Bill Fox will be the first to admit that President Donald Trump can be his own worst enemy, with scores of unforced errors and self-defeating comments that leave the door open for criticism. But Fox, 75, co-founder of the local Republican Jewish Coalition chapter, remains loyal to the president despite his shortcomings.
Nearly two weeks after the violence in Charlottesville, Va., that resulted in three deaths — two police officers and one counter-protester — and dozens of injuries, Fox reflected on the president’s overall performance.
“[Trump] says and does stupid things, doesn’t stick to his messaging, doesn’t focus on promoting his policies,” said Fox, who considers himself a moderate conservative, via email. “But a racist? A bigot? No way.”
Charges of racism and bigotry were levied against Trump, a Republican, in the wake of his initial post-Chartlottesville remarks, which cited violence “on many sides.”
In response, a number of prominent Jewish organizations and leaders across the country criticized Trump for not taking a firmer stand against neo-Nazi hate. The Rabbinical Council of America, which bills itself as the leading organization of Orthodox rabbis in North America, called on Trump to understand the critical consequences of his words: “Failure to unequivocally reject hatred and bias is a failing of moral leadership and fans the flames of intolerance and chauvinism,” its statement read.
Locally, the Baltimore Jewish Council released a statement earlier this month calling for “forceful” and “clear” leadership against hatred and anti-Semitism, though it did not mention Trump by name.
“There are only two sides here — those who support anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry and hatred and those who oppose it,” the BJC statement read. “Now is the time for strong leadership to expose and denounce these white supremacist groups, whose views and actions run counter to our core Jewish beliefs and American values. Hatred and bigotry have no place in our community or in our nation.”
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington echoed those comments, also criticizing Trump’s “many sides” statement without mentioning him by name, and the national Republican Jewish Coalition scorned the president’s spread-the-blame retort that there were some “very fine people” scattered among the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who came to Charlottesville.
“The Nazis, the KKK and white supremacists are dangerous anti-Semites,” the RJC wrote earlier this month in a prepared statement. “There are no good Nazis and no good members of the Klan.”
Still, despite the condemnation over this particular moment, anecdotal evidence suggests that in the Baltimore area, at least, the roughly 25 percent of the Jewish community that voted for Trump in November continues to back him, including Fox.
Regarding Chartlottesville, Fox said he thought the president could have issued a more detailed response on the events and labeled Trump “soft” for drawing a moral equivalence between Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis and those who protested against the white nationalist march.
“He hasn’t done the denouncing in a way that you or I might have done it or, for that matter, in the way it should have been done,” Fox said. “I agree with those who have criticized him for not taking a much stronger, firmer, declarative and definitive stance.” Still, Fox said, “While admittedly rough around the edges, he is still a very smart man.”
In the wake of widespread condemnation, Trump’s refusal to apologize for his comments has put some Jewish backers under pressure to distance themselves from him. But his supporters believe an exaggerated negative image of the president has been projected.
“Like him or dislike him, [Trump] is probably the most genuine person I can think of in American political history in the last 50 years,” said Al Mendelsohn, chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Party Central Committee. “He’s had people pull on his hair to show that it’s real. He is who he is, and it’s very Popeye-esque.”
And some of the local community actually supports what Trump said and did after Charlottesville.
Rabbi Yaakov Menken, director of the Coalition for Jewish Values, a Baltimore-based rabbinic public policy organization supported by hundreds of observant rabbis, said Trump was justified to call out bigotry on “many sides.”
Menken argued the presence of hate groups on the far right does not excuse hate groups aligned with the left. In fact, Menken said, he thinks anti-Semitism from parts of the far-left (including Antifa, the anti-fascist group, and Black Lives Matters) affect just as many American Jews as anti-Semitism from the “alt-right.” Menken said the goal of each faction — Antifa, BLM and white nationalists — is the same: to spread anarchy, hatred and violence.
“Antifa is on the left, but it’s doing the same job as hate groups on the far right,” Menken said. “I mean, look at college campuses today. It’s the same old anti-Semitic acts against Jews who are being blamed as a collective for anything going on in Israel that these groups don’t agree with. Where is the outrage there?”
The only people who don’t regard Nazis as evil are other Nazis, Menken said, adding he does not believe that Trump has emboldened groups tied to white nationalists. He also questioned why a group of counter-demonstrators at a “free speech” rally in Boston earlier this month yelled, “F— you, racist!” at a Trump supporter wearing an Israeli flag as a cape.
