By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
In July 2005, I spent a week in New Orleans, even survived a hurricane that deviated off course at the last minute. Two months later, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and wrecked the Bush Administration. Six years later, I spent a week in Oslo. Two weeks after I left, a crazed gunman murdered 69 young people. Mayhem has followed my visits to several other cities as well, all coincidences, of course.
Needless to say, exactly one year ago, I vacationed in Charlottesville, Virginia, for two days. The horrific events of last week – the murder, the white supremacist rally, the aggressions of the radical left – were all uncharacteristic of the town, a quaint genteel place typified by traditional Southern hospitality. It seems clear that the demonstrators, rioters and activists were primarily outsiders, and it saddens that Charlottesville will take its place in the list of American cities where senseless, hate-filled violence shattered the calm and robbed the innocent of life.
Much has been made of the appearance of Nazis, white supremacists, and random Jew haters, and their counterparts on the left, including thugs, Black Lives Matter activists, and other random Jew haters, and others, and President Trump’s reaction to all of them. Suffice it to say, the President struggles with his articulation. George W. Bush was known for consistently mangling words and syntax, but Trump makes Bush sound like Lincoln or Churchill. You have to know what he is trying to say to make sense of it.
Most supporters can deduce what he is saying through the plethora of words and images that are being emitted, while his enemies (“opponents” seems to be too tepid a term) fume at his every utterance and isolate phrases or allusions that reflect some esoteric code known only to the coterie of detractors. There is nothing he can say or do that will change their minds, and, I suspect, there is little that he can say or do that will turn his supporters against him. Many of those supporters voted for Trump not as their first or second choice but as their final choice, given the alternative. Given that alternative, he will remain preferable, and American society will continue to fragment amid increasing polarization and intolerance.
Those who deem Trump to be a Nazi sympathizer, or worse, interpret every comment as justification for their conclusions. That contention, certainly, is offensive and baseless, because if it were even possible that there was a Nazi sympathizer in the White House, every sane Jew would be packing his bags and heading for Israel forthwith. And yet, with all the chatter about the increase in Jew hatred in America in the last few years, and the alleged fear of Donald Trump, aliya from the United States is down and yerida from Israel to the US is up. Unless Jews are masochists, and perhaps that can’t be ruled out, then the accusations are crassly political rather than substantive and reality-based.
Should President Trump have denounced the Nazis and left it at that? From the media’s and Jewish establishment’s perspective, certainly. Nazis are the handiest enemy of the Jewish people, an easy and deserved target, and universally reviled by Jews and non-Jews, not least the American public, most of which still remembers entering a war to defeat the Nazis (and Japanese) that cost 500,000 American lives. Everybody hates Nazis, racists, white supremacists, etc., but consider the following.
American Nazis are always seeking to call attention to their venomous ideas, always trying to march somewhere, and their following is infinitesimal, not even a blip on the American radar screen. Even in Charlottesville, their participants, for all the hoopla, numbered in the low hundreds. Their ideas have no traction in American society, even if in the internet era they enjoy wide dissemination. Their right to march has been litigated in the courts and approved on constitutional grounds of free speech and assembly. When the Nazis sought to march in Skokie in 1977-78, President Carter was asked about it at a news conference. Here was the exchange, from January 30, 1978:
Mr. President, there's a group of American Nazis in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, which is contemplating a march that's in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, and there might be victims there of the Nazi concentration camps from World War II. Do you have any plan to use the moral weight of your office to try to discourage this kind of a march?
THE PRESIDENT. I deplore it. I wish that this demonstration of an abhorrent political and social philosophy would not be present at all. This is a matter that is in the American Federal courts, as you know, and under the framework of the constitutional guarantee for free speech. I believe under carefully controlled conditions the courts have ruled that it is legal and that they have a right to act this way.
We have the same problem, as you know, in other parts of the Nation—in the South with the Ku Klux Klan, and others. And I don't have any inclination to intercede further. I think it's best to leave it in the hands of the court.
Note well what Carter said and didn’t say. He deplored the march, found their ideas abhorrent, but acknowledged the matter is being litigated and that the Nazis have a legal right to march. He declined to intercede further. Trump used very similar language, inelegant in his own way, deploring, condemning, saying such hatred has no place in American society, etc. He even pointed out that the evil white supremacists had a permit for their demonstration – as opposed to their protesters who did not and broke the law. (The withdrawal of the police that led to open violent confrontations and then to the despicable homicide should be investigated fully. That was a horrible failure of government.) But imagine if Trump had merely stated – as Carter basically did – that they have a right to march, and left it at that. He would have been excoriated, accused of winking and encouraging these nuts, or supporting them outright.
The Nazis in 1978 eventually marched in a Chicago park, all… several dozen of them, led by Frank Collin (the son of a Jewish Holocaust survivor who changed his name from Cohen. Go figure.) Nothing happened. Back in 1978, I (at the time, young and headstrong; now I am older and headstrong) thought that the Nazis should not be allowed to march and should be violently resisted. The man who would soon become my father-in-law suggested that it would be far better to allow them to march, rant and rave – and just ignore them. No coverage. No media. No reaction. I argued. In retrospect, he was right (all right, hard for me to admit) and I was wrong. Their demonstration received no attention. They crawled back into their swamps after a few minutes. Life went on and they continued marching in obscurity. I wonder if the same approach would work today; perhaps it should be tried.
