One of the most joyous scenes in “Fiddler on the Roof” is also one of the most foreboding. Having just announced the impending marriage of his daughter, Tevye cautiously accepts the congratulations of a Cossack and together they raise a glass “to life.”
A few scenes later, the Cossacks storm the wedding on orders from the Tsar and by the end of the show, the Jews are fleeing pogroms in Anatevka.
Another tyrant, another attempt at ingratiation, another exile. It is the cycle of our history, moving from one authoritarian ruler to the next, living peacefully for a period perhaps, but ultimately targeted and uprooted. The rulers we continuously escape bear a striking resemblance: Pharaohs, Kings, Tsars, Fuhrers – absolute monarchs, despots, dictators.
For the first time in American history, we are on the cusp of electing such a leader. For the past year and a half, Donald Trump has, again and again – at rallies, in his convention speech, during debates and nearly nightly on Twitter – demonstrated a disregard for America’s democratic institutions and the democratic process.
He has taken one of America’s political parties hostage and, in the process, fashioned himself a lone savior. And Jews don’t do saviors.
Those of us concerned with policy and ideology have received a raw deal in this election. Instead of two competent candidates sparring on solutions, we are faced with the emergence of a ghost from our recent past: a would-be American Tsar.
He is the same man who many of our ancestors fled just a century ago, like Tevye, escaping Eastern European pogroms or persecution in the Arab world to arrive at Lady Liberty’s torch or the shores of the Holy Land. Have we forgotten so soon?
In his exploitation of national anxiety and economic vulnerability, his demonization of minorities and personal threats against anyone who disagrees with him (the leaders of his own party even more so than his Democratic opponent), Donald Trump is the text-book embodiment of a demagogue. (Not to mention his disconcerting admiration for Tsar Putin.)
American Jews may be rightly skeptical of the efficacy and future of the Iran Deal. We may have valid criticisms of Barack Obama’s handling of ISIS, the war in Syria, and America’s withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.
We may be frustrated by his administration’s tense relationship with the Israeli government (though there would be nothing worse for Israel than an isolationist, discredited America under Trump).
But to register those concerns with a vote for an American Tsar is to ignore the profound pain such rulers have inflicted on our people throughout our history. It is to betray the experience of our ancestors. It is to have learned nothing.
Those who dismiss Trump’s degradation of immigrants, Muslims, the disabled and women as merely “telling it like it is” or “locker room talk” should be prepared to accept that same argument when Jews are indicted, as we already are.
Many of Trump’s rants about the so-called “rigged” election evoke a historically familiar conspiracy of “global elites” and “international banking interests.” In a recent attack ad, this was illustrated by the Jewish trifecta of businessman and philanthropist George Soros, Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellin and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.
This comes on the heels of months of virulent attacks on Jewish journalists on social media by Trump supporters and the unsettling rise of the alt right, an extreme right group who “reject mainstream conservatism in favor of forms of conservatism that embrace implicit or explicit racism or white supremacy,” according to the Anti-Defamation League, which has been tracking and condemning the movement’s growth.
It is inexplicable that Jews who are concerned about growing anti-Semitism abroad can ignore its signs at home. It is not that Trump himself has an explicit anti-Semitic agenda or that American Jews are at any risk of expulsion.
But Jewish history tells us that a leader who tolerates such antics is not our friend – Trump has more than tolerated his extremist followers, he has indulged them. And Ivanka is not our Queen Esther.
Until recently, the Jewish people had spent much of our existence under the rule of men like Donald Trump. Now that another one is on the ballot before us, our history demands that we reject him. In America, unlike Anatevka, we are thankfully free to do so.
On Tuesday, Jewish Republicans must decide if they will honor that history by putting partisan politics aside and refusing to repeat it, or if they will choose to raise a glass to an American Tsar instead.
Brian Schaefer is a contributor to Haaretz, based in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @MyTwoLeftFeet.
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