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.
Quite a number of years ago, I came to the defense of a friend who had lent his name to a coalition of religious leaders promoting civil discourse. A member of his then-denomination of Christianity had attacked him for allowing his name to be listed with liberals like me. I called the critic and introduced myself. I suggested to him that the positions he found objectionable in me and others like me – reproductive health care, sexual orientation, gun ownership – had nothing to do with our call for more courtesy in public conversation.
The gentleman was very polite, even respectful, when he said, “Rabbi, would you join a group for a good cause if you knew that you would be sitting with Nazis or members of the KKK?” I remember stammering at the question. Before I could collect myself, he continued. “I mean you no offense when I tell you that, having researched your public positions, I could not see myself included with you and others who agree with you.”
It sounds pretty intolerant. (Maybe because it is pretty intolerant.) But I understand his point. Everyone has a boundary to maintain. In much less serious circumstances, George Carlin discussed driving on the highway. “Everyone going slower than you, no matter what your speed, is an idiot. And anyone going faster than you is a maniac.” The same is true of faith and conviction. Anyone more liberal than you is a heretic, and anyone to your right is a fanatic.
The subject came up in 2008 when then-Senator Barack Obama found himself under scrutiny for his relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a firebrand preacher whose rhetorical flourishes often crossed a line between provocative and condemnatory, and William Ayres whose civil disobedience during tumultuous times gave way to a political profile far to the left of spectrum. (I know those descriptions are unsatisfactory to everyone…but they are true, and not the immediate point.) The question raised about the man who would be president was about the company he kept. Just how much influence did Rev. Wright have on the parishioner who relied on him for guidance? Just what was the common ground this former community organizer found with a self-proclaimed radical?
The questions weren’t answered until Mr. Obama became President. We have not heard from or about either Rev. Wright or Mr. Ayres in eight years, not including the folks on the far right of the political spectrum who have spent the Obama administration looking for evidence of his sedition.
Now we have another cohort of friends and advisors who are attached to an incoming president. Some of them, like Steve Bannon, seem unsavory to those inclined to disagree with his political positions and his tactics for advancing them. But others are demonstrably on the wrong side of right behavior. That is to say that, like Rev. Wright and Mr. Ayres, they are within their constitutional rights to express themselves, but they have crossed the boundary I seek to maintain between “may” and “ought.”
It is already tiresome to talk about Richard Spencer, and talking about him gives him oxygen of which he ought to be deprived. But whether out of puckish theatrics (as he claims) or the echoes of bigotry (a more widely-held position), his language and behaviors in promoting Donald Trump make most Americans uncomfortable about their safety and security. (No, I can’t quantify that, but I only need 50% plus one, so I am pretty confident.)
Corey Stewart, who chairs the county board of Prince William, Virginia, has the dubious distinction of getting fired from his state chairmanship of the Trump campaign for being too extreme. He wants to be the next governor of the Commonwealth. To promote his campaign, he announced the raffle of an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. That is the type (if not exact model) of weapon used in the attacks in San Bernadino, Newtown, Orlando, and Aurora and, incidentally, in Prince William County itself during the siege laid by the Washington-area sniper. Why? Because he can, he says. Mr. Trump has not commented.
If the President-Elect can claim arm’s length from the two characters above, he has less credibility in discounting Carl Paladino. Responding to a poll about hopes for 2017 in a local paper, the Buffalo school board member wrote that he hoped President Obama would die of mad cow disease and that “I’d like [Mrs. Obama] to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.” The best defense he can come up with is that it was meant to be a private joke, not a public statement. Mr. Trump has a long relationship with Mr. Paladino who calls himself an ally and advisor. No comment from Mr. Trump.
It is entirely possible that none of these yahoos will get any closer to the White House than Jeremiah Wright or Bill Ayres, in which case the concerns about them (and others) will slink away to the corner of leftist bigotry that mirrors the litter box on the right. In that case, those of us with reservations about the character and values of our next president will have to choose to acknowledge misplaced concern or become just as reprehensible as birthers and conspiracy theorists.
The measure of any presidency is the state of the union. There is a referendum on how it is going every two years, and an absolute endpoint. But in the process, one of the metrics is the company he keeps. I will try to keep my mind as open as my eyes.
I wound up in a somewhat contentious argument with a friend of mine that opened my eyes to a challenge that Jews face, particularly in the United States. It is not a new dilemma, but it is clear to me in a way I did not understand before.
For many years I have taught that Jews were not just a religion, we were also a civilization, a people, a community. For almost as many years, I have heard my friends and acquaintances who profess other faiths or no faith at all insist that their own faith or philosophy was the same—not just an internal landscape, but a mandate to live life in a particular way.
