Opinion

An Open Letter to the U.S. Jewish Leaders Who've Stayed Silent on Trump

Donald Trump is not a distraction. He is the thing our tradition teaches us to resist.

Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Kenansville, North Carolina, September 20, 2016.
Evan Vucci, AP

Dear Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Hoenlein,

John F. Kennedy liked to quote Dante as saying that “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality.” Dante didn’t actually say that. And applying the maxim to a Jewish organization is theologically awkward. But you get the point.

Our sages say something similar. In his Nobel Prize Acceptance speech, Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, declared that,  “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe.”

The center of the universe.

You serve as Chairman and Executive Vice-Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which calls itself the “voice of organized American Jewry.” According to your website, you’ve issued 26 press releases since Donald Trump became the de facto Republican presidential nominee in early May. Not a single one mentions him.

On September 18 of last year, a man at a Trump rally in New Hampshire declared that, “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims When can we get rid of them?” Trump replied that, “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things.” According to your website, you said nothing.

On November 20 of last year, Trump said he would “absolutely” require American Muslims to register in a national database. According to your website, you said nothing.

On November 21 of last year, Trump accused “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey of cheering the 9/11 attacks, a statement utterly discredited by non-partisan fact checkers. According to your website, you said nothing.

On December 7 of last year, Trump proposed a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” For a week, you said nothing. Then, when contacted by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, you said you opposed Trump’s plan. But you never issued a press release. No condemnation appears on your website.

On July 30 of this year, after Khizr Khan, whose son died fighting in Iraq, spoke at the Democratic National Convention, Trump responded that Khan’s wife, Ghazala, had stood silently at his side because as a Muslim woman, “Maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.”  According to your website, you said nothing. (I called the Conference three times, and emailed twice, requesting additional information about your views on Trump, and received no reply).

In fact, this April, you, Mr. Hoenlein, reportedly called Trump and his fellow presidential contenders a distraction from what really matters: President Obama’s final diplomatic moves toward Israel. According to the Jewish Journal, you said that, “The obsession...with the presidential election is, to me, one of the most dangerous things that is happening. We have nine months still to go [in Obama’s presidency] where these [Israel-related] issues are going to be in play. People are not talking about it. They’re not thinking about it. All they are thinking about is watching the circus of the political realm.”

Your implication was clear. Trump’s campaign—including his repeated threats and slanders against American Muslims--constitutes a “circus,” a joke. Jews should focus on more important things.

Judaism, like any great religion, contains multitudes. But it does emphasize a few core imperatives.

Paramount is the belief in one God. After that, it’s hard to find anything that Jewish texts stress more than the obligation to care for the ger, the stranger among us. (While many Mishnaic and Talmudic commentators define ger as “convert,” Harvard Judaics Studies Professor Shaye Cohen, a world authority on the subject, insists that “In the Torah the word ‘ger’ means ‘resident alien’someone outside the tribal structure.”) The command to treat the stranger justly appears 36 times in the Torah. It distinguishes Abraham, who cared for the strangers who visited his tent, from the people of Sodom, who attacked them, and were punished with destruction by God. Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, following the medieval commentator Nachmanides, argues that a person who hears the stranger’s cry is imitating God while one who ignores it is imitating Pharaoh.

To be sure, none of us are moral paragons. We all fall short of Isaiah’s command “to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke,” which we read on Yom Kippur. But this is an unusual moment. Within weeks, America could elect as its president a man who has fostered a climate of frenzied hatred toward a vulnerable religious minority. Since Trump entered the presidential race, hate crimes against Muslims have soared. Imagine what will happen if he enters the White House.

We can imagine if we remember. The Muslim children being bullied in school, those were once Jewish children. The Muslim boy caught on video asking his mother whether she’d have to leave the country if Trump won, Jewish kids once asked those kinds of questions. The American Muslims watching their faith being endlessly vilified in the press, that was once us.

Donald Trump is not a distraction. He is the thing our tradition teaches us to resist. In this season of national decision and Jewish self-reflection, please reflect on your silence. It’s not only the dignity of American Muslims that is at stake, but our own.