U.S. Jewish criticism of Trump expands

Published 10:28 pm Thursday, August 17, 2017

NEW YORK — Ivanka Trump’s rabbi denounced President Donald Trump for blaming “both sides” in a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, as the number of American Jewish leaders willing to criticize him grew.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, and other rabbis from the prominent modern Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan, said in a Facebook message late Wednesday that they were “deeply troubled by the moral equivalency and equivocation” of Trump’s reaction. Lookstein oversaw Ivanka Trump’s conversion to Judaism. He has only rarely commented on the president.

Separately, the Republican Jewish Coalition, which has supported Trump through earlier controversies, urged him “to provide greater moral clarity in rejecting racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism.” Among the coalition’s board members is Las Vegas casino magnate and GOP donor Sheldon Adelson, who eventually supported Trump.

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“The Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists are dangerous anti-Semites,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement Wednesday. “There are no good Nazis and no good members of the Klan.”

The rebukes are the latest from American Jews outraged and frightened not only by Saturday’s march, which drew neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. But they were also troubled by Trump’s reaction. At a news conference Tuesday, Trump doubled down on his initial comments on Saturday and said, “I think there is blame on both sides” and “there were very fine people on both sides.” A car driven by an alleged white nationalist plowed into a group of counter-protesters at the march, killing a woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring 19 others.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the liberal Union for Reform Judaism, the largest American synagogue movement, and an outspoken critic of many Trump policies, said it should have been “incredibly simple and easy and obvious” for the president to denounce white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

A Reform Jewish synagogue in Charlottesville, Congregation Beth Israel, which sits one block from the site of Saturday’s demonstrations, said Nazi websites had called for burning the synagogue, so congregational leaders moved their Torah scrolls out of the building and hired a guard. Marchers passed by carrying flags with swastikas and shouting the Nazi salute “Sieg Heil,” the synagogue president said.

But condemnations of Trump also have come from U.S. Jewish groups that usually avoid commenting directly on the president. The Rabbinical Council of America, which is part of the modern Orthodox movement, said in a statement specifically naming Trump that, “failure to unequivocally reject hatred and bias is a failing of moral leadership and fans the flames of intolerance and chauvinism.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel source of campaign funds, issued a statement Thursday that did not name the president, but said, “We urge all elected officials to reject moral equivalence between those who promote hate and those who oppose it. There must be no quarter for bigotry in our country.”

American Jews vote overwhelmingly Democratic, but Trump has maintained a solid if comparatively small base of support among American Jews who were angered by President Barack Obama’s policies in the Middle East and viewed Trump as far more friendly to Israel.

Since the Charlottesville march, some of Trump’s U.S. Jewish backers have gone quiet. World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder, who has been one of Trump’s most prominent defenders, declined to comment through a spokesman.

However, some have praised how Trump has handled the fallout from the Virginia rally.

Rabbi Yaakov Menken of the Coalition for Jewish Values, an Orthodox Jewish public policy organization based in Baltimore, said the president was right to call out bigotry on “many sides.” Menken said he sees anti-Jewish bigotry coming from the right and the left, including from parts of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Why this apparent desire of some to mask hatred coming from left-wing groups? David Duke is worse than Louis Farrakhan?” Menken said of the Nation of Islam leader who has blamed Israel and Jews for the Sept. 11 attacks and accused Jews of controlling the American government. “We were not looking for him to single out the hate groups on the right.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a Holocaust education institution that fights anti-Semitism and other prejudice, said Trump failed when he didn’t single out the white nationalist marchers as “haters and bigots.” Still, Hier said Trump has had some strong accomplishments in office, pointing to the president’s handling of North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Hier had offered a prayer at Trump’s inauguration and joined faith leaders who cheered Trump at a Rose Garden ceremony in May when the president signed an executive order pledging to expand religious liberty protections. The rabbi lamented that Trump’s remarks on the violence in Virginia “interferes with the good things I think he has done.”