My synagogue is on the west side of Los Angeles. On a rough guess, about half of my congregants support Donald Trump. Many of those who do, but certainly not all, are from the Persian community. We have had frank discussions. They know I deplore many of the things he says and I oppose much of what he does. They know that I have criticized, publicly and privately, the inflammatory rhetoric of his presentations and warned them of its effects. They also know that we respect and listen to one another, that I do not preach politics at them but do speak with them and learn from them, and that our relationship in many cases is not only one of affection, but of genuine love.
So when I see major American Jewish figures tell me that my congregants are illegitimate, my blood boils a little bit. After the tragedy in Pittsburgh, perhaps because I spend so much of my time at the bedside of the sick and dying, I expected that the first impulse of Jews in particular would be to simply offer messages of sorrow and condolence.
It’s what I imagined I would read when I opened “A prayer for Squirrel Hill—And for American Jewry” from Franklin Foer, whom I know somewhat and have always respected. Instead, I read this: “Any strategy for enhancing the security of American Jewry should involve shunning Trump’s Jewish enablers. Their money should be refused, their presence in synagogues not welcome.”
In other words, more than half of my Shabbat morning congregants, and in some more traditional synagogues, almost all of them, should have the doors barred against their entry. Jews who make minyans, pay shiva calls, underwrite nursing homes and kindergartens—people who make Judaism possible, with their flawed but real human presence, for other people—should be cast out of our midst because of the levers they pull in the privacy of a voting booth. And what, after all, would a Jew who fled from Iran know about anti-Semitism—or protecting the Jewish community?
As Shabbat ended in Los Angeles, a city where in 1999 there was a terror attack against a Jewish Community Center, I saw this from another reporter whose work I have always esteemed very highly, Julia Ioffe: “And a word to my fellow American Jews: This President makes this possible. Here. Where you live. I hope the embassy move over there, where you don’t live was worth it.”
The calculation here, I suppose, is that people voted for Trump to get an embassy move and their vote proxy murdered other Jews. How careful should one be, should a distinguished reporter be, when accusing others of such enormities, even indirectly? How do people think this message will fall on the ears of those who fled from Iran, to be told that they are in fact guilty in the death of Pittsburgh’s Jews?
Or—even more shamefully—on the ears of Judah Samet. Mr. Samet, a Holocaust survivor, escaped death by four minutes because he was a little late to shul. He is also a strong supporter of Trump. Frank, Julia: Would you stand before this 80-year-old man, not in a tweet or online piece, but face to face, and tell him he is responsible for the death of his friends, the people with whom he prays each Shabbat? Would you bar him from the shul where he almost died, again, at the hands of Jew haters? Really? And that would make us the righteous ones?
There is much that smart journalists and observers like these folks say that I agree must be said: Yes, we must be vigilant and aware and ready to spot and combat the virus of hatred. Yes, we must call out public voices, from the president on down, who speak in ways we believe endangers or radicalizes the population. But my congregants are not the ones who are dangerous, and manipulating responsibility to turn Jews into perpetrators is ethically appalling—and communally toxic. We can only be a Jewish people when we don’t excommunicate each other—for religious reasons or political reasons or cultural reasons. Everyone is welcome to pray in my synagogue, right or left, no matter how much I as rabbi may object to your views. Because we do not pray as Democrats or Republicans, but as Jews. Now let us tear our clothes and mourn the dead.
David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiWolpe