitism, varies. But it has two main versions. One – to unite and fight. Two – to lower the profile and hide.

In Europe, where anti-Semitism is a more present problem for Jews, many of them choose to lower their profiles. As my colleague Dr. Dov Maimon of JPPI (the Jewish People Policy Institute) once described it: “the largest portion of European Jews has chosen to adopt a discrete Jewish profile, putting aside their commitment toward Judaism, Israel and their fellow Jews and often also abandoning the traditional Jewish commitment to the underdog. In other words, and to use the same categorization, they choose the INDIVIDUALIST positioning, drifting progressively toward assimilation.”

America is different. It is different because American society is welcoming of Jews. It is different because American Jews, for a long time now, have become used to having a high profile. Indeed, what we have seen in the last couple of days is proof of American Jewry’s confidence in asserting its position, coupled with its instinctive and high sensitivity to racism. What we have seen in the last few days is an American Jewish community that is being reminded of how it has a shared stake in having a tolerant America.

Is the outcome unity? Not exactly, but this is surely a moment of less division. When Jews see a common enemy, they push aside their differences, even if just for a little while,.

This is the short-term outcome of Charlottesville, but there can also be a long term, less positive outcome because of two things:

1. If the American debate on racism becomes a constant central feature of political life, this can still make many Jews decide that it is more convenient for them to lower their profile and be less visible as Jews. If the confidence of racist groups rises, and Jewish institutions are threatened, many Jews could decide that their security justifies disengagement from the community – this is something we saw earlier this year when bomb threats targeted Jewish institutions.

2. The debate over the proper way of responding to racist America can become in itself a source of tension and inner-Jewish bickering – especially so because of its political undertones. We already see signs of that in the attacks hurled at Rabbi Marvin Hier, “Trump’s rabbi.”

Jews and politics and anti-Semitism

Three days ago, I made the case against Jews portraying Trump as a bigoted anti-Semite. “It is not wise for Jewish institutions, organizations and leaders to paint President Trump as an ally of anti-Semitism because it is very unlikely he is anti-Semitic and because such accusations, when repeatedly hurled at people, tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies.”

Jews have to be vigilant in fighting against bigotry and anti-Semitism. They also have to be wise about it, and being wise means keeping anti-anti-Semitism bipartisan. Portraying all political rivals as racists and bigots and anti-Semites is the lesser policy, as it shrinks the camp of Americans that can be allies in combating against anti-Semitism. Isolating the fringe groups of racists and bigots and anti-Semites and keeping all others as allies is the better policy.

Will the Jews be wise? There is a fine line separating disappointment and frustration because of Trump’s response to Charlottesville and turning this incident into a partisan political tool with which to hammer a political party or camp. Some Jews walk this fine line delicately, and many cross over it irresponsibly.

The bottom line

Clear and harsh response to racism is justified.

Expectations for a proper presidential response are justified.

Sober assessment of the need for heightened security measures is justified.

Politicizing the fight against anti-Semitism is unwise.

It is much too early to panic.


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