I have never told this story publicly until now. It has a very offensive word in it, which I have not concealed because it is the point of the story.
In the congregation I formerly served was a woman I will call Ethel. Ethel was married to a guy I will call Fred. They had no children. Fred died after a long decline, and Ethel, who was already a little wacko, developed obsessive and compulsive behaviors. Fortunately, she had the wealth to deal with her peculiarities.
She could be exceptionally generous. She gave the synagogue her house when she moved into assisted living. She offered to buy us a Torah scroll; when the scribe gave her a choice of two, she decided to donate them both. Once, she gave me personally an armload of small appliances in their original boxes that she had ordered from a shopping channel on TV.
But there were other aspects of her personality that were not so endearing. Ethel would scoop refreshments into her purse after worship services even though she could easily afford the food she needed. She despised her sister and did everything she could to express it. The way she spoke cattily to you about other people was a pretty good indication that she spoke cattily to those other people about you. She had a distrust of banks and carried stock certificates in her purse (the one with the refreshments) because she considered it more secure than a safe deposit box.
Ethel got older, sicker and stranger. In an attempt to put her estate in order, a group from the synagogue mobilized to dispose of the junk she had hoarded in her small assisted living room. An attorney went about collecting her assets to create a will. A lovely African man became a sort of personal assistant to her. She had bought a new car when she moved, but after driving it less than a thousand miles, she gave up driving, so she gave him the car. (She did not sign it over to him – she just handed him the keys and told him to take it.) I was named executor of her will, overseeing an estate worth over three million dollars.
Here, then, is the summary: Ethel was old, sick, crazy, and rich. She was generous, often impulsively. And she entrusted me with distributing her hoarded wealth.
One day I got a call from the facility where she lived that her car had been stolen. Someone had noticed that it was not in the spot where it was always parked. I came over with the president of the congregation to ask her about it, having heard that she had given it to the young man who assisted her.
Please be ready for the offensive word.
“Ethel,“ I said. “Do you remember what happened to your car?”
“Oh yeah,” she replied. “The nigger took it.”
Old, sick crazy, rich, generous. Trusting enough of me to put me in charge of her money. I was virtually alone with her. The easiest thing in the world at that point would have been to chalk up her indiscretion to old, sick and crazy, lest the trust that left me with a checking account holding three million dollars be withdrawn.
Here's what I said.
“Ethel, you did not just call him a nigger! You may never, ever use that word again. It is a terrible word, and there is no excuse ever to use it.”
She said nothing.
Why did I do that? Because that kind of talk is never okay. Never. No matter the circumstances, no matter the consequences of calling it out, it is never okay. Never. O. K.
Ethel is long gone (and her money, donated to a non-profit of her choice, wound up lost in a Ponzi scheme). I have shared this story privately a very few times, but I share it publicly now.
Whether referring to race, faith, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or any other human attribute, that kind of talk is never okay. Never. No matter the circumstances, no matter the consequences of calling it out, it is never okay.
Never. O. K.
These three brief essays are my current take on this increasingly painful dilemma. Part 1 looks at the place of Jews in America. Part 2 discusses the Holocaust and its impact on the the conversation. Part 3 addresses whether one can be anti-Zionist without being anti-semitic.
ANTI-ZIONISM AND ANTI-SEMITISM -- Part 1
When Jews came to North America before the founding of the United States, they discovered themselves in an unfamiliar circumstance. They were treated by their fellow residents essentially as being equal. Perhaps the better word here is “equivalent.” Though they faced disadvantages at the hands of religiously-driven figures, they were nonetheless increasingly embraced as part of the hybrid notion of national identity that was summarized by the word “American.”
The Jewish part of their identity was mostly considered to be a function of their faith, much as a Christian or a Catholic or a “Mohammedan” was identified by belief. In the hodge-podge of stereotypes and prejudices that rose and fell in mainstream America over the centuries, Jews found that they had opportunities to be nearly-full participants in American life, especially compared to the African slaves and their offspring. Building on George Washington’s remarkable affirmation of the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, most Jews and most Americans came to view the Jewish community as one defined by their mode of worship, their particular holidays and their adherence to a religion that did not affirm Jesus as the Christ. Not every American (and I include some of notorious prominence) accept this perspective, but as matters of both law and culture, the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment were understood to make the definition of American specifically include Jews, of course among others.
The later popularizing of the term “Judeo-Christian,” accurate or not, and the integration of Jews into the military, especially during the Second World War, was further proof that Jews were in every respect but one just like every other American. Even deep into the twentieth century, when restrictive covenants, whites-only country clubs and “gentlemen’s agreements” were yet a part of everyday life, Jews learned from civic circumstances and most of their rabbis that Judaism was to occupy a compartment in their identity. It defined their faith, but not their patriotism.
To be sure, aspects of Jewish culture influenced Jews as well, much as the children of Italian, Irish, Greek, Slavic and Baltic immigrants maintained music, cuisine and supplemental schooling in their neighborhoods to preserve old-country values. But like those neighbors, Jews came to accept that they were Americans by nationality and Jews by faith, heritage or culture. And we still do.
That attitude makes us unique in our history of displacement since Jacob and his sons settled in ancient Egypt. Throughout the Bible, from Pharaoh to Haman, our identity was as a people, not as a religion. (In fact, the two words may have been a difference without distinction back then, but more ahead.) The prophets assailed us about faithfulness, but the history unfolding around and beyond them was one of alliances and conquests during which our ultimate allegiance was to our unseen Commander rather than the kings and conquerors who coveted our homeland. The notion of holiness, intimately connected with the Holy Land, was forcibly disconnected by Jews and affixed to Torah and ritual. Likewise, for others, religious life was wrenched from geography and affixed instead to authority figures who laid claim to acting as God’s representative and to the religious law that grew up around them.
