Charlottesville, USA

Alan Elsner Image
Alan Elsner
on August 15, 2017

On April 23, 1995, a few days after the horrific bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City which killed 168 people, President Bill Clinton delivered a speech which united the nation and did much to bind up its wounds.

“To all my fellow Americans beyond this hall, I say, one thing we owe those who have sacrificed is the duty to purge ourselves of the dark forces which gave rise to this evil. They are forces that threaten our common peace, our freedom, our way of life,” Clinton said.

“Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life.”

Compare that to President Trump’s response to the horrific terrorist attack in Charlottesville on Saturday. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time.”

Trump waited until Monday to specifically condemn the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups. No doubt, he was reluctantly persuaded to do so by advisers who told him he was sustaining serious political damage. But those 36 hours of silence were telling — and speak louder than words. Trump’s initial response was no accident, no chance omission. As veteran conservative operative Bill Kristol said: “Trump meant what he said and said what he meant … I felt sick reading the President’s statement.”

Charlottesville should be a clarifying moment for all Americans. No longer can there be any excuses for this president, any attempts to parse his words or reinterpret or explain them away. We are past the time for political spin. The bottom line is this: President Trump tolerates, welcomes and encourages the support of extreme right forces, including racists and neo-Nazis. Far from binding our wounds, this president sows division, spreads falsehoods and encourages hatred.

As the son of a Holocaust survivor, I have lived all my life with the mantra, “Never again.” But truly, I never really thought the task of directly confronting hatred and evil would fall to me personally. I grew up in one democracy — Britain — and became a citizen of another — the United States. I thought the fact that I have lived in the two oldest, strongest democracies in the world would protect me — would protect us all. The advent of Trump has dispelled those illusions.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter Ron Kampeas was in Charlottesville on Saturday and reported: “Among the 500 white supremacists were men and women bearing signs like ‘Goyim know’ and ‘Jews are Satan’s children.’ There were Nazi flags. There were men all in black, t-shirts and slacks and army boots and helmets, jogging along with plastic shields. And when the white supremacists got their act together and gathered in McIntire Park, they shouted ‘Jew’ every time the name of Charlottesville’s Jewish mayor, Michael Signer, was mentioned.”

I’m glad today to be a part of an organization, J Street, that has long made clear our concerns about President Trump’s repugnant rhetoric and policies. I’m glad to be part of an organization and a broader community of organizations working today and every day to defend our democracy. I still believe in democracy — but I know that it will only protect us if we protect it. J Street is a shield we are building around our most precious political heritage and values.

When President Clinton back in 1995 called on us to “purge ourselves of the dark forces which gave rise to this evil,” he probably never imagined that those forces would take root in the White House itself. But that is what’s happened. We need to face that fact and now, more than ever, we must heed his call.

P.S. Today and going forward, there are actions you can take and work you can do to help fight back against hatred and bigotry in our country with J Street and with some of the organizations on the front lines of this vital struggle.

  1. Take J Street’s action: Call on White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to immediately fire white nationalist allies Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Sebastian Gorka. Add your name here.
  2. Get ideas from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Community Response Guide, Ten Ways to Fight Hate. Review the guide here.
  3. Make sure that your members of Congress are standing up to Trump and combatting white supremacists. For instance, review Indivisible’s list of what your members can do right now. Check out this resource on how to hold your members accountable here.
  4. Read this moving and eye-opening reflection by T’ruah staffer and rabbinical student Salem Pearce on what she saw and learned in Charlottesville. Read her piece here.

Fire Bannon, Miller & Gorka

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