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After Charlottesville: An open letter to our president

Dear Mr. President:

I was quiet when your campaign did little to distance itself from white supremacists.

I was quiet when you said that “many sides” were responsible for what happened in Charlottesville. I was quiet when you read a statement stating that we must “unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence.” I was quiet when you spoke the following day about the “alt-left,” and suggesting that they had responsibility for the events in Charlottesville. I cannot be quiet any longer.

For me, what pushed me over the edge was your comment, Mr. President, that it was “foolish” to remove Civil War statues. You said that our nation’s culture was being “ripped apart” by those moves.

Perhaps I can be criticized for being quiet for so long. Perhaps I can be reprimanded for not speaking up when neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other hate-mongering groups endorsed you and you chose (with a few exceptions) over and over again not to distance yourself from them.

But I cannot be quiet now. Your comment, Mr. President, strikes at the heart of what many Jews (and I can only imagine, in this case, African Americans) fear: That forces of hate and evil will overtake voices of peace and understanding ... and that people will be murdered as a result. Those statues were put up precisely to elevate the most despicable aspects of our history — bigotry, human bondage, degradation.

How would we feel if statues of Hitler or regalia of the Nazi era remained in Germany? Since you are not Jewish, Mr. President, you may not know. But I will tell you how I would feel. I would be afraid. I would be afraid that the influence that kept those statues up would be turned against me, to destroy me as those whom the statues (and regalia) represent would have wanted.

And that is the problem with statues to the Confederacy. Surely, it is part of our history. But it is long past time for this country to condemn unequivocally racism. It is long past time for this country to hold no tolerance for injustice, for racial profiling, for racial inequality. Slavery and degradation are what these statues represent.

We are long on words, Mr. President. But we are short on actions.

People have been shocked by Charlottesville. They shouldn’t be. Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, Jews ... we all know that racism and hatred pervade the underbelly of this country. And, while it is politically unsafe to say this: You were elected president because many who prey upon those who are not white, who are not (their form of) Christian and wish to do them harm voted for you. You have responsibility for what has occurred.

No, Mr. President, we — who are “other” — are not shocked. We are sad. We are angry. And yes ... we are afraid.

When you were elected to become the 45th president of the United States, I wrote you a letter. I doubt you ever saw it. In that letter, I asked that you become president of every citizen of the great country, that you move beyond words of division and challenge and embrace words of collaboration, cooperation, consideration and conciliation. As you have demonstrated this past week, you have not.

And so, Mr. President, I implore you: With very few actions, you can change the conversation in this country from that of hate to that of love. Denounce unequivocally anyone who promotes hate. Do it with passion. Do it without pandering to the lowest common denominator. Accept no counsel from those who wish to divide this country. Tolerate no action that strikes fear in another’s heart. What makes America great is not that everyone is white and Christian and wears a “Make America Great Again” hat. What makes America great is that we have embraced the “other” in our midst, that we welcome and protect at all costs those who are most vulnerable. (By the way, in those moments when we did not in our country’s past, we were not very “great.”)

Mr. President, you have the biggest bully pulpit on the planet. It is time to use it — as the United States Constitution states — to “promote the general welfare” of every citizen. What happened in Charlottesville was NOT in the welfare of many of our citizens. And your comments have done little to assuage their anxiety. Now is the time to be president. Now is the time to govern. Now is the time to lead. Please do.

Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff is senior rabbi of The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah.