What is a Jewish group supposed to do when it wants to make a principled statement to the president of the United States? How aggressive should it be? And how carefully should its members consider the political ramifications of what they are doing?
After President Trump’s defense of the white supremacists who staged the deadly Aug. 12 rally in Charlottesville, and his apparent insensitivity to the moral implications of the public pronouncements he made, the rabbinic leaders of the three main liberal streams of Judaism took a stand in a manner they thought would attract media attention — and it did. In a joint statement on Aug. 23, the leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements announced they would not participate in the annual Jewish communal High Holiday conference call with the president.
According to the rabbis’ statement, Trump’s comments on the Charlottesville violence were “so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year.” And they went on to say that “the president’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia.”
We agree with the sentiment expressed by the rabbis. We are also pleased that in addition to generating headlines, the move may have inspired some Jews who had long ago given up going to synagogue to contemplate coming back. But we do not approve of their tactics.
Most political observers could have predicted — particularly given the president’s past behavior, as well as the fact that the rabbis had yet to confirm a date for the conference call — that Trump would successfully fire back. Indeed, less than 24 hours after the rabbinic letter lecture, the administration responded that there was never going to be a High Holiday conference call. As a result, the rabbis had announced a boycott of a non-event.
At the time that they issued their very public statement, the rabbis knew that the High Holiday call was up in the air. So we can’t help but conclude that the statement was more of an effort at political grandstanding than it was a serious effort to deliver a substantive message.
In retrospect, it probably would have made more sense of the rabbis to say, “We look forward to our annual High Holidays call with the president, during which we plan to make clear our concern and our dismay regarding the president’s recent actions, and intend to encourage him to more forcefully embrace our shared American and Jewish values of inclusion and tolerance.”
Doing so would have put the ball back in the White House’s court and would have made these leaders look more rabbinic than political. And since ours is a tradition that values dialogue, we respectfully suggest that the rabbis would have been better off trying to engage with the president, rather than jumping prematurely to hang up the phone.