The Jews, however, had no king. (Well, at least according to us.) We were a stateless people, condemned to wander because we would not accept the sovereignty of (name of potentate here) as a divinely ordained representative of (particular name for God here).
Centuries later, cultures throughout Europe, where most Jews lived, had diminished the authority of religious hierarchy in most circumstances. Vibrant cultures had emerged, influenced by faith, but not beholden to it. It is impossible to say with certainty whether the artists who relied on the patronage of the churches were devout or mercenary – no doubt some combination of the two – but by the time concert halls and museums and even cabarets were filled with an abundance of artistic expressions, civic life was similarly mostly independent of the churches. As national identity became a stronger determinant of belonging than specific belief, the stateless Jew remained an outsider. To be sure, some Jews succeeded to integrate and gain acceptance, but they were exceptions, and they often had to abandon their allegiance to Judaism and Jewish identity to do so.
Nation-states began to emerge in Europe to replace monarchs. And, still, the Jews were without a place. We were therefore considered by others and (this is extremely important) by ourselves a people apart, just as Pharaoh and Haman had declared. We were not French, not German, not Italian, not Russian, not Polish. The religiously practicing among us declared a daily hope too be restored to our land, evidence enough to others that they were correct in their estimation that we could not pledge allegiance to the land in which we settled. Never mind that the capacity to hold multiple ideas and fidelities in mind is a hallmark of human existence; Jews were others – not to all, but to most.
To growing numbers of European Jews who had joined their neighbors in stepping away from religious life and faith, the situation was perplexing and frustrating. Enough of them came to the conclusion that in their modern world Jews would never find a place of security and self-determination unless they had a land of their own, just like Germans and Austrians, Czechs and Slovaks, Russians and Ukrainians. Out of that mentality grew Zionism – a political movement for Jewish self-determination in a dedicated homeland.
By now it is clear that the long history of Jewish longing for a return to the Holy Land made that territory the only destination for a homecoming. But other territories were considered, in Africa and North America in addition to the ancestral lands.
As Jewish nationalism affirmed a Jewish identity that was other than European, America’s Constitutional culture affirmed a national identity that, for Jews, was differentiated only by faith – a faith that began waning along with the faith of many Americans in the second half of the twentieth century.
ANTI-ZIONISM AND ANTI-SEMITISM – Part 2
It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the Holocaust on the Jews who survived the Auschwitz years. While the rest of the world may look at those events with sadness, embarrassment or impatience, in most cases the Holocaust is an external event to those who are not Jewish.
I want to be specific with my words: I am not referring to World War II or to the suffering and deprivation experienced by other Europeans and their offspring or to the losses endured by those who lost disabled family, homosexuals or dissidents to the Nazi death machine. I refer specifically to the Holocaust, the systematic attempt to murder all the Jews in the world.
Even today, as Americans use DNA mapping and on-line search tools to discover their personal history, there is barely a Jewish family of European heritage that does not have a gaping hole in the family tree, as if someone tore pages out of the records in the family Bible and tossed them in the fireplace.
The Holocaust occurred in large measure because the perpetrators guessed correctly that nobody would believe they would do what they did. And until it was too late, no one did believe. Since then, and probably forever more, Jews will never doubt the depths of depravity to which the human imagination can sink nor the capacity of human beings to perpetrate evil.
Every word I wrote above is true, and it pertains to me at least as much as to anyone else.
Allow me, at some risk, to suggest some lessons that are uncomfortable in this context.
Too many of my fellow Jews have conflated what is possible with what is likely. I agree with those who repeat the warning that we cannot afford to dismiss those who pledge to do us harm. But having seen the worst that can befall us, too many of us (including, sometimes, me) hope for an opportunity to prove that we will never let it happen again. The pump is primed, and the evidence is pre-packaged. We are trigger-happy with accusations of anti-semitism, and not just Jew-hating anti-semitism, but genocidal anti-semitism.
At the same time, we presume more than ill intent from those we fear. We presume a conspiratorial network motivated by the unfinished work of the Third Reich. The hatred of Jews in Nazi Germany was so comprehensive, building on the creative denigration of everything Jewish throughout the preceding centuries, that there is barely a new way to be critical of Jews. And since we have schooled ourselves in the litany of stereotypes, we presume that others have done the same. The fact is that most non-Jews – except the professional anti-semites – are unaware of what is second nature to us.
(During the scandals of the Clinton presidency, a Methodist minister worried that the conduct of the Special Prosecutor would have an impact on the denomination. I told him I worried in the same way about the young intern. He told me he had no idea that she was Jewish. And I had no idea he prosecutor was Methodist.)
The Holocaust produced two results that pervade Jewish life collectively and, mostly, individually. Theologically, as one brilliant orthodox thinker observed, belief in God is difficult, but belief in man is impossible. Almost all Jews who do not espouse a fundamental ultra-orthodox belief have contracted the notion of a God willing to exercise protection of the faithful in this world (some of them down to zero). Practically, as I have suggested throughout my career, Jews should never be without power. Power is expressed differently in different circumstances, but most certainly the power of self-determination is primary on the global stage – best expressed by the State of Israel as the national expression of Jewish peoplehood. In the United States, I would argue that power is expressed politically, officially in government and sociologically in the influential segments of society.
But how is such power deployed? The influence of Jewish religion – values drawn from 2000 years of the experience of relative powerlessness – emphasizes accommodation, compromise and the moral high ground. The influence of Jewish experience – lessons learned from hundreds of years of suffering discrimination and, ultimately, attempted obliteration – emphasizes cautious ally-ship, suspicion and exquisite preparedness.
Is it fair to ask Jews to step out of their Holocaust consciousness when considering their concerns about their own security or that of the State of Israel? I think the answer is no, any more than it is fair to ask African Americans to set aside the awareness of their enslaved past, or native tribes to leave their displacement and slaughter to history books, or any American who lived through the Great Depression to refrain from sharing their memories with affluent offspring.
