It has been a terrible week for America. A horrifying week. Disastrous in every way.
For the briefest period of time, those of us who had feared Mr. Trump thought that perhaps, just perhaps, he not would turn out to be a political bomb-thrower but a quirky maverick. To be sure, he would be a conservative, but a constructive one, with some healthy populist instincts and a real desire to move America forward.
But in a period of less than a single week, he proved us utterly wrong. With a series of speeches and executive orders, he showed himself to be every bit as erratic, irrational, narcissistic, and cruel as we thought that he would be. The week was filled with disastrous mistakes, from a gloomy and dark inaugural address to an absurd squabble with Mexico over the border wall.
The centerpiece of the Trump agenda, of course, was his executive order temporarily banning refugees and anyone from seven majority-Muslim countries from coming to America. And the worst part of this order was not even that it was an affront to American values and a heartless attack on the world’s most desperate people. The worst part was that it was unrelated to the goals that it was supposedly devised to serve. Instead of making America safer and discouraging violence, it is certain to increase extremism, encourage terror, and undermine America’s position throughout the world.
Why then is he doing it? Since the President is uninformed but not stupid, the only answer that makes sense is that he is doing this to fire up his base, intimidate his enemies, and send a clear message about his bulldozer approach to American politics. Even if his refugee ban is allowed to expire or is halted by the courts, Mr. Trump wants Americans to know that he does not feel obligated to play by normal political rules.
Some in the American Jewish community may feel that this has little to do with them, and some may even welcome the President’s actions. But they misunderstand what is happening. This week has been a very bad week for America but no less bad for American Jews and Israel. Note the following.
1. The crazies are in charge
President Trump has a diverse set of advisors, with voices ranging from responsible conservatives to oddballs and maniacs. This week’s events have demonstrated that Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has emerged as the most influential voice in his entourage. It is Bannon who has shaped the message of Islamophobia that was the dominant theme of the refugee ban. And in a separate action, almost as shocking, President Trump put Bannon on the National Security Council while removing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence. Replacing the country’s top military and intelligence officials on the NSC with a political operative is unheard of and absurd.
Trump is the least prepared President in America’s history, and Bannon now appears to be the man who, more than any other, has his ear. And why is this bad for the Jews? Because Bannon came to political prominence as chairman of Breitbart.com, a website with racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic perspectives.
2. Trump has succeeded in making some of the most radical elements of the Muslim world look reasonable
As innumerable commentators have pointed out, the Trump refugee and immigrant ban will infuriate moderates in the Arab and Muslim world, will be used against America’s friends there, and will be exploited by jihadists to prove that America is anti-Muslim. Sensing an opportunity, Iran quickly issued a statement calling Trump’s decision “an obvious insult to the Islamic world” and “a big gift to extremists and their supporters.” While reciprocating with a ban against Americans wanting to enter Iran, the Iranian Foreign Minister noted that “unlike the U.S., our decision is not retroactive. All with valid Iranian visas will be gladly welcomed.” The winner in this exchange in the eyes of the world: The theocratic, Israel-hating government of Iran.
3. Most Jews protested the President’s policies, but some chose denial
American Jews were mostly focused on the refugee question, but their attention also turned to another monumental misstep by the Trump administration: The White House statement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day issued last Friday included no reference to Jews or anti-Semitism. Denunciations came from most quarters, including the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Anti-Defamation League. But incredibly, the World Jewish Congress defended the White House and criticized the ADL. Ronald Lauder, WJC President, said that the ADL’s comments, which were if anything overly mild, were an effort to “play politics” with the memory of millions of murdered Jews.
At other times, this would be unthinkable: A major Jewish organization defends a Presidential statement that recalls the horrors of the Holocaust but makes no mention of Jews. The WJC, a usually worthy organization, is here engaging in institutional self-degradation.
4. President Trump’s Jewish family members remained silent
Once again, outraged articles are appearing in the Jewish media, asking why the President’s Jewish son-in-law is not raising his voice, affirming the lessons of Jewish history, and protesting the refugee policy. Isn’t he the grandson of a Jewish refugee?
The problem, of course, as I have noted before, is that the Jewish press keeps getting sucked into the story of Trump’s Jewish children – the handsome, wealthy son-in-law and his beautiful wife, the president’s daughter, who has converted to Judaism. The assumption is made that, somehow, they represent Jews and Judaism in the White House. But they don’t. And President Trump neither loves nor hates Jews. The point is that his children notwithstanding, he has no special interest in Jews or Judaism. If he did, he would not be relying on Steve Bannon.
5. Prime Minister Netanyahu bungled his response to the week’s events
Netanyahu tweeted that President Trump is right to build a wall on the Mexican border, noting that Israel had built a wall on its southern border, successfully stopping illegal immigration. But the tweet was a mistake. It sparked outrage in Mexico, and even worse, infuriated Democrats, Hispanics, and most American Jews, who saw it as a politically partisan act. While it is true that America is Israel’s patron and that Netanyahu needs good relations with Trump, the tweet was gratuitous. The Trump administration had no expectation of public support from Israel, and discreet silence would have been the preferable path.
So, all in all, a bad week for all concerned. President Trump began his term as inauspiciously as possible, assaulting the Constitution and embracing immigrant bashing and strident xenophobia. The fact that he disguised his actions as patriotism made them no less obscene, for American Jews and all Americans.
But after this terrible week, the question is: What will we Jews do now? Some are saying that the American people are just too dumb or too passive or too immoral to share their outrage; after all, didn’t they elect Trump in the first place? And some of them are abandoning politics altogether. But most Jews, like a majority of Americans, are not accepting the moral blindness of their President that they saw this week. They are marching on Washington, demonstrating at airports, and raising their voices to defend the Constitution and the Republic. This too is what we saw this week, reflecting the decency, fairness, and compassion of Jewish values and American ideals. And this, I believe, is what we are likely to see every week for the next four years.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie
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