As Jews, we should be especially attuned to the dangers of placing prejudiced rhetoric in an innocuous-looking wrapper. I believe that we have a responsibility to speak out when hate speech is manipulated into something that sounds less inflammatory, something that has the veneer of socially acceptable behavior.
When we allow such discrimination to seep into our everyday language, it becomes normalized. It becomes acceptable to devalue those who are different in words which all too often manifest in deeds.
And, as Jews, we know too well the danger of excuses like, “Forget the rhetoric. It doesn’t mean anything.” Silence can enable actions that can turn deadly.
That’s why I was dismayed to read a recent editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (“Reason as racism: An immigration debate gets derailed,” Jan. 15).
The editorial — published on Martin Luther King Day, no less — is an ill-conceived attempt to rationalize President Donald Trump’s use of an epithet to describe African countries, and explain away his prejudice against providing immigration opportunities to individuals from Africa and Haiti in favor of immigrants from countries like Norway.
It places Trump’s demeaning, dehumanizing comments in an undeserved wrapper of decency.
Now more than ever, we rely upon credible news sources to hold truth to power, to give a voice to the voiceless and to respect the dignity of the most vulnerable among us. In this case, the esteemed Post-Gazette fell well short of this standard.
A president’s ill-chosen defamations should not be excused by a major newspaper to suggest that if he’d said it this way, if he’d used different adjective and if he’d explained his point carefully and thoughtfully, his words and their meaning would be acceptable.
Leave that kind of backpedaling and rhetorical gymnastics to White House aides.
The point is, Trump painted immigrants from a whole continent with a broad brush that did not respect their individuality and the complexity of the immigration issue. You cannot have a balanced and credible conversation in this picture.
In fact, there are many people from Africa and Haiti who make outstanding citizens when afforded the opportunities once granted, if grudgingly, to many of our ancestors.
At the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, we are fortunate to have individuals from Kenya and Uganda as part of our team. They are wonderful additions — the kind of resourceful, honorable, intelligent, family-oriented people who enrich the Pittsburgh community and our nation.
The Post-Gazette’s Editorial Board downplays the importance of Trump using an epithet to typecast whole nations, saying that “America today is a sadly crass place where many of us use vulgar, corrosive language we ought not use in private and work conversations.” That’s not acceptable for any of us, much less the president.
When we hear something that’s anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic or that otherwise devalues a whole segment of our society, it’s our civic responsibility to call it out. Failure to do so starts us down a dangerous path.
The Post-Gazette suggests that we only use the word “racist” to describe individuals like Dylann Roof, a mass-murderer fueled by racial hatred. How can that possibly be an acceptable standard?
Blind and bold prejudice — the kind that Dr. King and countless others worked to eradicate and the kind that has exterminated Jews throughout history — metastasizes when we look the other way, when we excuse language that diminishes basic humanity.
Civility, respect, precision, balance — we have to stand for something or the wonder that is American democracy won’t survive. PJC
Karen Wolk Feinstein, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.