What is fair – and, in my opinion, advisable – is to ask Jews to consider the role that their personal or collective historical memory plays in contemporary circumstances. Cultivating fear and suspicion of others is a guarantee that fear and suspicion will be returned in kind.
ANTI-ZIONISM AND ANTI-SEMITISM -- Part 3
Is it possible to be anti-Zionist and not anti-semitic? A lot of people have been weighing in on that question. It is a very different question than if it is possible to criticize the policies and actions of the State of Israel without being anti-semitic. The answer to that question is necessarily yes, or the entire citizenry of Israel has a paradoxical identity.
But Zionism – the belief that the Jewish people have a right to self-determinism in their own homeland – is not about policies and actions, but about place in the world.
I will risk alienating those American Jews who conflate criticizing Israel with calling for Israel’s destruction. The inability to distinguish between the two is a mark of paranoia, but (if you read my previous two columns) an understandable affliction.
It is not the case that Israel exists because of the Holocaust. Political Zionism was founded a century before World War II, and the ideas behind it before that. But anyone who denies that the destruction of European Jewry had an influence on when Israel came into existence is simply incorrect. Not always for admirable reasons, the nations that had fought in the war eventually sought a place for the remnant of the Jewish population with nowhere to call home.
It is the case that in the minds of most American Jews, there is an inextricable link between the catastrophic events of the Holocaust and the necessity of the State of Israel. As such, when critics challenge Israel using terms that resonate with historical attempts to eradicate our people, it is near impossible for those Jews to imagine any motive that does not include Israel’s destruction.
But please read what follows carefully, because both sides of this debate have a responsibility to lower the heat.
Jewish peoplehood – or, if you prefer, community, ethnic identity, common cause or any related term – is different than Jewish faith. Each is part of the other, but they are not identical. When it comes to our place in the world – that is, Zionism – Jews engage on the basis of peoplehood, not faith. If you challenge the endeavor of Zionism, you challenge the place of Jews in the world even if that is not your intention.
Just as it is not harmless for white people to wear blackface, or for sports teams to use caricatures of Indians as mascots, or for fraternal organizations to appropriate Muslim imagery for entertainment, it is not harmless to for activists to appropriate Zionism as a stand-in for the current Israeli administration or its policies. If you deploy Zionism as the villain, then you will be correctly understood to be calling for the destruction of the Jewish people. Jew or non-Jew – it is your responsibility to understand that truth.
At the same time, the Jewish community has been unclear with others and with itself about the nature of our civic engagement. Most faith-based organizations in the majority Christian community are represented by clergy, or at least leaders who answer to religious authorities. Most Jewish organizations that are not specifically focused on religious life are led by people trained in organizational management, business or a related profession. Their personal Jewish commitments may be profound, but they are not faith leaders. Yet, because we have accepted the notion that in America our Jewishness is a matter of faith, we have let stand the presumption that we are defined by the houses of worship we attend, especially when we interact with others.
But we should be honest that our engagement in support of Israel comes from our sense of place in the world, part of which is spiritual in nature, but much of which is not. We revel in no longer being “a people apart,” and resent when we are reminded that sometimes we are. We can be terrific allies, but sometimes we are not when the fascination we maintain with the resilience of anti-semitism provokes a fight-or-flight reaction from people who do not understand the complicated nuances of being American Jews.
We attribute a base of knowledge and an innate antagonism based on our perceptions, too often rushing to a judgment of malice that can be confusing at least and offensive at worst. And it is incumbent on us to work on our own reactiveness, both as individuals and in a willingness to call out the extreme reactions of other members of the Jewish community.
Lastly, I offer a plea for respect of our allies. We have genuine friends in the world, and especially in the United States. They are people who stand with us when we need them and stand up to us when we need them. They are committed to our partnerships because we have stood with them, and because we have persuasive and moral arguments for our positions. There are people who disagree with our priorities and with our agenda items, but if we do not find their challenges persuasive, mostly our friends will neither. We do not need to crush dissent nor, just as important, dissenters.
Jews are “blessed” with a special name for the bigotry directed at them; they have chosen a special name for the right of self-determination that all others assert. People of good will refuse to accommodate bigotry by any name. People of good will acknowledge the right of self-determination for all peoples.
Can one be anti-Zionist and not anti-semitic? Only if such a person elects to define the Jewish community by his or her own self-serving definition: a faith community, not a people, with no claim on a place in the world.
The title is a quotation from the estimable Rev. Amos Brown, my friend and teacher. It is the advice he gave the African American community a couple of weeks ago on the occasion of the release of a wise and indignant manifesto from the Progressive National Baptist Convention, home denomination and keeper of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
That is what you need to do in this 2018 election -- vote like hell.
This weekend a violent anti-semite opened fire on a Pittsburgh synagogue where three different congregations were engaged in Shabbat services. At this writing, eleven have died and six or more, including three police officers, were wounded. There has been an avalanche of comfort flowing from rabbis and other clergy who recognize that the tragedy itself has ripped off scars that we hoped had healed -- or at least concealed -- the historical uneasiness of Jews about, well, someone with a gun wanting to kill us.
This is not one of those columns. There are magnificent examples of soothing words in abundance for you to access.
This is a call to action. You need to vote like hell.
And you need to vote against anyone who supports Donald Trump. This terrible man must not be further empowered. I will state my reasons -- which represent my opinion alone -- and, sorry, but I do not want to hear your disagreement. If you vote for those who contribute to Trump's presumed mandate, you are dismantling the democracy and its presumptions that made America great before he sullied that notion with his campaign slogan.