The world today is far different, and not only because Jews are slightly more sophisticated. Free speech is under assault. The WSJ recently excerpted a new book by a liberal (a true liberal) Columbia professor who noted that in today’s climate, “classroom conversations that once might have begun, ‘I think A, and here is my argument,’ now take the form, ‘Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B.’ What replaces argument, then, are taboos against unfamiliar ideas and contrary opinions.” Like it or not, the counter-demonstrations were an expression of violent offense that others have detestable opinions that should not be allowed to be expressed. That is not the United States of America.
There were two troubling subtexts to the Charlottesville riots. The first was that the radical left wing protesters (the antifascists and other groups) set out to deny the free speech rights claimed by the odious Nazis. There was a time when liberals defended that, and here the ACLU did, even if it have been neglectful in other defenses of free speech such as on college campuses. For its efforts, it was lambasted by Virginia’s governor and blamed for the ensuing violence. That is more ominous than Americans recognize because such suppression of speech has become common across the country, and is un-American. Trump alluded to this but not coherently enough. That does not bode well for Jews, who hold some opinions based on Torah morality that are not appreciated by left-wing groups in this era, and those groups are actively trying to repress and even criminalize that speech.
That is true as well about the matter of the Confederate statues, about which I am an agnostic. I understand why it would trouble blacks, as I am troubled by the statues of Titus and Hadrian in Rome and Bogdan Chmielnicki in Kiev. (If NYC wants to remove the plaque honoring Marshal Petain, please also remove the one honoring Charles de Gaulle, who turned out to be a hater of Israel who embargoed weapons for Israel already paid forwhen Israel most needed it in 1967, and that of Peter Stuyvesant, a rabid Jew hater in his own right.) On the other hand, there is something Orwellian about flushing history down the memory hole. It smacks of untruthfulness, even weakness. I stood before the Arch of Titus, and other statues of Roman emperors in the Pantheon or Italian museums, and laughed like Rabbi Akiva at the end of Masechet Mako). I wished that they could all come back to life for a few moments and see what became of their grandiose empire and, conversely, the nation of Israel that they tried to destroy. There are many American blacks who revel in their freedom, in the eradication of slavery and their successes in America, and their triumph over the ideology of the old men on horseback, whose ideology reflected their times, and whose defeat can teach all of us about morality, values and human dignity; if only there were many more in that community. That would also be tolerant, a lost virtue.
The second subtext is one that affects Jews in America and across the world. The Nazi obsession that we have (justified by the ideas uttered but not by the numbers of people uttering them) has rendered Jews blind to the haters on the other side. People are not our friends just because they protest against Nazis, any more than ISIS is our friend because they are fighting our foe, Bashar al-Assad. The Trump reference that set off so many people – the bad people on “many sides” – highlighted the fact that there are haters on the left that hate Jews and Israel as much as the haters on the right. Groups such as Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the anti-fascists, et al are rife with haters of Jews and Israel. There is no reason to give them a pass. The Nazis and white supremacists are loathed by everyone and are miniscule in number, while the leftist anti-Israel groups have found a comfortable home in one wing of the Democrat Party. They are being mainstreamed, not the Nazis; they are the ones supporting BDS; they are the ones who are being pandered to by the Cory Bookers of the world; they are the ones who deserve our attention.
Yet, President Trump’s clumsy attempt to reference them was roundly denounced. It is fascinating that the reaction here in Israel, official and unofficial, is largely bewilderment at the American Jewish disregard of their primary adversaries and the elevation to prominence of their faux foes. We have reached a stage, on the bizarre landscape of contemporary American Jewry, where support for Israel is no longer construed as being “pro-Israel” and to some people indicates the opposite, while antagonism towards Israel is not perceived as being “anti-Israel.” It will not be the first time that Jews have failed to distinguish between enemies and enemies, and friends and enemies.
Of all the problems facing American Jewry today, the existence of an American Nazi Party is not even in the top ten. Assimilation and intermarriage have robbed us of more Jewish souls than has this pathetic band of losers. That is the problem but it is far easier to denounce Nazis and white supremacists than it is to keep Jews Jewish for positive reasons, have Jews marry other Jews, and embrace the lifestyle that G-d ordained for us. The real enemies of the Jews in America and the world are not “Nazis,” and we are blind not to see that.
Like bad generals who always fight the last war, we are looking backwards and seeing the wrong things. The Nazis are evil, of course, but some of those confronting them are also not our friends and some are real enemies. We will survive them, but we should not deny their existence, nor should we embark on a campaign to turn friends into enemies. Those who do not learn from past are doomed to learn the name of George Santayana. But those who see only the past and look at everything through the prism of the past are doomed to distort the present and will be unprepared to face the challenges of the future.
As the exile winds down, it would be wise and prudent for Jews to assess who are our real enemies and what poses the genuine threats to our future. That has yet to happen, for, to many Jews, it hits too close to home.