Ah, I would respond, channeling Rabbi Harold Kushner’s insight, but your community is the result of your faith. Our faith is the result of our community. And I would point to the Bible: we were a people, the Children of Israel, with a national history before we arrived at Mt. Sinai and were given a reason to believe and behave. Moreover, our analogs among the others in the Bible were Edomites, Arameans, Philistines, Egyptians – people defined by territory, not by creed.
I can’t deny we have built an infrastructure of religion that is as complicated and ornate as any cathedral or illuminated Qur’an. And our rallying cry is not (really) “the People Israel lives!” It is “Hear, o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” (If you are counting, God gets three mentions to Israel’s one.) And, perhaps most important, if you want citizenship in this people, which is indeed open to persons of any origin, then you must enter through the doors of faith. You cannot be naturalized into our people any other way.
So far, I haven’t written anything that was not said more persuasively and at greater length by the incomparable Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. And this brief essay is supposed to be about politics, not about being a rabbi. So on to the politics.
My contentious argument began when my friend referred to the State of Israel as theocratic. He insisted that a Jewish state inherently disabled non-Jews from being full participants, in the same way that the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia made anyone who was not a Muslim an automatic second-class citizen.
I objected strenuously. He was understanding the descriptor “Jewish” as a religion. I was certain that it is a nationality. “The term ‘Jewish state’ is much closer to ‘Irish’ than ‘Muslim,’” I said.
My friend is really smart, but this line of argument did not penetrate. And the more I thought about it, the more I understood. Especially in the United States – maybe almost exclusively in the United States (okay, Napoleon’s France, too) – Jews have embraced the notion that they could be just like everyone else by compartmentalizing Jewishness into Judaism and treating it like a faith. Never mind that an enormous percentage of Jews in America do not practice that faith and a substantial number who practice the faith do not believe in its strictures.
We want it both ways. When it comes to civil liberties and religious freedom, we claim our Jewishness as a faith. But when it comes to our political concerns, especially about Israel, then it is peoplehood (ethnicity, national heritage, cultural identification) that we claim.
But whereas we can make these transitions back and forth between meanings, the rest of America is at a loss. We sound like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland: When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.
The result is an escalation of resentments and the exchange of accusations of anti-semitism and religious chauvinism between Jews and non-Jews on the political left.
Then there is the corollary problem on the political/religious right. People of deep “traditional” faith who support Israel out of a religious commitment have an expectation that God will play a role in the conduct of Middle East statecraft and foreign affairs that is mostly absent from American Jewish (and Israeli) activists. When Jewish activists cultivate that support without disclaiming its rationale, an eventual breach is inevitable.
Finally, there are those for whom the fear of persistent anti-semitism demands that they find t, even where it does not exist. For them, the people who object to a Jewish state they do not understand are necessarily Jew-haters. In turn, those critics of Israel come to resent being called by a bigotry they do not believe they practice – a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I am not a believer in blaming the victim. Jews are not responsible for anti-semitism and an Israel that is neither progressive nor religious enough is not responsible for the expectations of its American observers. But these perceptions are indeed a Jewish problem. The confusion of meanings is something we Jews must address, and our own ambivalence about how to understand “Jewish” is a good place to start. Until those of us who are Jews in America can explain things to ourselves, we can’t presume that anyone else will understand them to our satisfaction.
Editor’s note: The upset victory by Donald Trump in the 2016 elections stunned a Jewish activist and leadership class that is at times as divided as the electorate at large. JTA asked some of those leaders to describe their concerns and expectations in a series of brief essays titled “Worst fears, best hopes,” that will appear regularly between now and Inauguration Day.
(JTA) — I fear that the Donald Trump we saw in the campaign will be the person who serves as our next president.
We are just now starting to see what the incoming administration will look like, but already the choice of Stephen Bannon as chief strategist is a clear indication that concerns about Trump — among Jews and people of all faiths and no faith — are well-founded. The earnest discussions of my younger days about hypothetical changes to civil rights laws and protections are no longer intellectual exercises.
Time is of the essence. We cannot afford to wait and see if President Trump makes good on his campaign promises to roll back religious freedom protections, LGBT rights, protections against discrimination, the rights of Muslim Americans and so much more. And we have already seen that the “religious right” is willing to be complicit in the face of bullying and bigotry if its agenda of legislating love and intimacy is supported.
The Interfaith Alliance and others are working to unite diverse voices to challenge extremism and build common ground. The country is in desperate need of reconciliation and healing even as we stand guard against efforts to undermine precious rights and freedoms. My firm belief is that what unites us is far more powerful than what divides us, and no president is powerful enough to change that fact.
For that to remain a reliable truth, we must listen to and protect each other.