RACINE — Rabbi Dena Feingold believes President Donald Trump’s rhetoric encourages hate speech and she believes House Speaker Paul Ryan has the power to do something about it.
The spiritual leader of Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha, Feingold said as much on Monday night on national television during Ryan’s “town hall” meeting, when she asked the Republican congressman whether he would support a resolution to censure the president based on his “many sides” remarks regarding the events in Charlottesville, Va., two weeks ago. Ryan said he would not support censure of Trump, calling Feingold’s idea “counterproductive.”
“If we descend this issue into some partisan hack fest, into some bickering against each other, and demean it down to some political food fight, what good does that do to unify this country?” Ryan said.
Many in the crowd applauded Ryan’s response, but Feingold, sister of former Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, was not impressed.
“I was disappointed in his response,” Feingold said. “I was disappointed he turned it into a Democrat-versus-Republican thing. He thought the president messed up and didn’t say the right thing. He very strongly condemns what happened in Charlottesville. Then why wouldn’t he join with his congressional colleagues to send a message to the president that the things he said were disturbing?”
Feingold views censuring the president as an opportunity for Ryan and the rest of Congress to show the country that racism and hatred don’t have a place in American society. She believes that Trump’s rhetoric has directly emboldened groups like the white supremacists at the center of the Charlottesville tragedy.
“They see the president as someone who is either implicitly or explicitly giving them the green light,” she said.
That’s a view shared by Rabbi Martyn Adelberg, the leader of Beth Israel Sinai Congregation, 3009 Washington Ave., Racine. While he doesn’t think Trump is directly anti-Semitic, he does think the president would “do anything whatsoever to make a deal to achieve his aims.”
“He’s unleashed the forces of xenophobic people,” Adelberg said. “They were always in the shadows. Now they feel they can come to the forefront.”
Neither Feingold nor Adelberg have experienced or witnessed direct instances of anti-Semitism around their congregations since Trump’s rise to political prominence, but Feingold said the young members of her community feel anti-Semitic comments in social settings have become more frequent.
“Somehow, it’s been normalized for certain people,” she said. “It seems like that’s becoming a more common experience among our youth.”
Shadows of 1930s Germany
Adelberg said that a personal friend of his who survived the Holocaust thinks 2017 America bears a resemblance to Nazi Germany. A key difference is the anonymity of the internet, which allows people to share hateful views without identity or consequence.
“The internet is a double-edged sword,” Adelberg said. “It exposes hatred, but it also gives those people a platform.”
Instead of censuring the president, Adelberg believes a more positive solution, involving a joint congressional condemnation of all hate groups and rhetoric, would send the strongest message.
“(Trump) would take note, so would the country and so would the world,” he said.
Feingold doesn’t think Adelberg’s solution would go far enough and believes Congress needs to single Trump out directly.
“He needs to be held to account, and that’s what the censure resolution would do,” she said. “It gives Congress a way to say: ‘This is not OK coming from the President of the United States. We are the other leaders here and we don’t share this view and we abhor what’s coming out of the White House.’ “
Still, Feingold acknowledges that those served by her and Adelson’s congregations — and even the entire American Jewish community — are just drops in the bucket of all of the people facing hate from groups like those at the Charlottesville rally.
“This is just one community’s experience of a much greater normalization of hate, hate speech and hate protests,” she said. “I hope Charlottesville is a turning point and these very scary appearances of (racist, intolerant) groups will not continue.”