Op-ed: The cost of cowardice

Friday, August 18, 2017 - 12:20pm

With President Trump apparently fully recovered from his tepid condemnation of neo-Nazis and white supremacists for the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., he reverted Tuesday to his original remarks blaming “both sides.” Tuesday’s comments from President Trump, foolish and amoral as they were in equating neo-Nazis and white supremacists to the protesters who opposed the march and figures such as Robert E. Lee to George Washington, were somehow even more disappointing when considering the men who flanked Trump: Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and chief economic advisor Gary Cohn. Mnuchin and Cohn stood tranquil, disguising their obvious discomfort and disgust while Mr. Trump refused to pick a side in the aftermath of the conflict and kept himself within arms reach of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who had chanted anti-Semitic and racist hate less than four days prior.

For Mnuchin and Cohn, two men observant of their Jewish faith, to stay silent on the familiar evils of Nazism that unfolded in Charlottesville is a disgrace ancillary to President Trump’s comments for the more than 5 million Jewish people who live in the United States and their Jewish ancestors who perished during World War II. President Trump’s incendiary and protectionary rhetoric for neo-Nazis and white supremacists placed a responsibility upon Mr. Mnuchin and Cohn. They had an opportunity to stand up for the Jewish history and advocate for the Jewish people with positions of power that placed their response leagues above any other. But neither publicly condemned the swastikas, the chants or the anti-Semitism identical to one the Allies had fought 80 years prior. Mr. Mnuchin and Cohn faltered; an especially upsetting withdrawal from men whose faith is well aware of the consequences of an unchecked Nazism.

Choosing to forego any public disavowal of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists, Mr. Mnuchin and Cohn showed an ignorance and misguided dismissiveness of the history behind a war that culminated in the deaths of more than six million Jews and almost half a million American soldiers. The angry and bigoted words of Adolf Hitler — words similar to those chanted last weekend in Charlottesville — did not manifest overnight. Rather Hitler and members of the Nazi Party, left underchallenged by those who held power, cultivated and exploited German nationalism into a unfounded paranoia and anger towards Jewish people to justify bigotry and violence.

The silence from Mr. Mnuchin and Cohn is deafening. Any inkling of Jewish hope that yearned for an unequivocal condemnation of the Nazi symbol was pushed to the fringes following President Trump’s remarks and the silence that followed. For Mr. Mnuchin and Cohn to feel so strongly tied to their Jewish heritage that they have donated millions of dollars to Jewish causes, as Mnuchin and his family have, or have endowed the Cohn Jewish Student Center at Kent State University Hillel as Cohn has, their semblance of complacency is even more ignominious.

Mr. Mnuchin and Cohn ought not stick their heads in the sand under the auspices of their economic assignments, as many defenders have argued is proper. The resurgence of bold neo-Nazism and the lack of utter and immediate reproach from President Trump is a matter that transcends job title. It is a prospect that is too dangerously familiar to behave with restraint. To shirk from this fight on the tenuous justification of job description is to be compliant; in bold lettering Mr. Mnuchin and Cohn have all but signed away their compliance with future rallies espousing anti-Semitism. Worse, their inertia portends major ammunition for hate groups. Their silence inspires the challenge from these groups that asks, “If our actions are anti-Semitic, why would Jews in the White House not say anything?”

In their public alignment with the president, Mr. Mnuchin and Cohn have rendered their Jewish heritage liable to exploitation and justification for future terror by neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Not only should the Jewish people be outraged at Mr. Mnuchin and Cohn for failing to express disgust with the Nazism in Charlotesville and the “both sides” argument made by President Trump, but so too should Americans of all faiths who believe in the fundamental principles upon which our democracy was founded. Those who recognize the atrocities of the Holocaust should be outraged, and those who believe we deserve leaders who stand up against a repeat of an ugly history should be outraged.

When Mr. Mnuchin and Cohn stood beside President Trump Tuesday as he assumed a neutral position between civil rights and racial hate, and then publically disappeared in the days to follow, they assumed an identity familiar in the new West Wing and in Nazi Germany: that of enabler and emboldener.

Given the shameful inertia and cowardice of these men, it may be high time to update Holocaust survivor Martin Niemöller’s famous quote to a version more apt for Mr. Mnuchin and Cohn, “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out” — Because though I am a Jew, it was not my duty to stand up.