Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes to present himself as the representative of the Jewish people. He implied that in his address to Congress in March of 2015. He also did it when he went to Paris after the terrorist attack there that targeted the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
You would think that the terrible events we saw in Charlottesville last week would move a person who sees himself this way to speak out quickly and forcefully — if not against the violence or the white-supremacism, then at least against the neo-Nazism and the explicit anti-Semitism.
Sadly, as the Washington Post reports, it would be easy to miss the prime minister’s single tweet on the issue, which he put out only a day after President Trump criticized the KKK and the white supremacists (and a day before Trump walked that criticism back and returned to his original position of blaming both white supremacists and those who stood against them for the violence that resulted in the death of a peaceful anti-Nazi counter-protester).
What are we to make of the fact that both Netanyahu and Trump are so reticent to condemn fascism and racism? How do we understand the comment by the prime minister’s son (who reportedly is becoming one of his father’s most influential advisors) that it is the leftists who are more dangerous than the neo-Nazis?
It is painful to acknowledge it — because we want an Israeli prime minister to be better than this, just as we want our own president to behave differently — but the reality is that the top leaders of both countries have enthusiastically adopted rhetoric that emboldens extremists on the fascist side of the political spectrum. The use of dog whistles like “Make America Great Again” and “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls” is both a device for electoral gain and, even more disturbingly, an indication of these leaders’ actual worldview. That these tactics have been proven effective is a sign of the dysfunctional political reality in both countries.
We all know that the ugliness that was exposed in Charlottesville didn’t actually begin on Saturday. It’s been there, just below the surface, for a long time. Racism is America’s original sin, and it has always been with us. It’s coming to the fore now because the extremists are feeling emboldened. It is coming to the fore now, because we are living in a time when the President of the United States won’t, or can’t, unequivocally condemn them. That is outrageous and unacceptable.
We all know that there is no silver bullet that’s going to end the problem of racism and push the extremists back to the margins. It is easier to incite hatred than to teach respect. It is going to take immense work — educating, organizing, uniting disparate communities, mobilizing — to get America back on track. This is the work that NIF supports in Israel to confront bigotry. This is the work that’s needed in America today too.
This is what ultimately defeats the racists. And it takes a community of individuals who are willing to invest in this painstaking work over years, even when the issue fades from the headlines, in order to win.
The pain of what happened in Charlottesville will, I hope, serve as a wakeup call that will inspire more and more people to speak out and act up in support of sanity, at home and everywhere in the world where racism is on the rise.
Our civil society here in America is strong. So is the progressive American Jewish community. Both are organizing to demonstrate that Trump’s pathetic response to — and indeed sanctioning of — the rise of race hatred in the United States is both un-American and unacceptable. NIF has joined in an initiative of Bend the Arc and others to urge Congress to press the White House to fire members of the President’s top circle with links to hate groups. And we will continue to join with other Jewish American organizations to call out the dangerous and violent organizations that came together in Charlottesville.
What happened in Charlottesville was terrifying. And over the past several years, other Charlottesvilles have happened in other countries, including Israel. Let’s be very clear: the equivocation and reticence of the responses of our President and of Israel’s Prime Minister to these outrages are part of a pattern of behavior that is making things worse in both countries. The President and the Prime Minister have not just allowed this problem to grow; they are part of the problem. When those in power sanction bigotry and hatred — whether tacitly or explicitly — bigotry and hatred emerge from the shadows to which they had been been rightly confined.
When our leaders choose to abandon their moral compasses, when they say nothing about – and indeed even aid and abet – rising forces of racism and hatred, they abandon any claim to moral leadership.
Yesterday, Donald Trump described American anti-fascists disrupting a large gathering of white supremacists thusly: “You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and it was horrible and it was a horrible thing to watch, but there is another side… You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent.”
Seventy-three years ago, another American President, one with a very different moral compass, was also tasked with describing another moment when American anti-fascists disrupted a large gathering of white supremacists. He called it “D-Day.”