The man who pulled the trigger, like the man who sent the pipe bombs and every other bigot in our society, was not created by Trump's rhetoric. He hated immigrants, hated Jews, hated Democrats before Trump. But before Trump he lived on the very margins of society. The aggressive rhetoric and dehumanizing characterizations of Donald Trump moved the mainstream to the margin and made the real mainstream look like a betrayal. No amount of formalized handwringing from Trump can undo the consequences of his taunting and signaling freewheeling riffs on those he has proclaimed enemies and opponents.
I am watching Trump supporters scramble to distance him from his bad actions. Give it up. He is either responsible for his name-calling and lies, in which case he purposely demeans the office of President, or he is not, in which case he is not competent to occupy the office of President. Either way, those who enable him share entirely in the results of his conduct.
Nobody, of course, is bad all the time. There may very well be things that he has done that turn out to be wise, constructive or admirable in retrospect. But we need to get to "retrospect" as soon as possible, because his damage far outweighs any good he has accomplished, at home or abroad, including in the State of Israel.
Do you think he understands the heart of the angry American? Nonsense. Asked about the synagogue shooting, he complained that the victims weren't protected by a security guard with a sidearm. Aside from the complete lack of understanding about firearm safety -- relying on a gunfight in a venue populated by older adults and children is a recipe for disaster -- he failed to give the response that arose in the heart of every parent. His own children and grandchildren were in synagogue that morning (I presume). "That could have been my child, my babies." In all his scripted responses and lowering of flags, we have yet to hear that he viscerally understands our concern.
His personal pique at the Clintons and Obamas and Bidens (and others) overwhelmed the suggestion that he might seek to allay their concern with a sympathetic call. He has expressed more support for neo-Nazis and Saudi murderers than for Americans who might have voted for his opponent.
I am sure that if you object to Trump, you have your own reasons. There is no shortage of them. If you are a woman, a Spanish-speaker, an African American, an immigrant, a journalist, a liberal, a manufacturer, transgender, non-right-wing-evangelical-Christian or any of another list of the pluribus in our unum, he has betrayed the promise of America to you specifically and smugly lied about it in the process: when he put his hand on the Bible he never studies and promised to protect and defend the Constitution he never consults.
The results have been impolite, impolitic, violent, terrorizing and now fatal. He never should have been elected, and now he must be thwarted in diminishing the greatness of America. Our last chance to minimize his damage is to turn out of office the people who support and explain away the worst occupant of the Oval Office in the history of our country.
This is my personal opinion, and I sum up like this:
Vote like hell.
No, this is not about President Trump. At least not directly.
It is instead about you and Rachel Maddow.
I have had the pleasure to meet Rachel and speak with her in relatively unguarded circumstances. We are not friends in any sense of the word, but she has deep trust for a mutual friend, and I am the beneficiary of being in that orbit.
Rachel is an intensely private person outside of her work on MSNBC. I will reveal nothing about her private life other than to say she is animated by the life of the mind (she is very smart) and football (but the wrong team). That is to say that, as much as is possible on national television, what you see on MSNBC is genuine. You may agree with her or disagree with her, but within the limits of human fallibility, she is without pretense. She says what she thinks, based on informed opinions, and she expresses what she feels.
One evening this week, she was handed a breaking news story at the end of her program. Reading it, she appeared overwhelmed by the words. The Trump administration had acknowledged the existence of “tender age” holding facilities for infants and toddlers who had been separated from their families at the southern border of the United States. According to the report, rooms filled with crying children were being administered by contract staff in at least three locations. Rachel Maddow could not complete reading the alert aloud; she was in tears.
Now comes the part about you.
What would you choose to tweet if you saw those fifty-three seconds of television? Would you have been overwhelmed by the same emotions and therefore expressed some measure of empathy or appreciation? Or would you have tweeted a disparaging comment, either about her bleeding heart or her lack of understanding of the necessity for this policy?
Friends, this challenge is not about Republicans and Democrats, about Resisters and Trumpsters, about rule-of-law or give-me-your tired-your-poor. This is about those with empathy and those without. If you found reason for a broken heart in this vignette, whatever you feel about our current policy enforcement, there is hope for you. Children separated from their parents forcibly by people in uniform are in a tragic and regrettable situation. Even if it is necessary (remember, we are not debating that) it is always regrettable.
If your heart cannot break for a child, no matter the context, then hope for you may be a distant dream. I know that’s a harsh statement, but it is no less true for its iciness. Use whatever cliché you choose – the milk of human kindness, parental instinct, an ounce of compassion. If it is not stirred within you but you instead see “child actors” or make sad trumpet sounds, then you are on the wrong side of human worth. You should not be entrusted with a public forum or the authority to make public policy. You are willing to sacrifice genuine innocence for personal gratification. And it seems to me that is the very definition of child abuse.
No matter the outcome of this sorry episode in American history, it is a defining moment. Whether you support walls and arrests and deportations, or you support open borders and welfare provision, if you view the children separated involuntarily from parents or custodians as cruel and condemnable, then you stand on one side of the real divide in this country. If you view the separation as part of the kabuki of politics or the necessary price we pay to shield our native children from these criminals-in-waiting, then you stand on the other side – the wrong side, the side with a significant empathy deficiency.
Watch this video from Rachel Maddow’s show (again) and decide what would go up on your Twitter account.
You are what you tweet.
My kids gave me a book as a Chanukkah gift and warned me not to look through it because it would just make me sad. It is the collection of photographs taken by Pete Souza, the official White House photographer for President Obama. Souza missed only one day of the Obama years and curated a comprehensive look at the President in his most unguarded moments as well as some more official occasions. Unlike the pool of remarkable photographers charged with capturing the events which the President attended, Pete Souza was tasked with capturing visually the ethos of the Presidency.
My kids were right; I should not have looked at the book. I knew it when I looked at the back cover. Mr. Obama stood in front of his desk in the Oval Office, bent at a ninety-degree angle. A young African American boy, visiting with his dad on the day of his departure from a White House job, had used his one question to ask the President if his hair felt the same as his own. The leader of the free world bent over to give the kid a chance to find out.
