Rabbi: 'Ignorance and empty nostalgia' do not define America

When I refused to bless President Donald Trump at an Inaugural ceremony at Washington’s National Cathedral in 2017, it was precisely because I was afraid that his divisive rhetoric would lead to acts of hate such as the Shabbat massacre in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.

Shocking as Saturday’s massacre was, it was perhaps predictable given the tweets, insults and us-versus-them rhetoric with which Mr. Trump has deepened resentment against marginalized communities. Anti-Semitism is part of that. The lead-up to the election of 2016 saw Jewish cemeteries in Hartford, Conn., and New York desecrated by anti-Semites. More such desecrations of cemeteries and Holocaust memorials occurred shortly after Mr. Trump was inaugurated. The Anti-Defamation League reported a 57 percent increase in anti-Semitic acts last year over 2016.

The election had caused division and anxiety in my congregation in Hagerstown, which, though not far from Washington, is squarely in the belt of “Trump Country” that runs through Western Maryland and Central Pennsylvania. Some members supported Mr. Trump for reasons such as his Israel policies, but others were upset and dismayed by a campaign that had brought out America’s polarization rather than its shared hope and faith.

Pittsburgh’s synagogue takes its name from a passage in the Book of Proverbs, one sung as the Torah is returned to the ark: “It is a tree of life to all who grasp it, and whoever holds on to it is happy; its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all it paths are peace” (3:17-18). As the horror of the attack took place, congregations like mine across the nation were studying and reflecting on a “parsha,” or section of the Bible where the patriarch Abraham opens his tent on all sides to those who were wandering. The image of an open tent is a good one for America as well — an image of a nation of immigrants, drawn by the promise of religious and political freedom.

One such immigrant was a Scottish Presbyterian named Thomas Kennedy, who built a life in western Maryland and who, in the early 1800s, was shocked to discover that the state was officially anti-Semitic: Its laws banned Jews from holding public office. Elected to the state legislature, he worked to pass what became known as the “Jew Bill,” overturning that state law and opening the American tent to a people who had often been discriminated against.

For his work fighting for laws recognizing the equality of Jews, Kennedy was called a “Judas” and a betrayer of Christian values. But he continued to speak out, arguing that true Christian values welcomed the stranger, the other and the needy. Though he was harried out of office for a time, his arguments eventually won the day.

Recently we have been working across Maryland to recognize Kennedy’s role in state history. Supported by the state’s governor and legislature, as well as the speaker of the state house, state senate leader, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin and many others, a statue memorializing Kennedy will be dedicated on public lands in Hagerstown next year, to carry forward the legacy of his belief in the importance of religious pluralism to all Americans.

Like Kennedy, we can’t ignore the painful historical fact that anti-Semitism has existed since the beginning of our country. Nostalgia that would have us “Make America Great Again” ignores painful parts of our history and doesn’t do justice to the hard work, vigorous efforts and courageous steps taken to realize the full promise of religious liberty and equal rights in America.

Whether or not we agree with Donald Trump’s public policies, Americans who care about our nation’s legacy as a bastion of freedom can agree that the language of his presidency puts that legacy at risk. Tweets, insults, campaign ads attacking globalism (a dog whistle for anti-Semitism for centuries), the failure to immediately condemn Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville chanting “blood and soil,” and even blaming the Pittsburgh victims for not having guns to defend themselves — all these create an atmosphere in which haters feel empowered.

In the face of violence like that we saw on Saturday, it is tempting to wring our hands and wonder what we can do to oppose such unbridled hatred. What we can do is to take every opportunity to speak out against this kind of dangerous nostalgia, to remind ourselves of the history of marginalized people and not to allow hate to become part of our public discourse. We can work to make sure that a climate of ignorance is not tolerated.

Hate has been part of our history as Americans, and we can’t forget it. The same fire of hate and misguided nostalgia for an America that never was and that painted Kennedy as an American Judas, lie behind the twisted beliefs that led the Pittsburgh shooter to violate the Sabbath worship of the congregation at Squirrel Hill. The police who risked their lives to subdue him were fighting for laws in which all Americans are, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “created equal.”

As president of an interfaith group of 40 churches, I have been inundated by calls about the shooting and its aftermath. In response, we must instead light a different kind of fire, one like the eternal flames that burn in lamps lit above the arks in synagogues throughout our nation.

What we can do, like Thomas Kennedy, is make our voices heard. Love can overcome hate. We must remember how many people of goodwill and love are working together, and how interfaith groups are working to embrace and support each other. We must remember our faith, join in realizing the full blessings of religious freedom and equality, and demand that ignorance and empty nostalgia not define us.

Ari Plost is rabbi of Congregation B’nai Abraham, in Hagerstown, Md.; president of the Hagerstown Area Religious Council and founder of the Thomas Kennedy Project. His email is ariplost@gmail.com.

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