As a Jew, I’m not OK with Trump’s Response to Charlottesville

A few minutes into a high school cross-county workout, John dive tackled me into the snow. Out of breath, I laughed because I thought John was goofing around. A few seconds later, it occurred to me that John — that’s not his real name — was punching me over and over.

It didn’t hurt much because thick winter gloves covered his hands, but John was clearly trying to hurt me. Belatedly, I fought back until I was standing up. John suddenly calmed down, and then we resumed our run. “Why did you attack me?” I asked John.

“I hate Jews,” he said.

“But you are Jewish yourself!” I responded.

“I was adopted,” was his response. “And I hate my parents.”

While this happened during my senior year in high school, it by no means was the only incident. Three years earlier, a different cross-country teammate teased me after stopping to tie my shoe laces while we were on our annual training run in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

“Find a penny?” the tall teen taunted. “I’m sure you’ll invest it well. You Jews always do.”

One year later we were back in Lake Geneva. The same tall boy said, “So how’s that bank account? It must be worth about a million dollars now.”

When I arrived at Indiana University, I expected some relief. After all, college-educated students would be more mature and less hateful, right?

Most of them were, but there were incidents nonetheless. Shortly after arriving at the college, I was asked to be in charge of a dorm’s darkroom. A few weeks later, the small room was destroyed by one of our members, with an anarchy symbols and an anti-Jewish slur painted on the wall.

There were more incidents. A police officer discussed with a rural gas station owner I was trying to pay how the Jews and their black army had taken over Chicago and the nation. I sent a reporter from my college newspaper to cover a Nazi/Ku Klux Klan rally. When she came back, the first thing she said was, “Those people. They’re so angry!”

This was in the 1980s, but I experienced additional incidents in the 1990s. As I got older, I thought the number of incidents was declining. Did American culture change? Was our society finally maturing?

It was a nice thought, but incidents still happened around the nation, such as the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center shooting in 1999. In 2003, when my son was less than a year old, an Iranian Jew was arrested for arson attacks on three synagogues, a church and a Bahai center. Before the arrest, my wife and I wondered if it was safe to attend public, outdoor Jewish events such as menorah lightings.

And last year, there was a rash of bomb threats against Jewish organizations, including one next door to where my daughter was practicing the breast stroke for her swim team. Not knowing why there was a helicopter overhead, an Indian friend and I speculated that there was a burglar or car crash in the area. I later learned that the helicopter was aiding police who were searching for a bomb in the adjacent Jewish Community Center. The threat was a hoax, but there is no doubt it instilled fear in the hearts of parents and children alike.

All in all, I can count several dozen incidents during my lifespan where I was directly impacted by anti-Semitic events or experiences. Some were just insults to my ego, such as when two separate dates ended the same way: “Oh, you’re Jewish? I don’t date Jewish men.”

But some incidents were downright scary: Teens professing to be Nazis in the apartment above mine, threw things and hurled slurs at me when I tried to enter or exit. I demanded that the teens give me their dad’s work phone number. They didn’t, of course, but they told me that their dad worked at a major department store. The store connected me to the dad when I called:

“They’re calling you ‘Kike’ and ‘Jew?’ ’’ the dad asked.

“Yes,” I responded.

“That’s great!” he said. “I raised them well.”

“So you’re not going to do anything?”

“Hell no,” was all he said back.

As soon as I got off the phone, I called up an apartment complex manager and told her what had been going on. The family was evicted soon after; apparently there had been other complaints and they weren’t the best about paying rent on time. I was relieved and went on with my life.

I realize this may sound odd, but I was never really troubled by these incidents, because they were spread out over decades and as a whole I never really felt hated or unwanted in America. Sure, I knew it was less safe in some areas than others, but generally, I felt that I was protected by my own Americanness. I also realized that I didn’t have it that bad, compared with the discrimination faced by my black, Hispanic, Asian and gay friends.

I have always been keenly aware of how much worse things used to be for Jews, because I spent a part of my formative years studying the Holocaust that ended the lives of millions of Jews, but until these past few weeks, I have always felt that American society has generally been evolving past such senseless hate.

Even with the remaining hate, it has been made bearable by Americans who have historically rejected this behavior at the highest social and cultural levels. That doesn’t mean our society is off the hook for the way it has mistreated and marginalized so many, but at least there has always been a degree of moral leadership by our nation’s previous presidents and many of its highest-elected officials.

My worldview shifted, however, in the way President Donald Trump responded this August to Nazi protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, that ended in the death of a young woman protesting white supremacists. Heather D. Heyer was run down by a white supremacist during those protests, while 19 others were injured.

By Trump refusing to call out the Nazis and their ilk for the carnage, he’s changed the context of the anti-Semitic experiences I’ve faced in the past. During two press conferences, Trump repeatedly chose to blame both sides and claim that there were good people joining the Nazis. Here is an example of what Trump said:

You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. You had a group, you had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.

Because Trump did not unequivocally denounce the supremacists, he’s emboldened them. Keep in mind that because Trump erroneously called some of the marchers “fine” people who just happened to be marching alongside the Nazis, he is inappropriately legitimizing an organization that demands the extinction of an entire ethnicity. Simply put, those willing to march with Nazis are not only enabling these horrible people, but are now equally part of the problem.

President Trump not only legitimizes the entire White Supremacist movement, he attacks those who are against the White Supremacists and Nazis. There is simply no way to create moral equivalency between the two groups of protestors: only one side is calling for the extinction of an entire class of people while the other side is loudly saying “go away.” The other big difference between the two sides, and this should be mentioned in every Nazi-related story, is that the Nazis actually killed 6 million Jews.

Some of the braver Republican leaders and corporate CEOs see this problem clearly and as a result have rejected President Trump’s position. They recognize the inherit threat of offering any endorsement of hate ideology. Even James Murdoch, the CEO of pro-Trump 21st Century Fox, pledged $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League in response to President Trump. He wrote in an email:

What we watched this last week in Charlottesville and the reaction to it by the President of the United States concern all of us as Americans and free people. …
These events remind us all why vigilance against hate and bigotry is an eternal obligation — a necessary discipline for the preservation of our way of life and our ideals. The presence of hate in our society was appallingly laid bare as we watched swastikas brandished on the streets of Charlottesville and acts of brutal terrorism and violence perpetrated by a racist mob. I can’t even believe I have to write this: standing up to Nazis is essential; there are no good Nazis. Or Klansmen, or terrorists. Democrats, Republicans, and others must all agree on this, and it compromises nothing for them to do so.

This gets back to my personal experiences. None of the individual incidents scarred me for life. Most of the time, I simply went on and adapted my own understanding of prejudice and hate and then moved on. But as President Trump spreads the blame all around and minimizes the nature of the Nazi protests, I can only assume that the White Supremacist movement has just been given a golden opportunity to recruit more members while encouraging other to more publically display their hate against Jews and other minority groups.

Trump’s comments essentially informs the supremacists that they now have roughly three years of a president looking the other way while new forms of hate and prejudice emerge. We may see more racist-fueled protests or more hateful journalism from alt-right websites. Jewish communities may see an increase in physical or emotional attacks. Or maybe my kids will now face the kind of hateful experiences that I mentioned at the beginning of this article. This is the door that President Trump has opened and is refusing to close. The result is that now I have a new message flashing in my head: “Things are going to get worse before they get better.” I’m not okay with this, and I hope you are not either.