“But he’s good for Israel!” So goes the mantra repeated among Donald Trump supporters, many in the Orthodox Jewish world, both in the United States and Israel.
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That the Republican candidate for president of the United States has long shown that he is a bigot, a racist and a sexist has not seemed to faze this demographic of supporters. But will the pro-Trump mantra survive “TapeGate” and the revelation that he is not only vile and vulgar but also a self-avowed sexual predator?
Cynicism abounds: Nigel Farage of Britain’s hard-right pro-Brexit UK Independence Party has scoffed that Trump is not running for pope, while Trump’s campaign manager in Israel, Tzvika Brot, has helpfully pointed out that Trump is not running for chief rabbi.
Heads of state, apparently, are free to joke about groping women. This is what alpha males do, Farage went on to say, to paraphrase of Trump’s own excuse: a harmless bit of locker-room humor.
In the meantime, Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, who has been promoting an anti-pornography campaign (with Pamela Anderson!), tweeted that in the spirit of “the ten days of repentance” preceding Yom Kippur, Trump’s recent recorded conversation — kibitzing with Billy Bush about grabbing women’s genitals — should serve as a “wake-up call to the growing American pandemic of the exploitation of women.” However, Boteach, who has been called one of Trump’s top Jewish surrogates, has not withdrawn support, claiming to have publicly pleaded with Trump to run a “values-based campaign.” Apparently, as Trump confided to Bush, his fellow alpha male: “When you’re a star you can do anything.”
Boteach of course is not the only figure in the Jewish world who continues to embrace The Donald. The day after “TapeGate,” Israel Hayom, the newspaper backed by the right-wing American newspaper magnate Sheldon Adelson, led with Trump’s apology and "regret," seguing quickly into a diatribe against the "hypocrisy" of his critics.
Being Trump means never having really to say you’re sorry. Indeed Trump himself used his apology to pivot to an attack on Hillary: "Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims." Not surprising, given the confluence of stories, that Trump recently gave a shout-out to Adelson at a Nevada rally – "a great guy, Sheldon, Sheldon, Sheldon Adelson" – who put together a five million dollar donation for Trump’s Super-Pac, some suggest in exchange for a shifting of policy towards Israel.
But putting aside “ethos,” the Aristotelian notion that good character is necessary for a good ruler, or, for that matter, the Biblical association of modesty and humility with both leadership and kingship, Orthodox Jewish advocates of Trump — sometimes with no awareness of Western political traditions — fail to see how Trump deviates from the most basic standards of liberal democracy.
Of course, Jews have an awareness of Hitler and the Holocaust, but the latter occupies such a singular place in Jewish consciousness that leaders with similar totalitarian instincts, like Trump, are not even seen to be on the same continuum. You don’t have to read the Federalist Papers by America’s founding fathers, or John Locke’s Treatises, but if you don’t know the history of demagogues — for example, Huey Long, the dictatorial governor of Louisiana in the 1930s, or the anti-communist witch-hunter Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s — then you are in no position to evaluate Trump’s politics as manipulative thuggery, a betrayal of democratic principles.
This Orthodox lack of political sophistication is often combined with a cocktail of sexism (against the prospect of Hillary as President) and racism (against the memory of eight years of Obama as President), with a splash of general cynicism, indeed fatalism, about the efficacy of politics (“it can’t get any worse”). But what Jewish supporters of Trump miss — and here’s where knowing a demagogue when you see one matters — is that their words are only as good as the political moment they serve. Trump happily took Adelson’s money — though only last December, he snorted to a gathering of Jewish Republicans: “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.”
Trump prides himself on being a negotiator, but the ghostwriter of Trump’s “The Art of the Deal,” Tony Schwartz, says that if he had to retitle the work today, he’d call it “The Sociopath.” Israelis may be familiar with a prime minister seemingly motivated only by the preservation of his own power, but say what you want about Benjamin Netanyahu, he does have a political agenda. In contrast, Trump, a would-be leader with sociopathic tendencies whose own lawyers will only meet with him in pairs so as to later verify his words, has only the aim of self-glorification. Positions on political issues — is there one that Trump has maintained a consistent position on? — only serve what Schwartz calls Trump’s “stomp, stomp, stomp” need for attention.
Those Jews who today continue to utter the Trump mantra, somehow overlooking the principles of decency and morality originating at Sinai and codified in Jewish law, should take note: The demagogue cannot be trusted to keep his word. Trump, like demagogues before him, has no principles — only the desire for personal power. He will make deals, not for the benefit of Israel, nor for the Palestinians, but only for himself. So during these ten days of repentance, Orthodox Jews should indeed take stock and repent, stop hiding behind their pro-Israel mantra, and disavow Donald Trump.
William Kolbrener is Professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University, author of Milton’s Warring Angels (Cambridge 1996), and Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love (Continuum 2011); his The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition is recently published by Indiana University Press. Follow him on Twitter: @OMTorah