I remember the outrage the first time President Obama bent forward in public. Follow protocol – though not American custom – he bowed in greeting to the king of Saudi Arabia. Other presidents, including the current one, have bowed to receive commendations draped around their necks from the king of the Saudis (and others), but this gesture of respect or submission (depending on your perspective) provoked outrage in the echo chambers of the right and set loose altered photographs and cartoons that mocked the President for doing so.
I wasn’t so bothered by it, to be honest, though I wish the gesture had been more subdued, like the custom of greeting in Japan. And other presidents had shown deference to and even intimacy with the Saudi king (and others) with hugs and kisses and more slightly stooped postures. But I do remember thinking then that here was a man who did not need external validation for his confidence as a leader. It was a quality we saw again and again in “no-drama-Obama.”
And there was the full bow a second time and I remembered it, too. The first African American to hold the office of President understood the question beneath the question of a little boy who never knew anything other than an African American president: am I like you? And without the platitudes we all mock these days about how anybody can grow up to be president, Mr. Obama answered in an undignified way that nonetheless offered not just dignity but encouragement to this child of the next generation.
The inside of the book (yeah, I am a slow learner) has very little to do with policy. Instead, it illustrates what presidents ought to do well and what, in my opinion, Barack Obama did best. They should inspire us to be our best selves, to follow their example to be the best kinds of Americans. They should insist that we ask what we can do for our country, imagine a great society, see the shining city on the hill, find what is right with America, live out our nation's promise through civility, courage, compassion and character.
I admired the Obama presidency, but it did not stop me from my disagreements. Even in disagreement, I admired what he represented, and especially that he held office for eight full years without a legitimate accusation of personal misconduct. I admired that the weight of the office was borne with dignity and gravitas, but never at the price of humanity. I admired that his instincts about when to override the trappings of the office were unerring.
By contrast (you knew this was coming) is President Trump. My cousin Adam, a Republican with Libertarian leanings, describes Mr. Trump as a poor person’s idea of what a rich person is like. I continue to look for anything approximating inspiration. The nearest we have come is his campaign slogan, imploring us, for the first time in American history, to look to the past instead of the future. Maybe it is what we need to do, but it is a more consequential break with our legacy than bowing to a king.
Yet my disappointment in his conduct of the office might be mitigated if I recognized his humanity. Instead, he tosses paper towels to hurricane victims, tweets insults with his morning coffee and has such a private relationship with his grandchildren that there is no picture of him being a grandpa to them. Famous for condemning his predecessor for playing too much golf (333 rounds in 8 years), as of this writing he has played 87 times with almost a month to go in his first year. I won’t revisit the accusations made about his interpersonal conduct, but I will bemoan the lack of any evidence that he has evolved beyond those accusations with the status bestowed upon him.
Perhaps he has made the decree that personal matters are irrelevant to the conduct of the office and that he will not stage sympathetic photos that distract from his presidential duties. It is not likely, but it is plausible. No president is required to have a personal documentation of his presidency, though in Mr. Trump’s adult lifetime every President of the United States has understood the power of the image in advancing his agenda. JFK in somber consultation with his brother, LBJ holding up his basset hound’s ears, Nixon waving his “double Vs,” Reagan on his horse, Bush 43 clearing brush, Obama bending over for a little boy to feel his hair. None of these moments was crafted; all of them served to make an icon less plastic and more accessible.
Americans need role models. The examples-in-chief who have occupied the Oval Office have been a mixed lot, but most of them seem to have aspired to be well-rounded men who reveled in their common cause with everyday Americans. Even if in their hearts they hoped to be America’s sugar daddy with no expectation beyond total loyalty and a place on Mount Rushmore, they had the good sense to look for their own approachability rather than to suppress it.
During every presidency, the same joke surfaces about the book that will be written about it – it will be the shortest book in the world. This time it will be no joke, and not because the Trump book will focus on his relationship with the truth or the range of his adjectives. The shortest book in the world will be the photographic record of Donald Trump, the man.
Our next president, whoever that may be, will need to restore a sense of humanity to the White House. I can recommend a wonderful book about the example that was once set. But my advice is not to look at it just now. It will just make you sad.
It takes a lot for me to block people from contacting me online. Mostly, I do so only with people who produce a constant stream of unwanted and unoriginal material – ads, cat videos, platitudes decorated with festive borders and the like. I do not object to that material; I just don’t have the personal bandwidth for it.
Objectionable material is something else. And let me please state for the record what I define as objectionable. If the content is designed to denigrate others as a substitute for debate, however contentious, or if it suggests something that even an opponent of my remarks might consider morally reprehensible, that is enough for me to decide that (absent a change in behavior) there is nothing to learn from such a correspondent.
Here’s a past example: I put up for a long time with postings that skirted on racism and bigotry from a now-former friend. He was belligerent in his “right” to express himself as he chose, even when other friends (including those with sympathy for his positions) pushed back. I still have a copy of his suggestion that, when it came to certain kinds of protests, “sometimes a well-placed bullet is more effective than sending in all the social workers.” (No, we were not discussing Hitler.)
But he continued to cross the line and insult the dignity, intelligence and basic humanity of those who disagreed with him. When I describe him that way, I do not mean he talked down to them. I mean he continued to write insults to the qualities of his opponents that denigrated and humiliated them. Blocked.
Just this week I entered into a contentious exchange with a long-time acquaintance who holds to values I do not share. In question was a video in which a White House official attempted to draw an analogy to tax reform based on journalists going out for drinks together. I found the analogy specious, and the exchange was getting deeper into the issues. I doubt either of us was convincing the other.
