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An Israeli Peacenik's Dilemma: How to Despise Trump While Praying for His Success

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"50 years is enough" sign, at an anti-occupation rally in Tel Aviv, May 27, 2017.
"50 years is enough" sign, at an anti-occupation rally in Tel Aviv, May 27, 2017.Credit: Moti Milrod
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

There were 15,000 people at the peace rally held in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, less than what many leftists would have wanted but more than what they dreaded. Attendance was up compared to similar rallies held in recent years, in which the Israeli peace camp has been drained of faith and motivation and mostly devoid of charismatic leadership as well. One of the main drivers of the increased turnout was, ironically, Donald Trump. His visit to Israel last week rekindled moribund hopes that all may not be lost and that Trump, warts and all, may be turn out to be the peace camp’s long-awaited redeemer. Which only proves, if any proof was needed, that God has a wicked sense of humor. 

Speaking to demonstrators at the rally, it was clear that many die-hard leftists were sheepish about their prospective savior. Unlike the majority of Israelis, perhaps, this crowd liked Barack Obama and probably shares much of American liberals’ disgust and disdain for Trump. Like their counterparts in the American-Jewish liberal wing, such as supporters of J Street, Israeli peaceniks in in Tel Aviv were hesitant to wish Trump success in his Middle East endeavors. Others expressed skepticism that someone like Trump could actually achieve what his more admirable predecessors had failed to. Some compromised by savoring the day that Trump, with whom they are not too familiar, will make life miserable for Benjamin Netanyahu, who is the greater evil as far as Israeli leftists are concerned.

The predicament is more acute for American Jews, of course. Unlike most Israelis, they are exposed to Trump’s negative features on a daily basis and are far more affected by his dangerous policies. For those who nonetheless wish to see a resolution of the Palestinian problem, profound moral questions are raised. If you believe that Trump is an arrogant rabble-rouser who could ruin America, is it proper to pray he will advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal? If you see him as self-centered, corrupt and racist, is it ethical to encourage him to pressure both sides to come to the negotiating table? If you think he should be impeached, is it dishonest to dread the day he is removed from office because his successor, evangelical Vice President Mike Pence, is likely to tilt toward Israel far further and abandon the peace process altogether?

A mass demonstration in Tel Aviv against 50 years of occupation entitled "Two States - One Hope". May 27, 2017Credit: Oded Balilty/AP

In fact, would you support a Trump-brokered peace deal even if you believed that the president’s policies are actually being formulated in the Kremlin? And what if making peace ensures Trump’s reelection in 2020 to a second term? Would you still think it worthwhile or would the cost outweigh the benefits?

All of which reminded me, with no direct comparison in any way shape or form, of Nicolae Ceausescu. The Romanian strongman was undoubtedly one of the 20th century’s worst dictators. He quashed free speech, abolished personal freedoms, imprisoned and tortured political opponents. His secret police, the Securitate, was all-powerful and brutal, even by Communist bloc standards. He impoverished his country. He made life miserable for all Romanians except those who belonged to his innermost circle. He ruled with an iron fist, gave absolute political power to his wife and son, pilfered billions of dollars from the state’s near-empty coffers and treated Rumania as his own private fiefdom. He ordered the demolition of a third of Bucharest to make way for his presidential palace and the grandiose boulevard that would lead to it.

But for many years, Ceausescu was a hero of the Jewish people. He was lauded for refusing to join other Eastern bloc countries that cut off diplomatic relations with Israel following the Six-Day War. He was praised for mediating between Israel and Anwar Sadat before the Egyptian president’s historic 1977 visits. He was esteemed for releasing the bulk of Romanian Jewry to immigrate to Israel, even after it was revealed that Jerusalem was paying him exorbitant fees for each liberated Jew. And he was placed on a Zionist pedestal for allowing Bucharest airport to be used as a transit point for emigrating Soviet Jews in a way that forced them to come to Israel and prevented them from seeking refuge in the West.  For this he was also paid $100 million dollars, as a personal bribe.

