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The Politics of Hate (August 2017)

Rabbi Mike

On Friday afternoon Carol and I went to an “Interfaith Gathering of Unity, Love, and Strength” at Temple Israel in Boston, which was organized by the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. Their quite large sanctuary was full, and additional attendees were directed to an auditorium where the program was being piped in.  I heard that there were an additional 3,000 people watching the program as it was live-streamed.  There was security, and we had to go through metal detectors—a sign of our times, but hopefully not one which will become part of our routine.


In addition to religious leaders, a good number of civic leaders were present as well.  Among them were Governor Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Boston Police Commissioner Bill Evans, and the Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League Robert Trestan.  As each of these individuals were announced they were greeted with loud applause.  We were meeting in the aftermath of the previous weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, and on the eve of what would we feared could be another confrontation with hate groups in downtown Boston.  Everyone in the crowd was aware of how much these leaders had been planning to avoid a repeat of Charlottesville in Boston.  Our heartfelt applause was in gratitude and acknowledgement for their efforts as well as for their presence at this gathering.  Thankfully on Saturday, other than a number of minor skirmishes and some 25-30 arrests, the Boston protest, despite an estimated crowd of 40,000 (overwhelmingly counter-demonstrators), unfolded peacefully and civilly.  All of our aforementioned leaders deserve another round of our appreciation and applause.


Baker, Walsh and Healy all spoke during the gathering and all echoed its themes:  unity, not disunity, love, not hate, and no tolerance for intolerance.  Maura Healey inspired a rousing loud and sustained standing ovation when she said:


“Let us remember some basic truths:

That the torch that guides us shines on the top of the Statue of Liberty.

That Heather Heyer is a hero.

And that anyone who struggles to denounce white supremacy or Nazism does not deserve to be president of the United States.”  


While several of the speakers alluded to President Trump’s comments and responses in the wake of Charlottesville, Healy was the only one to call him out explicitly and directly, and this very diverse audience roared in agreement and approval.  To be clear, I was most certainly among them.


While we are all familiar with the obscene and alarming events that took place in Charlottesville last weekend, I offer Tablet Magazine’s Yair Rosenberg description as a refresher:


White nationalists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In actuality, the gathering was effectively a convention for America’s top neo-Nazis, from former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke to alt-right luminary Richard Spencer.  At their Friday night rally at the University of Virginia, the white nationalists brandished torches and chanted anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans, including “blood and soil” (an English rendering of the Nazi “blut und boden”) and “Jews will not replace us” — all crafted to cast Jews as foreign interlopers who need to be expunged. The attendees proudly displayed giant swastikas and wore shirts emblazoned with quotes from Adolf Hitler. One banner read, “Jews are Satan’s children.”


“The truth is,” Duke told a large crowd Saturday, “the American media, and the American political system, and the American Federal Reserve, is dominated by a tiny minority: the Jewish Zionist cause.” Addressing another group, Richard Spencer mocked Charlottesville’s Jewish mayor, Mike Signer. “Little Mayor Signer — ‘See-ner’ — how do you pronounce this little creep’s name?” Spencer asked. The crowd responded by chanting, “Jew, Jew, Jew.”


Imagine, if you can, these events happening in Westboro, with a Friday night torch-lit march down Main Street, or Oak Street, with Nazi flags and slogans.   For Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, it wasn’t imaginary—it was very real and quite scary, as their President, Alan Zimmerman, reported on earlier this week.


What happened last weekend happened in Charlottesville, but it happened to America.  And what happened in Charlottesville was not an isolated event.  It must be understood as the logical outcome of the politics of hate that have been espoused by Donald Trump as candidate and now President.  His repeated slurs against Mexicans, Muslims, and immigrants, his reluctance during his campaign to renounce and distance himself from supporters like David Duke, his appointments of extremists (e.g., Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Sebastian Gorka) as key advisers at the White House and as leaders within the Administration, and his promotion of conspiracy theories have all emboldened (a term we hear repeatedly in this context) the radical right elements of our society, who for so long were on the margins, to enter the mainstream. His refusal to unequivocally renounce the hate groups in Charlottesville, as referred to by Healey, is consistent with that pattern. 


You do not have to take my word for this.  Rather, consider the fact that President Trump’s picture has graced the covers of a few recent publications of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), arguably the premier organization that monitors hate groups and hate crimes.  The SPLC has reported that over the past year “unleashed hatred [has] soared to new highs,” and they attribute this trend directly to what they call the “Trump Effect.” His election to the highest office in our land has brought organized groups of the radical right out of the closet and into the streets. Charlottesville was the most obscene, dangerous and scary manifestation of this trend, but it did not occur in a vacuum.  


We expect and we need leadership, moral leadership in particular, in times of crisis from those we elect to serve and represent us, most especially from our President.  To be sure, President Trump’s statements in the wake of Charlottesville—“blame on both sides,” “good people on both sides”—is a total and abject failure of moral leadership.  He has once againemboldened the radical right, and it is no surprise that virtually the lone voices in support of his post-Charlottesville remarks are people like David Duke and Richard Spencer.  I am encouraged that in the wake of his recent behavior the business leaders who were part of his economic advisory councils finally abandoned him in protest.  It is also highly significant that the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued coordinated statements condemning racial bigotry and extremism, in a “rare foray into domestic politics” (L.A. Times) by the military.  While the President was not mentioned by name in their pronouncements, everyone knows what they were reacting to, in their efforts to fill the moral vacuum created by the President’s words.


Jewish tradition teaches us about the power of our words.  Words can heal, words can harm.  We must use our words carefully, and choose our words wisely.  When I spoke about this last Rosh Hashanah, I asserted that while this is true for each of us, it is especially true for our leaders.  Because of their visibility and influence their words have even more power.  I mentioned no one by name, but you can be sure who I had in mind.  We have now witnessed the damage that politics of hate can cause, and tragically, Heather Heyer, a hero, lost her life as a result.  Sadly more lives will be lost, and more Charlottesvilles are in our future, if we do not get moral leadership and moral clarity from our President.  I hope and pray that he is capable.

Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784