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Trump's Visit Will Sully Israel's Sacred Landmarks

At Masada, a symbol of Jewish resistance, the unintended ironies of the U.S. president’s attempt to profit from a historic opposition to tyranny will abound

Samuel G. Freedman
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Visitors to Masada. Credit: Bloomberg
Samuel G. Freedman

Without even trying too hard, I recently clicked my way to a website called ibride.com, which was offering tourists all-included wedding packages at Masada. A short time later, I stumbled onto the photograph of a Jewish couple from Montreal being married there during a solidarity mission. Then there was the wedding announcement last year in The New York Times about two American Jews who had met decades earlier as teenagers taking part in the same mass b’nai mitzvot ceremony atop Masada.

That love might be consecrated at a desert fortress most famous for mass suicide apparently presents less of a problem than one might imagine. Indeed, for diaspora Jews, Masada supplies all sorts of attractions – archeology, history, concerts, sound-and-light shows. Every Birthright contingent hiking up the trail is saying, hey, we’re not just some soft Americans, we’re tough as sabras.

Collectively, it is estimated that Masada is second only to Jerusalem as a tourist destination in Israel, and it is simple enough to understand why. To make a pilgrimage to the promontory high above the Dead Sea is to commune with the Zionist ancestors, those 960 Jewish rebels who chose death at their own hand over capture by besieging Roman troops in 74 C.E.

Never before, though, has Masada seen quite the spectacle of Donald Trump’s impending speech there. His planned presence turns the symbol of resistance to tyranny into an emblem of the intolerance he feeds in the United States - and civilizational war.

Yes, pandering for the American Jewish votes and donations by visiting, or at least invoking, Israel is well-practiced political habit. As presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also visited Masada. When Barack Obama was running for the White House, he made the requisite trip to Sderot to demonstrate support for Israel against Hamas’s rocket fire. His opponent in 2012, Mitt Romney, interrupted his campaign to swing through Jerusalem for a de facto endorsement by Benjamin Netanyahu. 

La Traviata at Masada.
La Traviata at Masada.Credit: Yoav Pally

Under the tutelage of his day-school bochur son-in-law Jared Kushner, candidate Trump was schooled in all the predictable talking points, and in rare cases of staying on the Teleprompter message, he obediently delivered them. Obama was a disaster for Israel. The Iran deal has to be torn up. The embassy will be moved to Jerusalem. Settlements aren’t the problem. 

These rote recitations conveniently meshed with one of the few clear precepts that Trump possesses: his conviction that the United States is at war with “radical Islamic terrorism.” The White House’s resident propagandist, Steve Bannon, has explicitly spoken in terms of a religious war pitting the Judeo-Christian West against the Muslim world.

As a result, fully one-quarter of American Jewish votes went to Trump. Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, has become Trump’s geopolitical BFF, cross-branding Israel with all of the president’s odious and hateful policies. 

So it makes plenty of sense that Trump would look to Israel’s right wing as his amen corner, even if those hawks are privately worried about his inconsistency. And what narcissist could resist the optics of holding a self-congratulatory rally on historically and spiritually hallowed ground? 

U.S. President Donald Trump appearing on stage at a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, April 29, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump appearing on stage at a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, April 29, 2017.Credit: CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS

If there’s one contemporary leader who most resembles the vain, suspicious, and megalomaniacal Herod, who was in his own time doing the bidding of a foreign power, it is surely Donald Trump. 

Maybe we should all be grateful that he didn’t ask to rent out Mount Sinai for the event.

There will be profound hypocrisy when Trump comes to Masada. This place’s appeal to him is solely as a monument to fortress Israel, garrison Israel, embattled Israel, aggressive Israel. The Roman legions of antiquity are now Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, ISIS, Al-Qaida. 

And in the Trump-Bannon world view, those genuine enemies are conflated with all the innocent refugees from Syria and Somalia and other Muslim nations whom the president has tried so hard to bar from the United States and with the millions of Muslim citizens already living in America. 

Just like the pudgy, winded, sunburnt American tourist slogging up the palisades of Masada to borrow some heroism from the Jewish past, Trump is the quintessential chicken-hawk, the bully-coward, getting off on somebody else’s military service and mortal risk. 

Trump received five draft deferments during the Vietnam War. He got no closer to combat than spending his high school years in a military academy. He named the pro football team that he briefly owned in the 1980s the New Jersey Generals. Then, as president, he appointed three actual generals to his Cabinet. Having five military fly-overs during his inaugural parade was not sufficiently martial for Trump; he tried, unsuccessfully, to put tanks and missile launchers into the procession. 

There is a concept in Judaism, running from the Torah through the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch, that human actions can be divided broadly into two categories. There are those that sanctify God’s name, kiddush Hashem; and there are those that desecrate God’s name, chillul Hashem.

We know by now that Donald Trump sullies everything he touches. In his expedient appropriation of Jewish martyrdom, he will create a new category of sin: chillul Masada.

Samuel G. Freedman, the author of “Jew vs. Jew” and other books, is a regular contributor to Haaretz. Follow him on Twitter: @SamuelGFreedman

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