Yesterday, a world leader stood at the bimah (pulpit to the non-Jews) of the Park East Synagogue in New York City wearing a yarmulke. He delivered a powerfully honest, empathetic speech about the danger of anti-Semitism. He was self-reflective, acknowledging his own country’s past sins, and ecumenical, connecting the age-old fear of Jews to the persecution of Muslims and Christians. His name was not Donald Trump.
The thoughtful world leader in question yesterday was United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who was inaugurated last year just a few weeks before 45 but quickly overshadowed by his neighbor to the south in Washington.
As the world’s top diplomat, most of Guterres’s speeches are painfully dull, careful not to ruffle feathers, but he set aside vague niceties yesterday and delivered the kind of remarks that the Jewish community wants to hear right now. The kind that resonated with me after I joined Monday night’s outdoor vigil in front of Temple de Hirsch Sinai and started crying as soon as an acoustic guitar struck up the chords of the prayer Hashkiveinu.
“Anti-Semitism is the oldest and [most] permanent form of hatred against a people in the history of humankind,” Guterres said as funerals continued in Pittsburgh after the deadliest attack against Jews in U.S. history. “Jews are discriminated and persecuted for the simple reason that they are Jews.”
Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, went on to call his country’s 16th-century expulsion of all Jews “the most stupid crime of Portuguese history.”
He arrived quickly at the present day, correctly noting that last year’s chants of “blood and soil” at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally were straight out of the German playbook of the 1930s. “They have a special meaning in the Nazi ideology,” Guterres said.
“This is something we need to be very attentive in our societies because one of the logics of extremist organizations is to, in a subtle way, try to penetrate the mainstream and make some of their idiot ideas being accepted as a new normal in our societies,” he continued. (Forgive his slightly mangled English grammar; it’s not his first language.)
With no equivocation, no “both sides” to blame mealy-mouthed bullshit, Guterres cut to the chase: “We have to condemn.”
That condemnation extends to all of the hateful intolerance plaguing the world these days.
“It is not only anti-Semitism that we are witnessing rising. We see other forms of anti-religious hatred be it against Muslims. We have seen Christians and Yazidis being persecuted in the Middle East. We have seen so many situations where migrants and refugees become the scapegoat of the problems of societies,” he said.
While Trump sends troops to the southern border to protect against a caravan of mostly women and children looking for a better life, Guterres praised the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the refugee resettlement group that may have prompted Robert Bowers to go on his rampage in Pittsburgh.
“It is the most fantastic humanitarian organization I have ever met,” he said, speaking from experience as the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a UN agency that is currently on the ground helping that very caravan with food and shelter—one of the many, many ways in which the rank-and-file United Nations does vital work even in the face of U.S. intransigence.
The power of the UN bully pulpit is mostly a moral one—to call other world leaders to account, to name and shame, to push and prod. That’s where Guterres concluded:
“Here is an enormous responsibility for leaders. Leaders of international organizations like mine. Political leaders, leaders of religious communities, leaders in civil society. Leaders to be able to address the root causes that are undermining the cohesion of our societies and that are creating conditions for these forms of hatred to become more and more frequent and more and more negative in the way they are expressed.”
What kind of leadership did President Trump show on his unpopular visit to the site of this past weekend’s tragedy?
“Melania and I were treated very nicely yesterday in Pittsburgh,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “The Office of the President was shown great respect on a very sad & solemn day. We were treated so warmly. Small protest was not seen by us, staged far away. The Fake News stories were just the opposite-Disgraceful!”
In his Tweet, Trump did not acknowledge the victims of the synagogue attack, express any sympathies, or back down one iota from the hateful rhetoric that enables the likes of Robert Bowers.
Words matter. At least one world leader with an office in the United States understands.