January 17, 2019

Gary Cohn, Steven Mnuchin: You good with this?

President Donald Trump delivers remarks following a meeting on infrastructure at Trump Tower, August 15, 2017 in New York City. Standing alongside him from L to R, Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney. He fielded questions from reporters about his comments on the events in Charlottesville, Virginia and white supremacists. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The question of the day, at least in my corner of the world, is this: How can Gary Cohn and Steven Mnuchin keep silent?

Cohn is chief economic advisor to President Donald Trump and the director the National Economic Council.   Mnuchin is Secretary of the Treasury.  Both men are Jewish.  And both men stood just to the right of Donald Trump as he equated neo-Nazis and white supremacists with the people who protested them, and declared that at a rally attended and promoted by hate groups from around the country, there were “very fine people”

It was, as the historian Steven Windmueller wrote,  “the first time in American history where a President has not uniformly and consistently condemned anti-Semitism.”

The statement was offensive enough that at least seven CEOs serving the administration as advisors resigned from their posts.  But Mnuchin and Cohn, who both come from the world of business and finance, remained silent  As of today, neither one has spoken out.

It is impossible to believe that both men are unaware of the deeply anti-semitic nature of the rally.  Its attendees posted threats against the local Charlottesville synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, in the days leading up to the march.  On the day of the rally, congregants felt the threat acutely.  Here’s an account of that day from the temple’s president,  Alan Zimmerman:

For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. Had they tried to enter, I don’t know what I could have done to stop them, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them, either. Perhaps the presence of our armed guard deterred them. Perhaps their presence was just a coincidence, and I’m paranoid. I don’t know.

Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, “There’s the synagogue!” followed by chants of “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.

A guy in a white polo shirt walked by the synagogue a few times, arousing suspicion. Was he casing the building, or trying to build up courage to commit a crime? We didn’t know. Later, I noticed that the man accused in the automobile terror attack wore the same polo shirt as the man who kept walking by our synagogue; apparently it’s the uniform of a white supremacist group. Even now, that gives me a chill.

When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups.

Anti-semitism was not a bug of the rally, it was a feature.  The marchers chanted, “Jew will not replace us!”  Their flyers featured Nazi imagery and Stars of David.  These were the men and women that the President put on the same moral plane as those who confronted them.

Some media reported that Cohn and Mnuchin looked uncomfortable as Trump spoke.  If so, it is far more subtle than the visible snort and head shake his comments drew from Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly.

So why the silence from Cohn and Mnuchin?  Here’s some guesses:

Could it be that neither man is that connected to his Jewish identity?  Unlikely. Cohn is an active member of his local Jewish Federation.  In 2009 he donated  money to Hillel International in order to build a Jewish student center at Kent State University.  It is called the Cohn Jewish Student Center.   The Mnuchin family  has a long history Jewish philanthropy as well.

Could it be that they know Trump is not an anti-Semite, so the idea that  he supports anti-Semitism is ridiculous? Maybe.  That’s what some of his other Jewish aides told the New York Times today.

“I know President Trump and his heart,” Michael Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, wrote to the Times. “He is a good man and doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. All morning I am receiving horrific comments about being anti-black, racist, etc. for supporting Trump. It’s just wrong!”

This is the go-to response of Trump’s Jewish supporters, family and staff.  It is probably true, but it’s also besides the point.  You don’t have to be an anti-Semite to give cover to anti-Semites, which is what the President did yesterday.  His motivations may have had nothing to do with his feelings about Jews, but the effect is the same.  Neo-Nazis, repackaged as the “alt-right,” now can feel vindicated.

In fact, by standing silently by as  Trump betrayed American Jews , Cohn and Mnuchin are only encouraging Trump’s behavior.  He can use their presence to assure himself that he’s done nothing wrong.

Could it be they think the whole mess is a Leftist, media-fueled over-reaction to a few poorly chosen and ultimately meaningless words?  Maybe.  But neither man is known to be hyper-partisan.  Records show they have given to Democratic as well as Republican candidates.  They can read the denunciations of Trump’s words from a broad spectrum of Jewish organizations and community and religious leaders, as well as from numerous Republicans and foreign leaders.

“It is unbearable how Trump is now glossing over the violence of the right-wing hordes from Charlottesville,” Germany’s Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement, according to Reuters. “No one should trivialize anti-Semitism and racism by neo-Nazis.”

No one’s making this up, and Cohn and Mnuchin are too smart to think otherwise.

Could it be they put their duties and their loyalty to the President far above whatever concerns they have about his statements and actions?  Again, maybe, in which case they have to swallow their gut reactions, shrug to their friends and family– hey, what can I do?– and just plow ahead.

Everybody makes choices about what principles are worth fighting for, Cohn and Mnuchin have made theirs. Thanks to President Trump, the neo-Nazis feel they have the wind at their backs, and white supremacists have planned more rallies across the country.   Cohn and Mnuchin have to own the fact that their boss has just received Twitter raves from Richard Spencer, David Duke, Matthew Heimbach and their well-armed minions.   Cohn and Mnuchin will have to explain whether they spoke up in private, because their public silence reads like cowardly acquiescence.