And then, one of my acquaintance’s Facebook friends entered the fray. I was called a whiner, which is the mildest name in the personal attack and the only one I will reprint. I can allude to another – in more innocent circumstances, it might be used to call to a cat. And I was instructed to – and I quote – “stfu.”
I am not a novice online, and I have encountered such individuals before. I can’t prove it, but his screen name was so unlikely that I suspect it was an alias designed to allow him to behave badly while protecting himself from being identified. I exited the conversation. And in the time it took me to block him, he made another personal attack on me.
To this point, I have done nothing more than exercise a certain amount of common sense in protecting myself from wasting time on someone more interested in bullying than engaging. But I expected more from my acquaintance than I received. He dismissed the offender as “just some guy.” He suggested that by exiting the exchange I was proving him right. And he concluded by saying that I did what every left-wing person does when losing an argument – I ran away.
It occurred to me that bad behavior is going to continue as long as it is tolerated, not so much by the people it offends or injures, but by the “friends” of the bullies and abusers. If there is a more obvious lesson from a different quarter of bad behavior in the news these days – sexual abusers – I don’t know what it is. Abusive men who are tolerated by their buddies will continue to abuse, no matter how many women protest. Facebook friends who get “likes” for derision, obscenity and dehumanization will take only encouragement from the toleration of those who are in their camp.
My acquaintance, therefore, is also now blocked. I have lost nothing by not reading his posts. I still have more than a critical mass of correspondents willing to mix it up, publicly and privately, in a respectful manner. I expect people who believe in the free exchange of ideas to self-regulate and to insist from their supporters the kind of conduct that allows understanding to grow and respect to be maintained. I expect it of myself.
Will it eliminate the bad conduct of anonymous name-callers? Of course not. But it is one small step for civil discourse that could lead to a giant leap for social media.
Why a sincere critic has so much of it wrong.
I don’t live in Chicago anymore, but I grew up in the same north suburban area as Ashley O’Brien, recent resident of Tel Aviv and op-ed writer in the Jerusalem Post. Ashley challenges the Chicago Jewish community on what she considers an inadequate response to the exclusion of activists carrying a rainbow flag with a Jewish star on it. And she makes five points.
So I will respond to the incident and then to Ashley.
Banning the flag and the marchers was wrong. It was intolerant, bigoted and a violation of the principles of inclusiveness that have been the hallmark of pride movements and Jewish progressives. Any America that excludes the free and reasonable exchange of ideas betrays the very notion of America. In that sense, the misuse of the category of “triggers” ought to be publicly repudiated by anyone of conscience.
Ashley, I hope you are satisfied that some deep-dish-pizza-loving life-long-Cub-fan flat-a-pronouncing Jew (with a Swedish last name) has spoken out, and many days before you asked.
But your “five points” are also wrong, and here is why.
"1. It suggests that anti-Zionism is separate from antisemitism. Well, it’s not. And if that was truly the case, why was the Jewish pride flag banned? It was NOT an Israeli flag that was banned. It was a gay pride flag that happened to have the same Jewish symbol as the flag of the Jewish state. "
Anti-Zionism is separate from anti-semitism. There is no question that the two overlap in very uncomfortable ways on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. But unless you equate being a Zionist with being a Jew (and vice-versa), then they are separate matters. I happen to be both, and they are intertwined in my identity. But because I listen to people who understand Zionism not as a philosophy but as a practice by the government of a state, I understand that they do not hate me for disagreeing with them and they do not hate me for my birthright. They are passionately opposed to a political entity, and I disagree with them entirely. You diminish the important distinctions of both Zionism and Judaism when you conflate them.
"2. It suggests that Israel is ‘oppressing’ Palestinians, which, in my humble opinion, is a bunch of BDS B.S., but I’m open to this argument as long as you bring facts (and alternative facts don't count @kellyanneconway). "
Ashley, Israel is oppressing Palestinians. By absolutely every measure of the life of a Jewish Israeli, Palestinians fare worse. That’s oppression. Some Israelis (and others) believe it is justified and others do not. But nobody denies that by the same standards – income, freedom of movement, education, medical care, civil services – Palestinians fare worse. That was true before there was such a thing as BDS or alternative facts.
"3. It suggests that Jews don’t fall under the category of ‘oppressed people’. Tell that to my great-grandfather’s family. Oh wait, you can’t; they were all killed by Hitler. "
And now I will express great umbrage. How dare you exploit the unconscionable murder of your family in this silly Suffering Olympics competition! There are certainly poor and marginalized Jews in the United States, but they did not grow up in Buffalo Grove. Victims of the Nazis died in concentration camps. You summered at Camp Chi. The Holocaust is not a trump card to be played when you want to claim moral reparations.
"4. Flags with Muslim symbolism WERE allowed at the same march, but don’t worry, no one has ever been known to ‘oppress’ others in the name of Islam… *she wrote with heavy sarcasm* "
There are arguments to be made about transgressive behavior in Muslim countries, but invoking Islam in this argument in the same way you object to others invoking Judaism makes you every bit as bigoted.
"5. Show me a country in the Middle East besides Israel where you can be openly gay without the risk of persecution. I'll wait... "
There is no other country in the Middle East where one can be openly gay, so you can stop waiting. I don’t evaluate any policy on the basis of how much worse it could be. When it comes to Israel, my standard is not Saudi Arabia. It is Israel. Marriage in Israel is in the hands of a theocratic and regressive rabbinate that teaches that homosexuality is a sin. As a non-orthodox rabbi, I am embarrassed by the language my hareidi colleagues use and the repressive policies they impose. You can be openly gay in Tel Aviv, but not in B’nei B’rak. You can’t get married in either place.
I do not blame Ashley O’Brien for making these arguments. She did not invent them; she was taught every one of these arguments. The absence of nuance in the way Jewish community leaders and educators can express their positions, combined with the intolerant stances of vocal and well-funded right-wing organizations make Ashley’s “five points” familiar fodder. We – that is, my generation – have not taught her – that is, young committed Jews – that both Jewish belief and the State of Israel are strong enough to stand up to the truth. We do not need to succumb to the sloganeering, deflection and derogation that is directed at us, and we certainly do not need to imitate it.
