This past Friday, right before Shabbat, I called a prominent Jewish organization to urge them to protest the appointment of Steve Bannon to the position of chief strategist and special advisor to President-elect Trump.
Here is how the call went.
Representative of organization: Hello, this is the ___________. How may I help you?
Jeff: This is Rabbi Jeff Salkin. I am asking your organization to protest Steve Bannon’s appointment to his White House position.
Representative: The ______________ will not be taking a position on this appointment.
Jeff: May I ask you why not?
Representative: Because you cannot expect the ______________ to take a position on every single presidential appointment.
Jeff: I understand, but I would say that this presents an unusual situation.
Representative: Well, we don’t believe that Bannon is anti-Semitic. Those accusations are old and very unreliable.
Jeff: I will grant you that. But, what about the fact that he has served as the willing mouthpiece of the alt-right?
Representative: Well, they’re not that bad…
Jeff: They’re not?
Representative: It’s not as if we are talking about [prominent KKK leader] David Duke.
Jeff: But, most bigots are not David Duke…this is a Jewish organization, right?
Jeff: Can you identify one Jewish teaching, one Jewish idea, or one Jewish value, that would justify your organization’s silence in the face of massive bigotry?
Jeff: Shabbat shalom.
Why am I silent on the name of the organization?
Because I believe in the Jewish teaching that, most of the time, you should not shame another person (or persons, or an organization) in public.
What would happen, within hours of my conversation?
The release of the now-infamous video from the National Policy Institute convention — complete with cries of “Hail,Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”; Hitler-like salutes, and the use of the Nazi buzzword lugenpresse, the lying press. Richard Spencer’s hateful white supremacist rhetoric would chill anyone who has a fifth grader’s understanding of world history.
This has been a challenging week for the organized Jewish community. The number of Jewish organizations that publicly responded to the Bannon appointment, and/or the rhetoric of the alt-right, is very low — though some Jewish organizations will claim, not without merit, that such protest is not within their usual job description.
But, we are seeing something that might be historically unprecedented. The majority of Jewish organizations are remaining mute on one of the greatest moral and political tests of our time — the presence of an alt-right representative in the White House.
Not to mention, the appointment of Jeff Sessions, whose bigoted past is an open book, as attorney general.
Here is the litany that you are likely to hear from Jews who are choosing silence.
- “There is no proof that Steve Bannon is an anti-Semite.”
I already owned up to that one. So, forget the anti-Semitism charge.
There was a time when Jews, and their organizations, did not only focus on anti-Semitism. At their best (like the ever-admirable ADL), they realized that hatred of one leads to hatred of all.
Do American Jews really mean to say that as long as we are not being victimized (at this precise moment) that it’s not our problem?
Is this what we learned in the last half-century? Is this all we have to show for our partnership with civil rights organizations? Really?
- “What about the anti-Semitism and the anti-Israelism on the left?”
What is this — “I’m rubber, you’re glue….”? Why this need to change the subject? And why the denial of the problem of anti-Semitism on the Right? Is this a zero-sum game?
I will continue to fight the anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism on the Left, as well as the anti-Semitism and bigotry on the Right.
It is not as if I have the time, energy, and moral bandwidth to fight only one of those battles. To me, they are one and the same.
- “But, the alt-right is pro-Israel.”
Let’s say that you love Israel because Israel stands up against those Ay-rabs, or because you think that Israel is anti-Muslim (which it is not), or because you simply admire Israel’s toughness.
Then, the fact that Israel is, in fact, the Jewish state might actually be irrelevant to you.
But, all is not lost, and all is not darkness.
One major cultural institution remembered its mandate — the mandate not to remain silent.
I am talking about the United States Holocaust Museum. It has expressed alarm over “hateful speech” at that white nationalist meeting. It publicly recalled that the Holocaust did not begin with murder; it began with words.
And, another sweet story. After their convention, a bunch of bigots went to Maggiano’s Little Italy restaurant in northwest Washington for dinner. They decided that cries of “Heil, Hitler!” would be appropriate at the table. Disgusting.
So, what did Maggiano’s do?
They donated the profits from Friday’s business — $10,000 — to the ADL.
Find me a Maggiano’s in Florida. Please.
Finally, a black Baptist colleague texted me: “Why aren’t Jewish organizations saying more about the alt-right and Jeff Sessions?”
I was ashamed. I told him that we would try to do better.
He texted back: “Because, Jeff, if Jews are silent, what hope is there for any of us?”
Elie Wiesel died four months ago. Remember him? His life was a symphony against silence.
Late breaking news: Donald Trump has said that he disavows the alt-right.
Now, please, Donald: help us believe you.