And Cohn and Mnuchin will need to face one of the supreme ironies of our time: when their boss endangered Jewish lives, they stayed silent, and the Germans spoke up.

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

‘Concern,’ not ‘Panic’ over anti-Semitism: Another response to David Bernstein

David Bernstein wrote a response to my piece criticizing his Washington Post op-ed for overstating the Jewish community’s level of panic over recent anti-semitic attacks.

David– I feel like we should be on a first name basis at this point, really– dials back his overstated original premise to say that while Jews aren’t greatly panicked, they are somewhat panicked.

First, Eshman claims that American Jews aren’t “panicking” because they haven’t closed Jewish schools, turned Jewish institutions into armed camps or turned in their kippahs. True, but there are levels of panic. Many Jews have withdrawn their children from Jewish Community Center preschools, so much so that some JCCs are undertaking emergency fundraising campaigns to make up for the lost revenue.

 A few families pulling their kids from JCCs may be a sign of panic, or more likely a sign that given all the options, why ask for trouble?  But OK, if we’re talking “levels of panic” then fine.  Maybe David and I can agree on a number between 1 and 10, 1 being “couldn’t care less” and 10 being “grab the passports.”  I say we’re at a 4, which is just above a 3 — “Did that guy just say ‘Jew?'”– and below a 5, which is, “Don’t be a shmuck, take off the chai necklace.”

Quickly, then, on three of David’s other points:

First, I agree 100 percent with David’s comment that neither Steve Bannon (nor Donald Trump) are themselves anti-semites: I never suggested that.  I also agree with David when he writes, “The comments section [of Breitbart.com], by contrast, is an unmoderated sewer that does contain a great deal of anti-Semitism. Is that a matter of concern? Sure.”

I wrote about that months ago in a column. “Steve Bannon, Drain the Swamp,” which called on the president’s chief advisor to take responsibility for the sewer he created.  The fact that he hasn’t doesn’t mean he’s an anti-semite, just a cynical threat to democracy.

Second, David is still wrong that many or most Jewish leaders are concerned about Muslim immigration to America.  He cites (but doesn’t link to) a  “2008 American Jewish Congress report,” but most Jewish leaders aren’t aware the American Jewish Congress even exists, much less produces “reports.” If there is a concern,  it is not over Muslim immigration, but Muslim American integration. We cannot make the mistake Western European countries made of isolating or demonizing Muslim immigrants, or of turning a blind eye to the extremists among them.  I bet David and I agree on this.

Finally, I’m happy David quoted the excellent piece we ran by David Lehrer, former regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.  Lehrer calls for a measure of concern, not panic — my point exactly.  Is it an “apology for anti-semitism” as David claims, or a thoughtful, non-hysterical explanation without a political agenda?  I think the latter.

Bottom line: the Jewish communal response to the increase in anti-semitism has been concern and judicious action, not panic.  To some extent Breitbart.com and other sites have served to incubate or reaffirm alt-right anti-semitism.  Some Jewish groups, notably the ADL, have taken taken these sites to task.  They have also criticized the President on specific occasions when he has not been clear or forthright in condemning hate speech or actions, or when he has seemed to wink at it himself.  No one is running around like a chicken with its head cut off. And no one is chicken.

In attacking the media, Trump is reaching the limit

President Donald Trump on Feb. 24. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Over the last two years, President Donald Trump didn’t make any attempt to disguise his disdain of the media. The paradox is that Trump is a creation of the media. He understood the importance of free media attention when he moved from Brooklyn to New York in the late 1970s. In “The Art of the Deal,” for example, he extols the value of The New York Times in helping him get noticed and stand out from the crowd.

 It is only recently that we hear Trump use the term “fake news”. Indeed, there is branch of journalism, the satirical media (Charlie Hebdo was part of it), that creates fake news to criticize the actions of Governments or any other authority. This has been a long tradition in democracies and it is part of what makes a free press. The terror attack on Charlie Hebdo demonstrates how a free and tolerant press threatens intolerance. I doubt this is what Mr Trump refers to when he accuses the press of spreading “fake news.” 

 What I think Trump refers to is a new trend that has emerged in recent months. Some individuals invent stories out of whole cloth and disseminate them over the Internet for the sole purpose of misinforming. You could argue that it is a fine line between satiric stories and fake news, but in my opinion, this is a thick line. When reading satire, you know immediately that the author is mocking and twisting reality for the purpose of making a point. When reading a fake news article, such as the one on Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump, there are no signs that what you are reading is false. It is presented as a credible account and is specifically designed to mislead the reader.

Calling CNN “fake news” is cynical and destructive. As much as I was a critic of President Obama, he never accused Fox News of spreading “fake news”. Both media outlets scrutinize the powers that be, and each can be somewhat biased. In a mature democracy, it is up to the viewer to make up his own mind and account for that bias. But even though an issue is presented through the human lens of a journalist, it is not designed with the intention to mislead.