Most of all, we need to make the distinction between answering the hyperbole of our critics and engaging in it in a game of one-upmanship. Jews are not perfect. Israel is not perfect. And I hope it goes without saying that the Chicago Dyke March Collective is not perfect.
Those Jewish lesbians who brought the rainbow flag with a giant Jewish star are guilty only of naivete. A big six-pointed star in the middle of a flag is not just a symbol of Judaism any more than a crucifix is just a piece of jewelry. Israel worked hard to brand itself with that star, and I hope everyone in the world knows.
The expulsion of the Jewish marchers was intolerant, bigoted and a violation of the principles of inclusiveness. It doesn’t matter to me whether the marchers were being banned for being Zionists or for being Jews or if, as happens too often, both being both. It was wrong.
Ashley O’Brien may or may not have been right to call out the Jews of Chicagoland for their perceived silence. But on the rest of it, she was wrong, too.
I rode in a taxi across town in DC to a meeting this past week and I knew I was in trouble the minute I got into the cab. “How are you today!” the driver exuberantly dared me as I slid in. His name and thick accent indicated an origin in or around India, but the cross hanging from his mirror meant that he was raised or arrived in the Christian minority.
“I am just fine, thank you,” I replied. “And how are you?”
“Thanks God and thanks Jesus!” he said. “I am healthy. I have a roof over my head. I have enough to eat. I have a job. That’s why I say thanks God and thanks Jesus!”
(The exclamation points are necessary, by the way. His enthusiasm, while not contagious, was undeniable.)
“Good for you,” I said.
“May I ask you a question, sir!”
I think I know what is coming next. Whether or not he saw that my head was covered, I figured I was going to be asked about my own personal faith. I was wrong.
“What do you think of President Trump?”
Now, I was in the back seat of a taxi weaving through DC traffic, conscious that the driver was looking not so much at the road as at me in his rear-view mirror. I did not want to begin a policy debate nor did I want to add to the anxiety he might be feeling. So I just said, “I have some issues.” I hoped for either “me, too” or “I hear that a lot.” Instead, his initial enthusiasm for his blessings went up a notch for the president, and he began rattling off all of the things he expected Mr. Trump was accomplishing. What could be my issues, he wanted to know.
“He is not honest,” I said. “He says things that are not true.”
Really, I looked for the least controversial objection I could think of. After all, I wanted to reach my destination safely. But the driver threw an unexpected curve.
“Name me one politician who tells the truth!” he said. I will admit I stammered for a minute – it was the kind of defense that is really an admission of guilt. But the fact is that I know quite a number of good and honest politicians on both sides of the aisle. They sometimes spin things in their own direction, but they do not make things up. So I named a few sitting senators and representatives. But then I added, “But the question is not whether other people lie. It is whether the president tells the truth. I believe that we ought to expect the President of the United States to be truthful.”
“He wants us to be strong and to enforce the law, and he will bring jobs back that have been lost! Do you object to that?”
“I didn’t say anything about jobs or security,” I said. “I said he isn’t honest.”
“Now you are going to tell me he shouldn’t be the president because of 30,00 votes, aren’t you? You think she should be president instead of him!”
I was taken aback again. “I didn’t say anything about votes,” I replied. “Donald Trump is the president. I said he isn’t honest.”
At that point I realized how the nature of political discourse – even with a guy in a taxi – had changed. I said to him that he was pulling a Kellyanne Conway on me – trying to pivot away from a legitimate criticism and bait me into an argument over something completely different.
I took my last shot. “You believe in God and Jesus, and you know that the reason to do the right thing in life is because it is the right thing, and that doing the right thing is independent of what anyone else is doing. That’s what I believe also as a Jew. I don’t care who else lies or what his goals are or whether the Electoral College ought to be reconsidered. It is reasonable to expect that the President of the United States would be a man of integrity, starting with being honest.”
At this point, we arrived at our destination. I silently thanked God. He vocally thanked both God and Jesus.
Kellyanne Conway does not get the credit she deserves for running a successful presidential campaign. In a race that was so much about breaking the glass ceiling, it has been widely overlooked that she wound up being the woman who broke it in this campaign.
But at least as far as my garrulous driver learned, her success included a special skill for changing the subject when matters of integrity were raised. It continues in her current position (and she is not the only one). It has been emulated by Democrats, too, much to my disappointment.
Don’t fall for it. Do the right thing because it is the right thing, and be honest in giving credit as well as offering critique.
And continue to expect that the naturalized citizen driving your cab and the person who holds the highest office in the land will tell the truth.
I had dinner with my younger daughter the other night and we were talking about the current administration. She is a federal employee and I work for a non-profit focused on public policy from a faith perspective. I was taking advantage of a sympathetic ear to express my concerns about the White House and the stream of executive orders. As is one of her many talents, she asked me two questions that brought me up short.
The first was, “Is this how other people felt when Obama was first elected?” Now, I don’t actually know the answer to that question, but I replied that I was pretty sure it was.
Then she asked the second question. “So if Trump does something right, do you think you will be able to acknowledge it?”
This wasn’t a “gotcha” encounter – she and I are pretty much on the same page politically (which is to say close to left margin). But she certainly got me. The question of whether I will be willing to recognize the right thing when it happens is a good one.
I believe Donald Trump became president on a series of technicalities, but he is, as they say, the only president we have. I was disappointed and disbelieving when it happened, and the first few weeks of his administration have done nothing to persuade me that everything will settle into some predictable pattern. The Republic will stand, to be sure. But some of the people on my side of the political divide are not willing to stand for much.
