Editor’s Note: Lev Golinkin came to the US as a child refugee from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov (now called Kharkiv) in 1990. He is the author of the memoir “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Lev Golinkin: Ivanka Trumps' two tweets about the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville were like saying nothing at all
Among other things, Jared Kushner's family history of Holocaust survival should have prompted a stronger reaction, Golinkin writes
I first heard the silence late Tuesday night, while pecking at my phone, waiting for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump to denounce President Donald Trump’s latest comments on neo-Nazis after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the death and mayhem that resulted.
After the President tried to compare neo-Nazis to what he described as the “alt-left,” saying “I think there is blame on both sides,” there was still no outcry from Jared or Ivanka.
Slowly, as the hours ticked away, the silence descended.
Many think of silence as the absence of noise, but that’s only one type of silence. There is a different, darker variety, one Jews and African-Americans have gotten to know well over the centuries. This silence doesn’t suppress sound – it amplifies it. It is the boom of the MS St. Louis departing for Nazi-threatened Europe after being denied entry by port after port. It’s the whisk-whisk of Southern belles fanning themselves at the slave auction. It’s the presence of apathy amid injustice and horror.
I’d heard this kind of silence, long ago. I heard it in the Soviet Union, in the footfalls of teachers and classmates calmly walking around me and the other Jew in my class as we received our daily beatings. I’d heard it in the Doppler effect of cars passing my family and other refugees when we were hitchhiking along frigid Austrian roads.
But the silence emanating from Jared and Ivanka was exponentially more powerful than any I’d heard before. To me, as a Jew, seeing nothing but two tweets from Ivanka brought the kind of pain I’m sure is echoed by African-Americans anytime Ben Carson defends the President, and Asian-Americans in the wake of Elaine Chao’s and Nikki Haley’s equivocations: condemning hate in general terms while carefully avoiding criticizing the very administration they’re part of.
No press conference was forthcoming, no rejection of Donald Trump’s words; there was no statement from Jared about the horror his grandparents had survived; nothing from Ivanka, who had spoken about standing up for mothers on the campaign trail, about defending today’s Jewish children – her children; indeed all children – from intimidation and violence. There was nothing, but the sound of steady clicking on Ivanka’s electronic device as she wrote two tweets.
It was like listening to the fabric of Judaism tear at itself.
Beneath Jewish rituals, customs and rules lies a simple and sacred idea: preserving the sanctity of life. It’s why the ill are absolved from fasting on days of penance. It’s why the no-electricity, no-work rules of Shabbat go out the window the moment a life-threatening emergency hits. In fact, it’s considered a grave sin to put someone at risk by blindly keeping the Sabbath, for it places righteousness above humanity. This ethical focus on preserving life is the substrate of Judaism, first, last and always.
The silence from the White House flew in the face of this sacred tenet, assailing it at an almost elemental level. If two Jews at the pinnacle of American power – one, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, the other, a woman who had devoted years of rigorous study to converting to the religion – refuse to denounce Trump’s equivocations on neo-Nazis, are they still Jews?
By Wednesday, it was clear I wasn’t the only one wondering. In a stunning move, Rabbi Emeritus Haskel Lookstein – who had supervised Ivanka’s conversion – issued a statement condemning the Trump administration for its heinous response to Charlottesville’s bloodshed. Numerous Jewish organizations including the Union for Reform Judaism, the Orthodox Rabbinical Association of America, the American Jewish Committee and the Republican Jewish Coalition rebuked the President’s speech as well. Rumblings of a herem, religious censure, the Jewish equivalent of the bell, book and candle method once used by Catholics to excommunicate, began rolling through Twitter.
Wednesday night I asked a friend, Rabbi Andy Bachman, if something akin to an excommunication was warranted or even possible. It turned out I wasn’t the first one to call him on the topic that day. “A herem wouldn’t do much,” Bachman replied, “it would only be valid in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox. But do you really need an interdict? These people have chosen to stand aside from thousands of years of their tradition: What can you think of that’s worse?”
I couldn’t. For me, embracing a Jewish identity came as the result of a battle, years of slowly undoing the damage of Soviet persecution which lasted long after I landed on US soil. I couldn’t imagine people born into safety and privilege throwing away their birthright like trash. And yet, that’s what happened – that was the silence I’d heard.
It was the scratching of matches lighting White House Shabbat candles, the humming of carefully memorized prayer, the rote motions of Jewish life without the true practice of Judaism. It was the silence of two of the world’s most powerful Jews, cutting themselves off from their people.