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Guest column by Rabbi Justin David: Anti-Semitism now part of Trump’s political brand

  • President Donald Trump speaks with reporters before boarding Air Force One at Morristown Municipal Airport in Morristown, N.J., Sunday, Aug. 18. AP

Published: 8/27/2019 7:00:08 PM

As of Aug. 20, President Donald Trump has made anti-Semitism an explicit feature of his political brand, much as he has done with racism and xenophobia directed at Latinxs, immigrants, Muslims and African-Americans.

In response to a question from a reporter regarding Israel’s decision to refuse admission to Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, President Trump stated that Jews who vote Democratic are guilty of either ignorance or “great disloyalty.”

President Trump’s subsequent clarification that such Jews were being disloyal to Israel, as opposed to him or toward America, is meaningless. By raising the specter of “disloyalty,” Trump has unleashed a historic and enduring suspicion attributed to Jews in every culture in which they have lived.

And in the current context, Mr. Trump’s comments can only embolden the white supremacists who perpetuate acts of violence against the groups our president has singled out for ridicule and humiliation.

Observers have already implicated our president in the rise of racist and anti-Semitic violence since his election. In February of this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report documenting a record number of hate groups in 2018. The number was the culmination of a three-year rise beginning in 2016 with the Trump presidency, following a three-year decline in the last years of Obama’s term.

Most tragically, a number of news outlets reported how the shooters at the synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, California, and just this month in El Paso, Texas, all referenced the ideas, general rhetoric, and at times, the specific language deployed by our president to demonize immigrants, Muslims and people of color.

Until now, Jews have not been an explicit part of Trump’s dehumanizing litany, save for the oblique references to “elitists,” “globalists” and George Soros. But for white supremacists, they didn’t need to be. As the civil rights strategist Eric K. Ward has observed in his article, “Skin in the Game,” white supremacist ideology assigns Jews the critical role of linchpin in the destruction of white civilization.

According to white supremacists, the Jews reap the material benefits of white culture in order to subvert it. Able to pass in white society, the Jews draw on their affinity with black people and immigrants to undermine the culture that has given them power in the first place.

In this manner, the ideology of white supremacy already views Jews as “disloyal,” as they live in white society and make it their own, while at the same time seek to destroy it. Now their suspicions have been confirmed by our president, and they will most certainly ignore his attempt to clarify the supposed context of his remarks.

One might object that President Trump has pulled no trigger and so bears no direct responsibility. But in Jewish tradition, indirect responsibility, particularly when lives are at stake, incurs a burden as grave as direct responsibility.

In the biblical Book of Deuteronomy (Chapter 21), we read of a situation where a corpse is found between two cities, and no evidence exists of the cause of death or who the murderer might have been. To remove the stain of bloodguilt, the elders of the closest city perform a ritual in which they proclaim, “Our hands did not shed this blood and our eyes did not see.”

The first clause, “Our hands did not shed this blood” absolves the community of direct responsibility and the second clause, “our eyes did not see” removes the burden of even indirect responsibility. Otherwise, why would the elders include it in the ritual of expiation?

The Rabbis of the Talmud, writing during the 3rd-5th Centuries C.E., take pains to emphasize the burden of indirect responsibility. In the Talmud’s interpretation of this case, the elders never assumed that one of their own would have directly killed a person in cold blood. Rather, they were concerned that the hosts of the now dead person may have failed to accompany him through an open field, leaving him vulnerable to marauders. Or, that he approached the citizens of the town for charity in the form of food or shelter, but they turned him away, leaving him vulnerable to those who wish to do him harm.

Therefore, according to the rabbis of the Talmud, even if the citizens of the city did not murder the person, their negligence and failure to protect him render them as culpable as if they actually killed him. In the rabbis’ vision of the world, indirect responsibility for another’s welfare appears to carry the same weight as direct responsibility.

It is alarming to note that while the rabbis of the Talmud envision a case of possible negligence, our president’s rhetoric toward Jews, and of course toward Muslims, people of color and immigrants, entail intention and volition.

Even if Mr. Trump’s proclamations are acts of impulse, they carry with them the authority of the presidency and the voice of the electorate who voted for him. And if our president has deployed his language strategically, then we have no choice but to recognize how he builds his political capital on the backs of those most historically and easily targeted, and therefore most vulnerable.

Either way, he bears the moral burden for the lives that have been lost, disrupted and put in future danger in the climate of hatred fostered by his words. It is our responsibility to hold him accountable.

Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B’nai Israel inNorthampton.

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