The main piece of advice I have given and received is to refuse to normalize bad behavior. I agree with the notion; we should not reset our standards or allow ourselves to become desensitized to name-calling, disrespect and fits of pique as a substitute for civil debate. But some folks have taken that as a mandate to resist by similar means – fighting fire with a blowtorch.
Here’s an example: this week, our new Secretary of Education, someone substantially unqualified for the position, announced a visit to a public school as one of her first official acts. I must say that I was glad to know she recognized the importance of such a visit. The night before, I received an email sent to a number of my coalition partners asking, “Anyone up for a demonstration?”
I replied that I did not think it was appropriate. School was to be in session and disrupting it further did not serve the needs of the students. I got pushback from a lot of directions – some insisting there would be no disruption by people outside the schoolyard and others suggesting that no demonstration could be more damaging that the Secretary herself.
In the end, demonstrators outside the school (not, it appears, part of the group I decline to join) prevented the Secretary from entering and harassed her as her Secret Service detail attempted to drive her away from the school.
Now, I get it. Every inch ceded out of a desire to be fair brings us farther away from the goals and values we think we are defending. President Trump and his cabinet and his executive orders and his policy proposals are, in my opinion, simply awful. He is kicking at bricks to loosen the mortar that I worry will cause some necessary structures to collapse. Every victory for his team emboldens them to try for more.
That’s the way Republican leadership felt about President Obama. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell famously said, heading into the 2012 elections, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Republicans refused to cooperate with almost any initiative and encouraged – sometimes by example – the worst interpretations of the smallest behaviors by the Commander-in-Chief.
It was obnoxious and resulted in Congressional gridlock, to the detriment of the nation. And the result is that Donald Trump Is now President of the United States.
My friend Rabbi Irwin Kula likes to say, “Do you know how smart someone needs to be in order to be wrong 100% of the time?” By design or sheer luck, President Trump will be right about something. I just hope that I – and everyone else – can set aside the earned rancor and ugly taunts to do what is in the best interests of the United States and its citizens.
And I hope we are wise enough to recognize if and when that opportunity presents itself.
When I was serving as a congregational rabbi, I was occasionally challenged by individual members about the decisions I made regarding my Jewish diligence. For example, one might say to me, “How can you turn on your lights on Friday night? That’s a violation of Shabbat!”
Never mind that the person implying that I was a sinner and a hypocrite would likely get into a car on that same Friday night to go to dinner and the theater.
I would sometimes thank such folks for being so strict about my observance.
And then, of course, there were those people who complained that I put the specifics of ritual observance over and above the spirit of the tradition and its higher values. Often that came about regarding school attendance on Jewish holidays like Shavu’ot, two forlorn festival days that occur near the end of the school year. “Jews value education!” they would protest. “Isn’t it more authentic for our children to be learning something so close to finals than to be sitting through lengthy services?”
Not everyone contended with the gap between their principles and my conduct, but my experience was that the more strenuous the objection, the wider the breach.
It seems to be the case now that two groups of Jews are criticizing Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who identify as orthodox, for traveling in a car on the Shabbat immediately following her father’s inauguration. What rabbi gave them permission, inquiring minds want to know. How can they call themselves orthodox if they eat food not prepared under strict rabbinic supervision? An adviser to the president with an office in the White House will necessarily compromise the spirit of the holidays and Shabbat, even if the letter of the law is upheld.
The one group I might call the chnyok-ish cohort – the people so deeply involved in the strictures of Jewish law and observance that any other consideration is ridiculously irrelevant. The law allows for exceptions, they will rightly claim, when life or well-being is in immediate danger. Otherwise…not.
The other group I might call the frum patrol – the people with a flexitarian relationship to Jewish life who know just enough to hold others accountable when they fall short of an academic standard.
Both groups are busy dissecting the Jewish life of President Trump’s daughter and son-in-law. For the cohort, no orthodox rabbi worthy of respect would allow a Jew to get into an automobile on Shabbat to go to a party or a church, no matter what. Therefore, the Jewishness of the Kushners may be called into question – Jared’s claim to orthodoxy and Ivanka’s claim to Jewishness itself – because they are willing to toss aside the sanctity of religious life for secular (or other religious) purposes.
For the patrol, the Kushners’ decision to compromise is just another example of the hypocrisy of the entire inner circle of the president. Mind you, it is hypocrisy only because of their claim to orthodoxy. No such outrage was expressed over Bernie Sanders’s visit to Liberty University to address chapel services on Rosh HaShanah. Joe Lieberman was never taken to task for his willingness to eat “cooked dairy” in non-kosher restaurants before, during and after his campaign for vice-president. And it was not lost on me that some of this criticism came from people who very publicly traveled on Shabbat after the inauguration to participate in the protest march.
Let me suggest that wise Jews approach Jewish observance an appreciation of paradox. Law, by its nature, is clearly delineated but unable to anticipate every extenuating circumstance. Mostly, the law applies. It may be technically correct that we must not extinguish a fire on Shabbat, but only a callous and foolish person would not call the fire department if a blaze broke out on Shabbat. It may be technically correct that we must always tell the truth, but the Talmud insists that “every bride is beautiful,” a dubious claim. It may be technically correct that a very traditional Jew would not enter a church, let alone on Shabbat, but when the Chief Rabbi of England was expected at the royal wedding, there he was.
So let’s give Jared and Ivanka a break. I am certain their detractors can find plenty of things to criticize. I won’t list them here, any more than I will list the many merits that offset their shortcomings. This game-playing about their Jewish integrity is inconsistent with the reality of the chnyok-ish cohort and the frum patrol alike. They struggle like all of us with maintaining the standards of their better inclinations in the face of the challenges that they face from living in a world that overwhelmingly ignores the demands of a traditional Jewish life.
Using Jewish observance as a political weapon is as wrong as using political weapons against Jewish observance.