With the Jewish High Holidays rapidly approaching, representatives of major Jewish rabbinic bodies would usually be preparing for what had become an annual tradition: a conference call with the sitting president to discuss issues of concern within the Jewish community.
This year, however, the tradition — which dates back to the first year of the Obama presidency — will be broken. Wednesday, representatives of rabbinic bodies representing reform, reconstructionist, and conservative traditions within Judaism — the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism — issued a joint statement signaling that they could not, in good conscience, continue to engage with President Donald Trump. Orthodox Jewish groups didn’t sign onto the letter.
The groups specifically called out Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month, as “so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year.”
The letter continued: "Responsibility for the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, including the death of Heather Heyer, does not lie with many sides but with one side: the Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists who brought their hate to a peaceful community. They must be roundly condemned at all levels. ... We pray that President Trump will recognize and remedy the grave error he has made in abetting the voices of hatred. We pray that those who traffic in anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia will see that there is no place for such pernicious philosophies in a civilized society.”
For the rabbis who participated in previous calls with the president, the annual conference call was a vital part of fostering goodwill between the White House and the Jewish community. “It was [always] a beautiful, liturgical moment,” Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, told Vox. He described it as an opportunity for members of the community not only to ask questions or express concerns in a nonpartisan setting, but also to affirm a relationship between the Jewish community and the White House.
But Trump’s reaction to the events in Charlottesville — both his initial statement blaming violence “on both sides” and his subsequent angry press conferences, in which he blamed the media for paying insufficient attention to his belated denunciation of white supremacy once he had made it — was a turning point.
Pesner pointed to one of the many instances of violence that weekend: a group of 40 Jewish people celebrating Shabbat at their synagogue before heading to a planned anti-bigotry rally had to escape through a back door after three gun-toting white supremacists stood their ground outside the temple. Pesner expressed dismay about the “moral failure” it would take to speak of any kind of “equivalency between [the people] who were chanting Nazi slogans ... [and the ones] who were hiding and ultimately standing vigil against bigotry.”
Who signed the letter, who didn’t, and why it matters
The decision to cancel the call reflects wider tensions within the Jewish community including whether Trump’s willingness to engage with or defend avowed anti-Semites — such as the neo-Nazis at the Charlottesville rally — should outweigh what some of his supporters see as a reassuringly pro-Israel stance.
For Trump’s critics within the Jewish-American community, the president has intentionally fostered anti-Semitic and racial bigotry to endear himself to an increasingly nationalist base: a tendency that may have culminated in his response to the Charlottesville violence, but which has informed public discourse since before the election.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents — a category that includes vandalism and school bullying as well as violence — have been steadily on the rise in the US in recent years, growing by one-third in 2016 and by an astonishing 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017 alone.
Yet among Orthodox Jews and those who identify as Haredi (sometimes referred to as “ultra-Orthodox”) the situation is more complex. While 71 percent of Jews overall voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, the Orthodox community tended to support Trump. A September 2016 poll by the American Jewish Committee found that about 50 percent of Orthodox voters supported Trump, compared to the 21 percent of voters who supported Hillary Clinton and the 20 percent who did not intend to vote at all. Supporters often cite Trump’s support for Israel, as well as his close relationship with his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is an Orthodox Jew, as evidence that media coverage of his anti-Semitism is overstated.
Some Orthodox Jews initially reported frustration at their community’s lack of response to Charlottesville. Writing for Jewish-American newspaper the Forward, journalist and Forward editor Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt called upon her fellow Orthodox Jews to hold Trump accountable for his words in the aftermath of the violence and condemned those that did not, noting that the Orthodox Union took several days to put out an anodyne statement, and that ultra-Orthodox organizations, like Agudath Israel, had responded to Charlottesville with total silence.
Yet in recent days and weeks, the tone within some elements of the Orthodox community is beginning to shift. In another piece for the Forward, Blima Marcus reports on secret anti-Trump Facebook groups designed to help the growing numbers of anti-Trump Orthodox Jews connect to one another. Even Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the rabbi who converted Ivanka Trump to Judaism, wrote a letter to his New York congregation condemning Trump’s response to Charlottesville.
The Orthodox community’s public response to Charlottesville reflects these tensions. On the one hand, the Rabbinical Council of America, the main organization of Orthodox rabbis in North America, posted a statement on its website condemning "any suggestion of moral equivalency between the White Supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville” and arguing that “failure to unequivocally reject hatred and bias is a failing of moral leadership and fans the flames of intolerance and chauvinism. ... While as a rabbinic organization we prefer to address issues and not personalities, this situation rises above partisan politics and therefore we are taking the unusual approach to directly comment on the words of the President.”
On the other hand, the Council did not sign the letter and declined to comment at length about the letter and their stance on the White House. When asked by Vox for a comment, the Council’s Executive Vice President Rabbi Mark Dratch said only: “The Rabbinical Council of America already addressed this issue through our public statements. We respect the office of the presidency and believe it is more effective to address questions and concerns directly with the White House.”