The great irony, of course, is that Trump himself is the king of fake news. To cite just a few examples, during his campaign, he said time and again that American Muslims were dancing in the streets of New Jersey after the 9/11 attack. He doubled and triple down on this fake story. There are no records of such dances. He accused Obama of being a Kenyan Muslim who never attended Columbia University. He accused Ted Cruise’s father of being involved in a plot to assassinate President Kennedy. During one of the debates he said that vaccine causes Autism …and on and on.

Of course, he never called his own fake news “fake news” because he saw it as helpful to his agenda. Now that the actual news is not helpful to his agenda, it’s a logical step in his narcissistic mind to demean it as “fake news.” In other words, any news that he doesn’t see as helpful automatically becomes fake. This is not just reckless, it’s dangerous.

Trump is trying to blur the lines between honest reporting, commentary, satire and normal bias. By calling it all fake, he is painting the whole media enterprise with a dark and cynical brush and undermining one of the main pillars of democracy.

As Karl Popper wrote, the ability of a free media to scrutinize the powers that be is the principle tenet of all open societies. Weakening the media ensures less scrutiny, and, ultimately, less transparency and a greater likelihood of corruption, intolerance and injustice.

One month into his presidency, Trump has reached a crossroad. Either he finds a constructive way to deal with the media, in which case he joins the long tradition of American presidents as a champion of the democratic free world, or he continues in his present approach and becomes the first U.S. President who can longer claim to be the leader of the “free” world. That would be a lot worse than fake news.

Albert Dadon  is an Australian businessman, philanthropist and musician.

Stop denouncing Trump for not denouncing anti-semitism

President Donald Trump at the White House on Feb. 16. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

After President Donald J. Trump gave meandering answers to press questions over the last two days about attacks on Jews, several voices in the media, especially Jewish ones, have put forward the unfair – and patently false – charge that President Trump “refused to denounce” American anti-Semitism in his remarks.

“Why can’t President Trump simply denounce anti-Semitism?” asked Chuck Todd on MSNBC:

“Instead of telling us that you aren’t an anti-Semite, the question was about denouncing the rise of anti-Semitism. Please make it clear that not only are you not an anti-Semite, but that you reject people who are.”

Todd is factually inaccurate, since the questions were NOT about “denouncing” anything. That may be Todd’s agenda, but it’s not what happened.

Trump’s first question (on Wednesday) solicited his message not for anti-Semites, but for Jews “who believe and feel that your administration is playing with xenophobia and maybe racist tones,” and the second, which came yesterday, asked “how the government is planning to take care of” an “uptick in anti-Semitism.”

Trump’s answers, as is his wont, were filled with rambling non-sequiturs about the size of his Electoral College victory, his grandchildren, and the unfair, lying media. But Trump rambles when he answers most questions. Further, there are lots of reasonable ways a president could have answered those questions – expressing sympathy with the victims or describing the limits law enforcement faces in combating diffuse problems – that would not involve “denouncing” anything.

What would “refusing to denounce” look like? Very simple:

Reporter: Do you denounce the rise of anti-Semitism?

Trump: No.

Barring that, the accusation is gibberish.

Trump clearly feels insulted by the calls for him to denounce anti-Semitism, and he’s right. It is insulting. Talmudists have a concept called hava amina, which refers to the question’s default position. The hava amina of the “model” unfair question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” is that you used to beat your wife. One reason “Black Lives Matter” was an offensive slogan is its hava amina that a significant number of whites think black lives don’t matter.

Well, the “refuse to denounce” charge uses the hava amina that Trump is sympathetic to anti-Semitism. And the evidence to support that is a very thin soup. Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s supposed anti-Semitism is a liberal invention. Trump is not responsible for the beliefs of David Duke, Richard Spencer, or other racists who support him, unless your evidence is, again, “refuse to denounce” – a phrase we should retire from the political lexicon. And Trump’s affection for the Jews in his life and his support for Israel are widely known.

You don’t denounce things virtually everyone hates – and if you do, eyebrows go up. Was President George W. Bush asked to denounce 9-11? Was President Barack Obama expected to denounce Hurricane Sandy? Should Trump come out against long lines at airports and high ATM fees, too?

This particular question is worse, because it plays on unfair prejudices against Republicans. How would Jews feel if they were asked why they are refusing to denounce Bernie Madoff and Jack Abramoff? Or Hillary Clinton, who still “refuses to denounce” child molestation, despite a few high-profile supporters who are accused and convicted pedophiles. Even better, must the members of the press calling for Trump to make denunciations themselves denounce unfair media coverage of Trump?

I didn’t vote for this president. In fact, I (for lack of a better word) denounce much of his personal style and many of his policy positions. But too often, liberal complaints about this president – that he’s not only anti-Semitic but also homophobic, having appointed racists and bigots – blindly draws on the old “hateful Republican” playbook and ignores the reality of this very different kind of Republican who is in fact a very different kind of politician.

 We have to keep our eyes open for real threats from Trump, like his hostility toward the media and shaky relationship to the truth. Speaking of which, when you think about it, asking a politician to prove he’s NOT anything is really a “Trump question,” since nobody can prove a negative. The media scoffed when Trump challenged his detractors to “Prove to me that millions didn’t vote illegally.” Surely we can do better.

David Benkof is a columnist for the Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Reposted with permission of author. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.