Nicolae Ceausescu and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1972.Credit: AP archive

Successive Israeli government held Ceausescu up as a role model, even though they knew all too well how despotic and corrupt his regime was. American-Jewish delegations went on pilgrimages to Bucharest and paid homage to Ceausescu’s determination and bravery. The pro-Israel lobby AIPAC worked energetically to persuade Congress to grant Romania trade concessions from the U.S. and was instrumental in securing it Most Favored Nation status. It was a mutually beneficial relationship: Ceausescu was good for Israel and the Jews and they repaid him generously.

Israelis and Jews justified their cozy relationship with Ceausescu with their overarching obligation to save as many Jews as possible in any way they can. Here, as in numerous other cases in which Israel fostered ties with loathsome regimes, the interests of the state were place high above any moral considerations.  Successive U.S. governments, as well as other Western European governments, also turned a blind eye to Ceausescu’s crimes because his independent foreign policy was a thorn in the side of the Kremlin. All of them, it can be argued, not only acquiesced in Ceausescu’s depraved reign of terror but actually legitimized it, covering the Rumanian dictator in a deceptive veneer of courage and respectability. For governments, at least, if not for people, realpolitik, expediency and self-interest usually win the day.

On a personal level, however, can a desired outcome ignore injustice incurred in its achievement? The Talmud grapples with the concept of a mitzvah ha’baa ba’aveira, that is with the validity of religious commandments that are fulfilled via the commission of a crime or concurrently with it. If you bless Hanukkah candles on a stolen menorah, is it acceptable? If you pickpocket someone and then give the proceeds to charity, will you be credited?  The answer, in principle, is no, based on the Book of Isaiah in which God is said to “hate robbery for burnt offering.” But generations of hair-splitting rabbis managed to narrow the scope of the rule, differentiating between crimes that are imperative to the mitzvah and those that aren’t or between commandments that are passive and those that are active. And achieving peace is undoubtedly a mitzvah, no?

Romanian government leader Nicolae Ceausescu receives applause at the last convention of the Communist party, November 1989.Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Nonetheless, the moral principle remains that supposedly good deeds cannot be used to justify or cover up bad ones. Another Talmudic principle is “tovel vesheretz beyado,” which literally means someone who is immersing in the ritual mikveh in order to purify himself while continuing to hold an impure insect in his hand. The Talmud makes clear that one cannot be absolved of one’s transgressions, no matter how admirable the repentance seems to be, if it entails a continuation of some of the forbidden behavior that made one impure in the first place.

Nonetheless, if Trump could bring peace to the Middle East, he’d arguably be saving countless lives and relieving untold misery, no matter what his motives are and whatever harm he’s causing elsewhere. In this case, if we stick to Jewish law, we can invoke the principle of Pikuach Nefesh, which is the trump card of halakha: Saving lives overrides all but the most sacred, core Jewish edicts. There will be many Jews, especially those who tend to be more religious and more to the right, who will claim, of course, that making peace with the Palestinians is the exact opposite of Pikuach Nefesh, endangering not only Israelis but the existence of the State of Israel itself. If Trump goes the other way, however, right-wingers will have no moral dilemma whatsoever: they will adore him for not making peace just as they will admire him for putting American liberals in their place.

Donald Trump at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

So can people who have yearned for peace all their lives despise Trump and yet wish him every success? The purely moral answer seems to lean to the negative, but David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin provided more pragmatic approaches when faced by similar dilemmas. Asked whether to stand by Great Britain despite the publication of the odious British White Paper of May 1939, which imposed severe restrictions on Jewish emigration to Palestine at a time when it was desperately needed, Ben-Gurion famously said: “We shall fight the White Paper as if there was no war against Hitler and we shall fight Hitler as if there was no White Paper.” Half a century later, Rabin paraphrased “We shall fight terror as if there is no peace process but we shall pursue peace as if there was no terror.” It is a concept, one must note, that ultimately proved untenable for Israeli public opinion and for Rabin himself, who was gunned down at the site of Saturday night’s demonstration

So perhaps this is the only viable middle ground for peace loving, Trump-hating American liberals and Israeli Jews. They should split their personality. They should oppose Trump and despise him as if he isn’t trying to achieve peace, and they should cheer him on and wish him every success in achieving peace as if he isn’t the ignorant, uncouth, mean-spirited tin-pot despot and possible Russian agent that he seems to be.

Israeli leftists demonstrate at an anti-occupation rally in Tel Aviv, May 27, 2017.Credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP