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When Will Orthodox Jews Stop Defending Our Bullying, Lying, Racist President?

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An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past a poster welcoming and supporting US President Donald Trump in downtown Jerusalem, on May 19, 2017
An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past a poster welcoming and supporting US President Donald Trump in downtown Jerusalem, on May 19, 2017Credit: THOMAS COEX/AFP
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

It isn't surprising at all that President Trump’s initial response to the racist tweets of Roseanne Barr dealt solely with his own grievances against ABC.  The President made no reference to the substance of Ms. Barr’s obscene comments.

Our president, alas, is a racist. 

He rose to political prominence by attributing Kenyan citizenship to our country’s first African American president, he began his political campaign by describing Mexicans as rapists, and he has used derogatory and profane language in referring to Nigeria and Haiti. 

There is compelling evidence, in fact, that throughout his adult life, Mr. Trump has been obsessed with hatred and contempt for people who are not white.

But as I read about the President’s latest affront to people of color, I found myself asking not about Trump but about the Jewish response to Trump, particularly in the Orthodox world. How, I wondered, would this incident be discussed in America’s Orthodox day schools, Hebrew schools, and yeshivot? When children who are old enough to understand ask about it, what will they be told? 

I realize, of course, that not all Orthodox Jews are Trump supporters.  Still, according to the data that we have, the two groups most supportive of the President are Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews, both of which would appear to hold views that conflict with those of the President in multiple ways.

Jonathan Tobin in The Jewish Week offers a concise summary of why traditionally-oriented religious Americans, both Christian and Jewish, can be enthusiastic supporters of Trump. Like every other group, Tobin notes, they weigh the costs and benefits of backing a candidate, and then make a rational choice that does the most to advance the causes they see as most important. 

Sleazy personal behavior is an issue, of course, as it was for liberals when Bill Clinton’s personal scandals were revealed. But, Tobin tells us, Evangelicals will continue to support the President if he keeps his promise to appoint conservative judges, oppose abortion, and defend religious liberty, and Orthodox Jews will continue to support him if he backs Israel unequivocally.

It is not that Trump’s vulgar bullying is irrelevant. But while regrettable, it does not impact governing. And both history and religious tradition teach us the need to have realistic expectations of our leaders, who are often flawed human beings. And just as liberals stuck with Clinton despite evidence of his infidelities, conservatives can be expected to do the same with Trump.

Roseanne Barr on stage at the Comedy Central "Roast of Roseanne" at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles. Aug. 4, 2012 Credit: JOHN SHEARER/INVISION/AP

Agudath Israel's Rabbi Avi Shafran supported this line of reasoning.  According to Shafran, "many Americans, for better or worse and accurately or not, assume that candidates for office and elected officials are far from moral  paragons, and vote based on issues important to them." In other words, flawed leaders are the norm and not the exception, and voters will be much more concerned with policy than with personal behavior. 

Catholic thinker W. David Montgomery made a similar point regarding practicing Catholics and Evangelicals Protestants. We live "in an imperfect world," he wrote, "inhabited by imperfect humans." And he suggested that God does not always select flawless individuals to carry out his plan; David, the greatest of the kings of Israel, had Bathsheba.   

If this argument sounds defensive and unconvincing, it is. 

Utilitarian arguments have their place. But just as Michael Gerson has written that Christianity must be more than prudential calculations, I would suggest that the same is true of Judaism. To do otherwise is to strip Judaism of both its transcendent morality and its enduring majesty. 

But let’s begin at the beginning. Is it even true that Trump can be assumed to be a great friend and long-term ally of Israel? I support his decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, and Ambassador Haley has been a strong pro-Israel voice at the U.N. 

But all of the larger issues remain unresolved. The situation in Syria is uncertain, at best. Trump’s isolationist sentiments and deference to Russia pose many potential dangers for Israel. And while the Iran deal was deeply problematic, it is far from clear where American withdrawal from the deal will lead. In two years, a far better deal may be in place, or Iran may have restarted its nuclear program while a blustering American president makes empty threats.

Therefore, the first question to ask Jewish apologists for Trump is this: Are you suggesting that, because of the practical advantages that will accrue to Israel, we should be silent and set aside the Jewish values of piety, modesty, truth, and derech eretz (civility)? And can you even be sure that these advantages are real? 

U.S. President Donald Trump makes a fist as he boards Air Force One after attending the National Rifle Association (NRA) Convention in Dallas, Texas U.S., May 4, 2018Credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS

Is it not just as likely that our deeply imperfect President – a liar, a bully, a racist, and a sexual harasser – will ultimately betray Israel and the Jews, just as he has betrayed so many others?

The second question is: Even if Israel does benefit, isn’t it the responsibility of Jewish leaders and teachers to speak truth to power? The point of the Bathsheba story in 2 Samuel is that the prophet Nathan, seeing the injustice of King David’s actions, rose to reprimand the king and demand justice.  Following their discussion of evil doers, Nathan pointed to David with an accusing finger and proclaimed: "That man is you!" 

Israel requires American support, but Israel’s cause is just and her supporters are many. And rabbis and teachers, drawing on the full weight of their Torah learning and spiritual discipline, must be prepared to do as Nathan did. Absent that, their Judaism is useless, an empty vessel offering no hope. 

And the third question is: What is our responsibility to the young? 

Jewish children, including Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox children, are aware of the president’s actions. They know he has dispensed with ethical pretense. They know that he has introduced the words "pussy" and "shithole"  into everyday political discourse.  They know that he has been a shameless tax evader.  They know that he has made wildly inappropriate sexual comments about his elder daughter. They know that he regularly resorts to profanity and ridicule in characterizing his political enemies.  They know that outrageous, reprehensible, and boorish behavior have become the default position for the current occupant of the White House. 

Marc Zell, co-chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel speaks as the Republican Party launches its first ever election campaign in Israel, in Modiin. Aug. 15, 2016 Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP

And all that being so, can we in the Jewish community, and can leaders of the Orthodox community, simply say, "Never mind, all of this is good for Israel?" Can we really tell our children, and expect them to accept, that supporting this President is the "prudent" thing to do? 

We cannot. Israel is vitally important, and defending her security is non-negotiable; but Israel has friends other than President Trump who will speak up for the justice of her cause. 

And those of our children who have studied Torah will look at the President Trump and then throw back at us the words of tradition: "He who shames his associate in public has no place in the world to come" (Avot 3:15). "You shall not deal falsely or lie one to another" (Lev. 19:ll). "The commandment of civility - derech eretz - preceded the Torah” (Lev. Rabbah 9:3).  "Do not have carnal relations with your neighbor’s wife and defile yourself with her” (Lev. 18:20). And on and on.

And they will ask: Are all of these texts just meaningless words? Are they meant as simply a political tactic, to be discarded when convenient to do so? 

And when they ask, we must answer them truthfully. Everyone in the Jewish community, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, must stop defending the indefensible. We must not be accomplices to the lies, bullying, and profane braggadocio of our president.

At this critical moment in American history, American Jews must not let cowardice define us. We must refuse to be silent.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie

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