(August 5, 2019 / JNS) In the wake of the latest mass shootings to afflict America, some Jewish organizations and their leaders joined in the effort to place at least some of the blame for these atrocities on President Donald Trump.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union of Reform Judaism reacted to the slaughter in El Paso, which was reportedly the work of a white-nationalist racist who claimed to be reacting to the “invasion” of the country by Hispanics, by pointing the finger directly at the president:
“When will this president stop demonizing asylum seekers and immigrants, which serves to embolden those like today’s shooter?” Jacobs demanded.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs of the left-wing T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights agreed, but went even a bit further when she said extended her condemnation to “President Trump and his supporters,” who, she claimed, “have incited and inflamed hatred to minorities, bear direct responsibility for this wave of white nationalist violence, based in hatred of Jews and people of color.”
That Trump has contributed mightily to the coarsening of American public discourse is not in doubt. His willingness to engage in hyperbole about both critics and the objects of his ire, such as illegal immigrants, has helped create a dynamic in which any sort of rhetoric excess on both ends of the political spectrum is now imaginable.
But the leap from rightly reproving him for over-the-top comments, such as his “Send them back!” line about four members of Congress—who are U.S. citizens, even if they share radical viewpoints and three out of four support the anti-Semitic BDS movement—to framing him as an accessory to mass murder is not reasonable.
Ironically, we received a reminder about the difference between responsibility for bad rhetoric and encouraging murder this past weekend by one of his sternest media critics, CNN’s Jake Tapper.
On the “State of the Union” program that Tapper hosts, he sought to make an analogy between a widely accepted example of incitement and what Trump has done:
“You hear conservatives all the time, rightly so, in my opinion, talk about the tone set by people in the Arab world, Palestinian leaders talking about—and the way they talk about Israelis, justifying in the same way you’re doing, no direct link necessarily between what the leader says and the violence between some poor Israeli girl and a pizzeria, but the idea that you’re validating this hatred and yet people don’t—I mean, you can’t compare the ideology of Hamas with anything else. But at the same time, either tone matters or it doesn’t.”
That, in turn, prompted a furious response from one of the House members Trump had talked about chucking out of the country, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), a Palestinian American who is a strong supporter of BDS and a bitter foe of Israel. Writing on Twitter, she denounced Tapper by saying:
“Comparing Palestinian human rights advocates to terrorist white nationalists is fundamentally a lie. Palestinians want equality, human dignity & to stop the imprisonment of children. White supremacy is calling for the “domination” of one race w/the use of violence.”
Suffice it to say that both parties in this exchange are wrong.
Tapper vastly understates the level of Palestinian incitement to violence against Jews. First, it’s not only a question of the ideology of Hamas, but that of the supposedly more moderate Palestinian Authority and statements made by its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, such as not letting “stinking Jewish feet” near holy places in Jerusalem. The P.A.’s incitement is a comprehensive program of hate in its official media and educational system, in which terrorism is glorified as the highest form of patriotism, even among children too young to read and write.
The P.A. also directly funds and provides incentives to terrorism. They do so by paying salaries and pensions to terrorists and their families. Those who rightly criticize the Palestinians for this—and, fortunately, that criticism has not, as Tapper asserts, been limited to conservatives—are not talking about “tone,” but of direct complicity in terrorism.
Tlaib is even more wrong when she says that Palestinians only want “equality” and “human rights.” What they want is the elimination of the one Jewish state on the planet, and they are willing to engage in anti-Semitic incitement and every manner of terrorism to achieve that despicable end, even if it means a genocidal war to deprive the Jews of sovereignty over any part of their ancient homeland.
That brings us back to what the president and his supporters are or are not guilty of doing.
Unlike the Palestinian leadership, Trump has condemned acts of terrorism. Yes, he should be more careful about his words and avoid anything that might be construed as a green light to extremists. In those instances where he has allowed his critics to construe his words in that manner he has hurt his own cause, as well as lowered the tone of our politics.
But there is a difference between that and direct or indirect support for extremist murderers or white nationalism. For liberal rabbis and others to claim that opposition to illegal immigration or support for enforcing the law is tantamount to racism or support for murder is outrageous. And to extend their condemnation to the nearly half of the country that supports Trump and his policies is to commit the same mistake that Hillary Clinton made in 2016 when she helped seal her defeat by calling political opponents “deplorables.”
The president needs to do better and to try to raise us up rather than consistently lower us into the political gutter. The same admonition should be directed at many of his opponents, who are just as guilty of extreme rhetoric in which they have invoked, among other things, the Holocaust and even concentration camps to describe honest differences of opinion on contentious issues.
And we should also thank Tapper for his lame analogy, which reminded us there is a difference between irresponsible speech and incitement to murder.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.