Citing Lack of Moral Leadership, Jewish Movements Nix Traditional Phone Call With Trump

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Trump on a phone call in the Oval Office of the White House.
President Trump on a phone call in the Oval Office of the White House, June 27, 2017.Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

WASHINGTON – Organizations representing three Jewish religious denominations that together represent the vast majority of American Jewry declared on Wednesday that they would not arrange a conference call with President Donald Trump ahead of the Jewish High Holidays this year and would also not participate in such a call if it takes place. During Barack Obama's eight years as president, such a call took place every year around Rosh Hashana, which this year begins on the evening of September 20. 

In a statement signed by leading rabbis from all three of the denominations, but not Orthodox representatives, the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements said: "We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year." 

Trump had been sharply criticized for his initial comments blaming "many sides" for the violence in Charlottesville earlier this month around protests by far-right wing demonstrators. A 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when a suspected white nationalist crashed his car into anti-racist protesters. 

In the statement by the three Jewish denominations, they added: "The president’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia. 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."

For at least the past eight years there has been a High Holy Day phone call organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism on behalf of the liberal denominations. Thousands of rabbis participated in each one, said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the RAC. “It was a big deal and a popular event,” he told Haaretz.

The RAC would reach out to the White House to set up a date and agenda for the call. On the call the president would offer a High Holy Day message. “It was clear that thoughtful people helped him think about the liturgical frame” for his remarks, said Pesner. One rabbi from each movement would have the chance to ask the president a question. There would always be at least one question relating to Israel and foreign policy, he said, and domestic policy questions relating to refugees and racial justice. The call would last about an hour in total, he said.

Pesner told Haaretz that President Trump’s moral equivalency between the anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic protesters in Charlottesville and those who came to counter their message “is an abomination, frankly, and that’s why we can’t have this call now.”

Asked if, should someone else organize a similar call, he would participate, Pesner said “I don’t think I would.” For other “rabbis it would be up to any individual to make a cheshbon nefesh [accounting of the soul] to decide” whether to participate. 

It seems highly unlikely that anyone would organize a similar effort, though, particularly since the White House has not named a liaison to the Jewish community. But, cautioned Pesner, he would not call this a boycott of the president. “We maintain our channels with the White House to be able to have dialogue about policy and advocate for the things we’re concerned about,” he said.

“The important question is will the president do the teshuva [repentance] he needs to do to repair the relationship with the Jewish and broader American community outraged by the aid and comfort he’s given to anti-Semites and xenophobes?”

It should be noted that the White House had not publicly expressed any intention prior to the release of the denomination's statement to hold a conference call with the Jewish community around the High Holidays this year. As of Wednesday evening, it was not clear if such a call with the president would perhaps take place with the participation of other Jewish groups, including rabbis from the Orthodox community. The High Holiday phone call only became an annual tradition during the Obama administration. A similar call took place with Mitt Romney when he was the Republican presidential nominee in 2012.  

With reporting by Reuters.

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