Metro Morning

'Not just time for words': Toronto rabbi calls on leaders to stand against white supremacy

When Donald Trump doubled down on his comments that "both sides" were to blame in the Charlottesville, Virginia protests, Toronto rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl says the U.S. president not only justified but encouraged violence.
Baruch Frydman-Kohl, senior rabbi at Beth Tzedek Synagogue in Toronto, says U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to not only tolerate but encourage violence with his remarks on Tuesday. (Amanda Grant/CBC)

When U.S. President Donald Trump doubled down Tuesday on comments that "both sides" were to blame in last weekend's protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, the fallout from those comments was swift as elected US officials condemned his statements and members of his economic councils resigned.

It's also led many to wonder why the president does not condemn white supremacist groups more forcefully.

Baruch Frydman-Kohl, rabbi at Beth Tzedek Synagogue in Toronto, believes the president's words not only tolerate the actions of white nationalists this weekend but encourage it.

Frydma-Kohl spoke with with host Matt Galloway on CBC Radio's Metro Morning Wednesday.

Galloway: What's been running through your mind?

Frydman-Kohl: I've been thinking about a quote that actually comes from the Communist Manifesto: "All that is solid melts in the air," and how the sense of what was secure for some people for many, many years has evaporated. In that insecurity and in the constant change of our society, the anxiety that has been evoked in people has given rise to an increased effort to isolate and to push away elements of change and new people coming up and saying, "We have a place in our society." And worse, is that that is then encouraged by the president of the United States. It's not simply justified, it's now encouraged.

Galloway: What was it like for you to see some of the footage on Saturday? To see people walking through a street with torches saying, "Jews will not replace us?"

I watched on Saturday night after my Sabbath. Seeing people with the Nazi signal of their hands, hearing people say, "You will not replace us; the Jews will not replace us." Hearing them refer to African-Americans in derogatory terms. Listening to them actually say to Jews, "Hitler should've taken care of you," this was extremely upsetting and worrisome. Tremendously worrisome about where the United States is going.

I'm concerned. As you indicated, I'm an American, I'm a Canadian, I'm a Jew. I have a broad sense of the history and we need to have leaders who will speak not just in our synagogues and our churches and our mosques. We need that. But in all of the civic life of our two countries saying this is not acceptable.

Multiple white nationalist groups march with torches through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 11, 2017. (Mykal McEldowne/The Indianapolis Star/Associated Press)

I think of words that my teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote to President Kennedy in 1962 and 1963. He said, "This is not just time for words," that the president has to speak. It's a time for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.

We need to speak up; we need to be heard. The people who stand against it — against this kind of white supremacy, neo-Nazi, alt-right — they are not to blame. There may be times when they cross borders, but you have to ask what initiates all of this. What initiates it is the activity and the ideology of the neo-Fascists.

Galloway: Do you believe that that has been given new life by, not just the comments by the US president, but by what he hasn't said, as well?

Frydman-Kohl: Silence gives consent. But you and I have spoken before, earlier in the year, and we began to see elements of anti-Semitism pop up here in Toronto and in Canada. We've seen that kind of expression of hatred and it's not only acknowledged or allowed by the president, but in some ways it's encouraged.

When the news media is defined as fake news, when the left protesters are defined as equally responsible, what you have is a kind of demagogic effort to isolate elements that have truth and then blow it up and make that the primary issue.

Galloway: What can leaders do to try and bring people together? To try and stamp out what we're seeing out in the open for the first time in many people's recent memory.

Frydman-Kohl: I think you're hearing leaders. You're hearing United States senators, representatives, even the attorney general—people who've been appointed by the president—say this is not acceptable. There has to be that continual push back so that people hear that this is not acceptable.

Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl says his congregants are worried that the same kind of violence that hit Charlottesville could happen in Canada. (CBC)

Once the idea that this is permissible permeates, then ideas of hatred and expressions of hatred begin to come up. It's very much the way children, if they're not adequately structured, will sometimes behave in ways that parents don't want. So parents have to provide structure and leaders of a community have to step up and say this is not appropriate. This is not the country that we want to build.

Galloway: Here in Toronto, what are you hearing from your congregants? Are people generally concerned in this country about what has been given, in your eyes, some tacit approval or more than that in your eyes?

Frydman-Kohl: I think people have expressed to me concern that they don't want this to happen here in Canada. They're nervous about it because we know that the statistics show that there are increased acts of anti-Semitism in Toronto and across Canada. We know here in Canada there have been acts against mosques and Muslims. We're aware of it. And we're also aware that First Nations worry a lot. There's violence against them, and against First Nation women in particular.

So there's a tremendous sense that there's something here that can be ignited. Leaders here have to continually say this is a country of tolerance; this is a community that recognizes and respects difference and that that difference is indeed something that makes this country a wonderful place to live in.

With files from Metro Morning