The baffling case of Trayon White, the Washington, D.C., city councilman who reacted to a light snowfall by blaming it on climate change caused by “the Rothschilds,” provides an opportunity for those involved to take thoughtful next steps. That goes for White — an African-American who apparently had no idea he was voicing a hoary anti-Semitic canard and, just as worrying, actually believed that individuals or small groups could control the weather. But it’s also a test for individual Jews and Jewish organizations to show some nuance in responding to an incident that pushed a lot of buttons at the same time.
White, who was elected to the council in 2016 as a successor to the late Marion Barry, seemed surprised at the negative reaction to his words in a video he posted on Facebook. “The video says what it says,” he texted The Washington Post, which broke the story. He later told one of the city’s alternative weeklies that his comment was meant as a joke.
Soon thereafter, after meeting with Jewish groups, White issued a written apology: “I now fully comprehend the impact of my hurtful and insensitive comments,” he wrote. “I sincerely apologize to the [Council] Members, staff and all whom I have hurt and offended.” It was a straightforward, serviceable mea culpa, strengthened by his commitment to “an immediate and rigorous personal education on this issue.”
This is a teachable moment, he wrote. And we hope so. To begin with, White needs a crash course in basic meteorology. And as for “the Rothschilds” and other Jewish issues, we hope Jewish communal organizations provide the right lessons, for White and for the Jewish community.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington responded quickly and ably when White’s comments were published. It also announced that White had agreed to visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and to talk to survivors.
While those efforts will likely produce another statement of contrition, White didn’t question the Holocaust in his video. And it appears that he didn’t even know “the Rothschilds” were Jewish. In that sense, it’s unclear whether his words can even be considered anti-Semitic. As such, rather than taking White on a tour to learn about the Holocaust, it might be far more constructive for him to meet Jews at their most joyful, uplifted and generous activities, such as at the Passover seder he’s reportedly attending at the invitation of a Jewish councilwoman. There, he can learn about the enslavement and birth of the Jewish people into freedom.
Washington’s JCRC also announced that White “expressed his commitment to partnering … to deepen mutual understanding between our communities and to combat anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry of all kinds.” To the extent that happens, it would be a welcome way to tackle ignorance through the forging of common ties. The question is, now that the ball is in White’s court, will he make good on his promise?