Rabbis protest Trump comments by boycotting annual conference call.

For years, the presidential conference calls were a nonpartisan holiday tradition: President Barack Obama would speak by phone with hundreds of rabbis in advance of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, in what participants described as a meeting of minds, largely free of raw politics.

But that emerging tradition was thrown into jeopardy on Wednesday, in a sign of the still-intensifying backlash against President Trump's response to the violence this month in Charlottesville, Va.

Four coalitions of rabbis, hailing from different strains of American Judaism, publicly spurned Mr. Trump, denouncing him in unusually pointed language, and pre-emptively announcing that they would not participate in any conference call before the Jewish holidays next month.

Mr. Trump has drawn widespread criticism, and in some cases condemnation, from Jewish leaders after a string of public remarks in which he has played down the racist and anti-Semitic views of white supremacist demonstrators in Virginia. Jewish members of his administration have faced calls to condemn the president or resign, and a few have expressed public and private discomfort with his comments, including Mr. Trump's ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman.

But the rabbinical groups' announcement on Wednesday was a rebuke on a different level, and appeared to signal that Mr. Trump will encounter extreme difficulty in any immediate efforts to reach out to American Jews.

In a joint statement, the organizations — which claim the backing of more than 4,000 rabbis and congregations — accused Mr. Trump of having given "succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia" with his comments after the bloodshed in Charlottesville, where a young woman was killed after a man drove his car into a crowd of protesters.

All four Jewish groups — the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism — said they could not participate in interactions with Mr. Trump around the fall holidays.

"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," the statement said.

The organizations withdrawing from the call hail from three branches of American Judaism: the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism represent Reform Jews, while the Rabbinical Assembly is a coalition of Conservative rabbis. Reconstructionist leaders make up the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center, said in an interview that events in Charlottesville had sent a deep shudder through the rabbinical community. He said Jews were appalled by the experience of rabbis in Charlottesville, who feared that they would become the targets of neo-Nazi violence, and by Mr. Trump's equivocal response.

"Charlottesville created a new reality," Rabbi Pesner said. "It's not that big a rabbinical community. We're all showing up for each other and there's a lot of anger out there."

Rabbi Pesner, who said he joined two conference calls for the High Holy Days during the Obama administration, said he and his colleagues had fully intended to speak with Mr. Trump before his handling of the Charlottesville aftermath. He said there was "a lot of sadness" at scrapping the call.

It was not immediately clear whether a presidential conference call would go forward without the rabbi groups, or whether the White House had other outreach plans around the holidays. A White House official said the Trump administration would announce plans for the Jewish holidays in the coming weeks.

Past presidents, including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, have made a practice of conferring with Jewish leaders around the holidays, though the presidential conference call is most identified with Mr. Obama.

Other Jewish organizations that have joined the annual phone calls in the past, including the Rabbinical Council of America, an influential group of Orthodox rabbis, did not say on Wednesday whether they intended to participate in holiday events with Mr. Trump. But the Orthodox group previously issued a statement condemning any effort to draw "moral equivalency between the White Supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and those who stood up to their repugnant messages and actions."

Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, said the group had "already addressed this issue through our public statements," and declined to say if it would interact with Mr. Trump around the holidays.

"We respect the office of the presidency and believe it is more effective to address questions and concerns directly with the White House," Rabbi Dratch said in an email.

Mr. Trump is an unpopular figure with most American Jews, but has retained a well of support among the most religiously observant denominations, in large part because of his views on Israel and Iran. Mr. Trump drew about a quarter of the Jewish vote in 2016, on par with most recent Republican presidential candidates but below Mitt Romney's performance in 2012, when he captured 30 percent of Jewish voters.

The president's daughter Ivanka is a convert to Judaism; she and her husband, Jared Kushner, have helped the White House mark Jewish holidays with statements and social media posts.

Mr. Trump has given no indication that he intends to walk back his remarks or apologize for them: After an initial statement on Charlottesville in which he faulted "many sides" for the violence, Mr. Trump gave a more tempered statement denouncing racism and anti-Semitism last week — only to follow up by reiterating his initial, hedged assessment of events at a news conference in New York City.

In that Manhattan event, Mr. Trump again drew an apparent moral equivalency between neo-Nazi marchers and anti-racist protesters, declaring that there were "fine people" on both sides, and this week he blamed the news media instead for stoking racial divisions.

Mr. Trump's approach has alarmed leaders from minority groups and experts on political extremism, who have tracked a rise in hate incidents this year. In April, the Anti-Defamation League's annual audit showed that anti-Semitic incidents increased by more than one-third in 2016 and jumped 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017 compared with the same period last year.

That rise was most likely "driven by a relatively small but emboldened cadre of neo-Nazis and white supremacists," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. He said that Mr. Trump's rhetoric risked aggravating those groups.

"For a segment of his supporters, the scapegoated institutional elite quickly devolves into a code word for Jews, especially when condemnation of anti-Semitism is absent or diluted," Mr. Levin said.

Mr. Trump's refusal to apologize for his comments, or even to revise them in a lasting way, has left prominent Jewish members of his administration under mounting pressure to disavow or defend him.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who is Jewish, issued a lengthy written statement last weekend in which he insisted that Mr. Trump "in no way, shape or form believes that neo-Nazi and other hate groups who endorse violence are equivalent to groups that demonstrate in peaceful and lawful ways."

Mr. Friedman, the envoy to Israel, told an Israeli television station that he believed Mr. Trump had been treated "very unfairly in the media," and said recent incidents "don't reflect who he is."

But at an aviation-themed event in Israel, Mr. Friedman indicated in terse language that he was not wholly comfortable with Mr. Trump's conduct after Charlottesville.

"I think the reaction wasn't fine," Mr. Friedman told a reporter. "But you know, I'd rather talk about Boeing today."

This article appeared in today's New York Times.


August 24, 2017


1. Trump has 3 advisers, Bannon [now at Breitbart], Gorka and Miller, whose Anti-Semitic history and comments are offensive to many Americans but especially Jewish Americans. Among Jewish organizations, the Anti-Defamation League has been the most outspoken, demanding these 3be fired.

2. As you may recall, earlier in August, the Rabbi who converted Ivanka Trump denounced Trump following his statements on Charlottesville. http://people.com/politics/rabbi-who-converted-iva...

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