Benefit of the doubt

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Is he or isn’t he? That’s a question that a friend and I were debating about President Donald Trump. Because of the statement he made after the Charlottesville protests – that there are good people on both sides – she now believes he’s antisemitic. I, on the other hand, don’t believe that’s what he meant to say, even if that’s the way many people interpreted his words. After all, President Trump has Jewish family. Even if neo-Nazis exclude his daughter from their hatred, his grandchildren would still be tainted because of their Jewish blood. Yes, I’m deliberately using the word blood, rather than religion, because, to the Nazis, blood is what matters – not your faith, ethnicity and nationality. So, when President Trump spoke extemporaneously, he muddled his words because he didn’t want to offend the people who voted for and support him, and instead created a firestorm.
There’s a reason most politicians’ speeches are carefully vetted by members of their staff. They want to make certain what their boss says is actually what he wants to say. I can appreciate that because I have my staff carefully read my columns before they appear in the paper. We once changed several lines in an oped to avoid any possibility of confusion. My staff member said, “I know what you mean, but people could interpret it incorrectly.” She prevented what could have been a terrible mistake.
That doesn’t mean that I’ve become a supporter of President Trump. I dislike his political stances and the way he bullies people on Twitter. However, I don’t support the current efforts to demonize him – if only because it makes the political process even more difficult than it already is. We need to remember what happened when members of the right wing demonized President Obama and refused to support any of his ideas just because he proposed them. That polarized Congress and little was accomplished for the good of the American people. Remember that – when the work of Congress was to help the American people – all the American people, not just those who supported a particular candidate?
Unfortunately, it has now become acceptable to publically proclaim hatred of others solely based on their race, religion, sex, ethnicity, sexual identity or country of origin. That hatred has always been present below the surface, but most people knew better than to express it in a public forum. I said before the election that, no matter who won, we had to find a way to deal with it – to find a way to defuse that anger and hate. I only wish we had a president who would speak to all of us – to unite us with pride for our country, rather than cheer on what divides us.
When people marched through the streets and chanted, “Jews shall not replace us,” I would have liked our president to clearly condemn that statement and those who supported it. I don’t believe he wants those people to harm his grandchildren. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on that. But I would also like to see him stand up to them and say, “ You can’t say that about the people I love. You can’t say that about any American.” Want to make our country great? That would be a wonderful way to start.