“I think we have to look at where the dangers lie,” Menken said. “It’s very easy to call out the Nazis and the KKK. They are universally reviled organizations, as they should be. But there is this new hate rising from the left that we need to be very wary of and recognize for what it is. We’re really starting to see the serious damage that can be done.”
Baltimore resident Zalka Angster, 66, said the way Trump responded is simply his way of cutting through “a false agenda” pushed by the mainstream media. She decried the influence of reporters and journalists, who she believes failed to tell the whole story.
“If you listen to this whole news conference and don’t take it out of context, it’ll make a lot of sense,” Angster said. “But what the media did, of course, is edited what he said and swung it their way, blowing things way out of proportion to drive up clicks, viewership and ratings numbers. That’s a real disservice.”
Specifically, Angster took issue with what she saw as a lack of attention to Trump’s remarks calling for racial harmony and denouncing hate groups.
She noted his call for Americans to “love each other, show affection for each other and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence” — words that were, in her opinion, “severely underreported.”
“Nazis have been around forever, and they’re bad people, plain and simple,” Angster said. “We know this. The president knows this. Anyone with common sense knows this. He’s come out against these people repeatedly, but it just hasn’t been good enough, apparently. People need to stop trying to make something out of absolutely nothing. We have bigger and more important issues to focus on.”
Pikesville resident Cheryl Snyder Taragin, 58, agreed, saying she left the Democratic Party after the last election because she no longer felt her interests were being represented. For Taragin, Trump was the change agent she sought, and though she was “disgusted” with the president over Charlottesville, she said she would vote for him again.
“Our country has real problems that have been ignored or handled badly by the past two administrations,” Taragin said. “Whether or not Trump can correct any of them remains to be seen. [But] mob rule and mob mentality ultimately are bad for the country.”
Mixed on the President
Almost from the start of his administration, Trump has navigated a bumpy relationship with the American Jewish community at large, creating a sense of division in places of worship.
Not many understand this split better than Beth Tfiloh Congregation Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, who leads the self-described largest Modern Orthodox synagogue in the country.
Of the roughly 1,400 families his congregation serves, Wohlberg estimates that one-third of them, or about 450 families, support Trump. Since the election, Wohlberg said, he has avoided discussing Trump in his sermons, because, as he put it, the president “is a divisive figure, so why allow him to divide us?”
“I respect the office of the presidency,” Wohlberg added, “but I don’t respect [Trump].”
On Saturday, for his first sermon this summer, Wohlberg will finally broach the topic. The fallout from Charlottesville, he admitted, is something he thinks needs to be addressed head-on, especially with the High Holidays approaching.
“In the broader Orthodox community, if they are not completely in agreement, then they have taken more of a position of silence,” Wohlberg said. “I think it’s regrettable. In fact, it’s deplorable. Major Orthodox organizations and major Orthodox blogs have really not dealt with this.”
The annual pre-High Holidays call with the president, which started under President Barack Obama, usually draws representatives of rabbinic bodies to discuss issues of concern with the Jewish community.
But citing Trump’s lack of leadership after Charlottesville, leaders from the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements issued a joint letter last week announcing their decision to not participate in this year’s call. Orthodox groups did not sign on to the letter. The White House said there wasn’t going to be a phone call anyway.
Because of name-calling, character questions, harassing messages and threats, among other factors, several Trump voters the JT spoke with said they feel alienated and, in some cases, ostracized for simply sticking to their beliefs.
Rachel (not her real name), 21, of Pikesville said she has had to refrain from social media confrontations after losing friends over her praise for Trump. She said she learned a valuable lesson about peaceful civil discourse.
“If you don’t agree with me, that’s fine,” Rachel said. “That’s what makes our country great. We’re allowed to have differences and not see eye to eye, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to demean me. There are two sides to every story, even if one is not the supposed mainstream way of thinking.”
Robert (not his real name), 34, of Baltimore contends Trump is misunderstood by an ignorant and biased news media, thus making the president’s proponents feel misunderstood as well.
“It’s horrifically unfair,” Robert said. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. We have serious problems in this country that this man is working to solve, and all anyone who is against him wants to focus on is the negative. They will do whatever they can to drag him down.”