U.S. President Donald Trump makes remarks at the Amphitheater after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery as part of Memorial Day observance, Arlington, Virginia, U.S., May 29, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I must admit that I’m in a quandary.
I thought at first it was just one instance, an exception.
After all, the US president was still at the start of his term. As he gains experience, he’ll surely improve, I thought. It’s inconceivable that the man who tweets clear and pithy views on so many subjects would remain so vague when it comes to hate-filled demonstrations by the extreme Right.
Now, after the hate crimes in Charlottesville, after reading the appreciative words of KKK leader David Duke (I had the dubious honor of meeting him many years ago), and after watching the shocking pictures of torch-bearing Americans shouting “Jews will not replace us” – I’ve reached the conclusion that this is not just another instance. It’s a method, it’s policy, it’s a worldview.
The president spoke three times after the car-ramming incident.
First, he released a wishy-washy statement and later he denounced the act. In his third response, apparently ad lib, he suddenly described the Left and Right in symmetrical terms, saying they share the blame; he added that there are lots of positive people on the Right.
Donald Trump’s successful bid for the presidency was unprecedented.
Without any political experience, opposed by the top leadership of the Republican Party, and facing a disdainful political establishment and media – in short, against all odds, he crisscrossed America, identified its fears and distress, and convinced 50 million Americans to vote for him. There has never been anything like it.
But since the day he entered the Oval Office, he has only sank deeper and deeper. There is constant turnover in his staff, leaks from the White House portray him in a negative light, and there are growing questions about his ability to lead America in international crises such as those involving North Korea and Russia. He is also finding it difficult to fulfill his promises on domestic issues, and the special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, is pressing forward in the investigation of Russian influence in the elections.
But this week, a redline was crossed, a very red line – the line that defines the US as a liberal, open, tolerant, multicultural and democratic country. Someone who was elected in a democratic process is obligated, more than anyone else, to protect it. Trump’s attempt to provide an umbrella of protection, a sort of legitimacy, to America’s dangerous and loony right-wing extremists is extraordinarily perilous. The eyes of the world are on America, our eyes too. The US has always demonstrated an ability to conduct an internal discourse among its various factions, and its constitution has proved to be flexible. Most important, it has been inclusive and strong enough to overcome every challenge it faces.
American Jews have felt the change for some time. You need to have a sixth sense, the Jewish sense that has never dulled, even in the golden age in America, to feel the storm clouds forming and the tempest brewing. It’s true that 75% of the Jewish community did not vote for Trump, but 25% did. Many contributed to him and many more place their trust in democracy and in the institution of the Presidency.
The voices of condemnation by leading Jewish organizations were more severe than ever this time.
These voices reflected a sense of panic. What is happening in our country and how is it possible that the president fails to distinguish between the two groups demonstrating in Charlottesville? These things quickly crossed the ocean and posed a difficult problem for Israel, a recurring problem.
In the past, the prime minister refrained from denouncing the surging wave of hatred and the scent of antisemitism in the US and waited. Finally, he released a feeble statement. Relations with the US, particularly at the beginning of a president’s term, were more important. Everyone knows that it’s not a good idea to aggravate Trump – see the case of CNN, for example. But this week there was no other choice. The calculation was starkly clear. Does the prime minister of the State of Israel, the state of the Jewish people, stand in defense of American Jewry, his people, or does he prefer the intimacy and shared interests with the American administration? The prime minister cannot suffice with condemning violence or the use of force. He must stand, without compromise, alongside the large and important American Jewish community, which has stood alongside us for decades, at all times, unconditionally. They expect this of us, and rightly so.
They are still waiting for Israel to call upon the president and Congress to take action; they expect Israel to show the same energy and enthusiasm that we mustered for the fight against the nuclearization of Iran or the struggle against BDS today.
There was also another response from the Netanyahu household. I hope the prime minister did not see it in advance – the response of his son Yair. I usually honor the prime minister’s request and refrain from commenting about his family.
The prime minister and his family are not one and the same. But Yair Netanyahu’s statements demand a response. Everyone has freedom of speech, but I still expect the prime minister’s son to understand how deeply American Jews have been hurt. He should realize that it was improper to declare that the extreme Right is already a thing of the past and that the Left is the real threat. Nothing justifies violence.
It’s still not too late to clarify Israel’s position. The Charlottesville events will continued to echo in the coming days. The US will conduct its own soul-searching. The prime minister of Israel can still stand up at this historic moment and defend the honor of American Jews. If he responds, they won’t forget it. And if he fails to respond, they certainly won’t forget it.MK Dr. Nachman Shai (Zionist Union) heads the Caucus for US-Israel Relations in the Knesset.