1. White Supremacy Rears Its Head. Again
A tragic Saturday morning at an El Paso Walmart reminded many in the Jewish community that white supremacy, with its murderous violent carriers, has never been defeated. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s statistics, white supremacists were responsible for 78 percent of extremist terrorism last year; the year in which, among other tragedies, America experienced the attack on Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the murder of 19-year-old Jewish university student Blaze Bernstein. From Poway to El Paso, white supremacist ideology is alive and has been erupting into dangerous sprees of violence at alarming rates. The Jewish community hasn’t been watching these troubling developments from the sidelines. On the contrary. It has been playing a leading role in monitoring and sounding warning bells about extremism as well as advocating for tough actions against extremists and for stepping up the government’s role in fighting white supremacists. The Jewish community has also invested funds and time in internalizing the threats Jewish institutions face from white supremacists and neo-Nazis and in implementing security measures to keep these institutions safe.
But somehow, it doesn’t seem to be enough.
While Jews are more aware of the dangers and prepared to deal with them, Pittsburgh and Poway have proved that there is no such thing as airtight synagogue security. Furthermore, despite efforts by Jewish groups, federal resources for countering white extremists and domestic terrorists have been slashed under Trump, in favor of diverting funds to fighting Islamic extremist terrorism. And even more to the chagrin of the Jewish community, calls to rein in hateful speech aimed at immigrants and minorities have largely been ignored.
2. Trump’s Belated Response
More than 24 hours passed from the time a hate-fueled Patrick Crusius went on his shooting rampage, vowing, as he later told investigators, “to kill as many Mexicans as possible” until the first public appearance by President Trump. In a statement to reporters before taking off from his golf resort, Trump was brief and failed to show much empathy. He spoke mainly of the brave first responders, later adding, almost as an afterthought, that “hate has no place in our country”.
On Monday morning, Trump delivered a message from the White House Diplomatic Reception Room. Taking on a somber tone and sticking to the teleprompter, Trump provided a clear message:”In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America.”
This simple message was exactly what Trump had been expected to say. Not only now, but also after Charlottesville. A recognition of the role white supremacy plays in violent hate crimes, and a strong pledge to fight it. As simple as that.
As for actions – here there’s still much to be desired. The White House has yet to lay out a real plan for confronting white nationalists and eradicating their murderous agenda. If he does, it could be his redeeming moment. Without action, Monday’s speech will go down as empty rhetoric.
As seen in the past, it is Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, who seems to be tasked with the portfolio of understanding the gravity of domestic terrorism and properly responding to it. Prompted by angry twitter followers who did not like her generic “thoughts and prayers” initial response, Ivanka went on to tweet on Sunday: “White supremacy, like all other forms of terrorism, is an evil that must be destroyed.” A day later, the message was echoed by her dad.
3. Al Sharpton or Donald Trump: Who’s Worse for the Jews?
After concluding what was roundly condemned as a racist rant against four non-white members of Congress, then taking another shot at an African-American member of Congress and a predominantly black major American city, President Trump got around to targeting civil rights activists Al Sharpton.
This latest twist in the ongoing debate on how to read Trump’s endless attacks against people of color and his repeated use of racist terms put Jewish Americans in an uneasy situation. For the Jewish community, throwing Rev. Sharpton into the mix provided for an additional layer of awkwardness. On the one hand, here goes Trump again with another attack against an African-American community leader. On the other hand, are we really going to go to bat for Al Sharpton?
Conservatives were quick to seize on the moment. Writing in the Washington Post, Seth Mandel took issue with Democrats rushing to Sharpton’s defense and provided a lengthy—and deeply troubling—reminder of Sharpton’s anti-Semitic comments and actions. The Republican Jewish Coalition, not known for its subtlety, went all out with an email blast to supporters carrying the subject line “Trump Vs. Sharpton.” Inside was a carefully designed table comparing the two. Trump’s side of the table listed everything from a 1983 award he received from JNF to being the first sitting U.S. president to pray at the Western Wall. Sharpton’s column, on the other hand, included him fanning the flames during the Crown Heights riots, anti-Semitic comments he had made in the 1990s, and calling a visit to Israel a “stopover in hell.” The list conveniently left out Sharpton privately expressing regret for his role in Crown Heights and his recent public acknowledgement of using “cheap” rhetoric against Jews. It also forgot to mention, on Trump’s side, his response to Charlottesville and claims raised in the past of using anti-Semitic stereotypes when discussing Jewish business associates. But above all, the attempt to push Jewish Americans into a choice between Trump and Sharpton doesn’t hold water. Hatred, bigotry, racism and lack of sensitivity can dwell on either side of the political map. One can criticize Trump for his recent tweets without having to forgive Sharpton for his past comments. You can also rip apart Sharpton for a career laden with anti-Semitic comments and still accept that Trump has crossed into racist territory by singling out non-white rivals.
4. A Jewish Leader Is Born
The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Jewish Organizations has chosen William Daroff as its new CEO, replacing Malcolm Hoenlein who has led the group for 33 years. Should you feel bad for never hearing about this Jewish umbrella group, known for its incredibly cumbersome name and that’s about it? Not at all. The Presidents’ Conference, as it is sometimes referred to by Jewish machers tired of struggling to remember its full name, is as insider baseball as it gets in the world of Jewish communal life. Its historic goal was to serve as the Jewish community’s government affairs arm, to provide the government with one address they can reach out to when there comes a need to “talk to the Jews” and to ensure the Jewish community speaks in a singular, powerful and reliable voice when discussing its issues (primarily those relating to Israel) to powers outside the community. Throughout the decades, the group’s mission has changed. Relationships between the government and Jewish groups have become more elaborate and sophisticated, the importance of “one address” for Jews has declined, and the umbrella group became too small to cover the variety of Jewish American political and organizational expressions.
5. Daroff’s To Do List
The choice of Daroff represents a bold new move for the organization. He’s younger than the average “Jewish leader,” a master of social media and painfully non-partisan (despite his professional Republican background). Daroff is also a die-hard vegan, as anyone who has spent more than five minutes with him surely knows. But Daroff has a lot to do if he wishes to take the President’s Conference into the 21st century. Here are a few suggestions for the most basic reforms that can save the group:
- Make it a true umbrella organization. Expand the tent to include all voices in the Jewish community.
- Good ties with the Israeli government are great, but Israel is more than Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud. Make sure American Jews can speak out, even when they disagree with Netanyahu (and not only about the Western Wall and conversion).
- Make sure the group is transparent. The days of closed-door decision making are over.
- Change the damn name.
(Photo credit: KFOX14/CBS4)