For Jewish Americans, echoes of the Holocaust and anger over Trump's response to Charlottesville

Dina Chernick had just arrived for breakfast Thursday at a Jewish deli in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, but she already had a bad case of indigestion. She could thank President Trump for that.

“Here’s this guy and he’s talking about uniting the country and then he makes these terribly divisive statements,” said Chernick, an attorney in West Los Angeles who likened Trump to a salesman peddling snake-oil instead of soothing balm.

Even at a distance, Chernick said, it was horrifying to see anti-Semitic, white nationalist demonstrators marching through the streets of Charlottesville, Va., their hard faces illuminated by blazing torch light. “It makes me terribly sad,” she said.

From a political standpoint, the criticism was hardly surprising. The overwhelming majority of Jewish Americans, like Chernick, voted for Hillary Clinton.

But even some Trump supporters and Jewish Republicans have condemned the president’s spread-the-blame response and statement that there were some “very fine people” mixed among the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who brought violence to the idyllic college town.

“There are no good Nazis and no good members of the [Ku Klux] Klan,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement.

“We join with our political and religious brethren in calling upon President Trump to provide greater moral clarity in rejecting racism, bigotry, and antisemitism,” the statement said.

Trump has weathered a difficult relationship with the American Jewish community. While professing fierce loyalty to Israel, a touchstone for many Jews, he has given offense on more than one occasion.

At a presidential forum in 2015, he summoned a familiar canard by boasting of his wealth and telling his audience of Jewish donors, “I’m a negotiator like you folks.”

Seven months later, he tweeted a graphic critical of Hillary Clinton that featured a pile of cash and a six-pointed star resembling the Jewish Star of David. Soon after he took office, the White House issued a statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day that made no mention of the 6 million Jews who perished.

Some have been discomfited by the presence of Trump advisor Stephen K. Bannon, who ran the Breitbart website giving a platform to white nationalists. Bannon is now installed as chief political strategist in the White House.

But for many Jews, the violence in Charlottesville on Saturday and Trump’s vacillating response were of a whole other order.

“No one, whether Republican, independent or a Democrat … wants to see the Klan or Nazis parading down the streets of the United States, as if they’re taking over,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of Los Angeles’ Simon Wiesenthal Center, named after the famed Nazi hunter, and its Museum of Tolerance.

“No one could ever compare neo-Nazis, the Klan and white supremacists to demonstrators that are demonstrating against them,” said Hier, who delivered one of several prayers at Trump’s inauguration. “To equate the two sides,” he went on, “is preposterous.”

The leading organization of Orthodox rabbis also weighed in with a statement condemning the president’s comparing white supremacist marchers to counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville.

“There is no moral comparison,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin, president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “Failure to unequivocally reject hatred and bias is a failing of moral leadership and fans the flames of intolerance and chauvinism.”

The statement, issued Wednesday, was the second by the organization and was aimed directly at the president, a contrast with an initial response that more generally criticized “violence and bigotry” in Charlottesville without mentioning Trump.

Rabbi Mark Dratch, the group’s executive vice president, said the council was moved to offer its more pointed statement after the president fell back Tuesday on his position that “both sides” shared blame for the violence around the white nationalist rally.

“We feel that, really, instead of putting an end to the criticism and the troubles that his statements were causing, it further fanned them,” Dratch said.

The statement was particularly notable given Trump’s support among Orthodox Jews, who, unlike more secular Jews, supported the president in large numbers. (Jews constitute about 3% of the electorate.)

In a personal slap, the rabbi who oversaw the conversion of Trump’s daughter Ivanka to Judaism issued an open letter to Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, a Modern Orthodox synagogue on New York's Upper East Side, in which he castigated the president for his remarks.

“We are appalled by this resurgence of bigotry and anti-Semitism, and the renewed vigor of the neo-Nazis, KKK and alt-right,” read the letter, published by New York Magazine and signed by Haskel Lookstein as well as rabbis Chaim Steinmetz and Elie Weinstock.

“While we avoid politics, we are deeply troubled by the moral equivalency and equivocation President Trump has offered in response to this act of violence,” the letter said.

Ivanka Trump converted to Judaism ahead of her 2009 wedding to Jared Kushner, a White House advisor and Orthodox Jew, who was denigrated by some of the anti-Semitic demonstrators in Virginia.

Neither Kushner nor Ivanka Trump have publicly addressed the president’s vacillating comments on the violent confrontations in Charlottesville. Trump’s daughter did issue a tweet on Sunday stating, “There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis.”

The president has his Jewish defenders, among them Alice Feinstein, a retired midwife who now works as a hospice nurse in Los Angeles. “He said all the bad guys are bad guys,” Feinstein said, pausing over a bowl of hot-and-sour soup at Shanghai Diamond Garden in Pico-Robertson.

“He has no connection to David Duke,” Feinstein continued, referring to the former Ku Klux Klan leader, “no connection to white supremacy, no connection to the KKK. … He is not an anti-Semite. Capital letters. He is not an anti-Semite.”

The fallout from last weekend’s protests in Charlottesville, which has roiled the country for days, also whipped up controversy in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was condemned for his hesitancy addressing the anti-Semitic display in Virginia and staying silent in response to Trump’s comments blaming both sides.

Netanyahu, a strong Trump ally, waited three days before issuing a tepid condemnation. “Outraged by expressions of anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism and racism. Everyone should oppose this hatred,” he tweeted Tuesday in English.

He issued no such statement in Hebrew, the state’s official language and the first language of most Israelis.

A number of opposition politicians, commentators and even some members of Netanyahu’s own governing coalition urged the prime minister to take a tougher stance, even if it meant antagonizing Trump.

In an op-ed published in the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz, Stav Shafir of the opposition Labor Party wrote, “Even after U.S. President Donald Trump’s historic comments on Tuesday, where the president of the United States uttered statements that should never be said, Netanyahu stayed silent and shamed the Israeli people as a whole.”

The front page of the daily Yediot Ahronot, which has been critical of Netanyahu, was covered with a picture of Trump and the single word “SHAME.” Maariv, a paper on the center-right, led with the headline, “Presidential Embrace for Extreme Right.”

Late Thursday, in an apparent attempt to mitigate the damage for Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Israeli radio that “it is unbearable to see Nazi symbols in the greatest democracy on Earth, the United States” but the “U.S. doesn’t need our advice on how to handle this.”

Special correspondent Noga Tarnopolsky in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

@markzbarabak

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