Donald Trump

Broken Clocks (on the U.S. Embassy Opening in Jerusalem)

Gen. Edmond Allenby dismounts from his horse and enters Jerusalem on foot, December, 1917.

Gen. Edmond Allenby dismounts from his horse and enters Jerusalem on foot, December, 1917.

I was wrong.

I was wrong in December when I wrote ambivalently about moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. At that time, I wrote that while of course Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, “sometimes it is better to be smart than to be right.”  It’s hard to admit being wrong, but I was.

And it’s even harder when the messenger is someone like President Donald Trump, who it seems is determined to wrap even the moments when he’s right with so much narcissism, abuse, and seventh-grade-bully smarminess that you just want to say, “what he’s for, I’m against.”

But you know the saying about broken clocks, and it is foolish to conclude that, just because another’s motives are suspect, they are actually wrong.

I was ambivalent about moving the embassy because I thought it was bad for Israel’s security, because I thought it would launch tirades of anti-Israel violence, and because I thought it would isolate American foreign policy as a broker in the Middle East.

I realize now that each of these premises was faulty. American isolation is following apace due to the Administration’s other “America First” policies and obnoxious diplomacy, not because of the embassy. But regarding Israel, in fact, a trickle of countries are tentatively indicating that they will follow the American lead and move their embassies as well (Guatemala, and possibly Honduras and Romania, although the Czechs seem to have changed their minds). This is a very good thing, and I hope we quickly reach a tipping-point of other countries following suit.

Further, the expected waves of violence in Arab countries did not follow. (The Hamas-inspired violence on Gaza’s border is not because of the embassy move. If anything, it is connected to the 70th anniversary of the Independence/Nakba, and the delusions that terrorism will reset the world’s clocks to a time when there was no Israel.) 

And I argued that moving the embassy was symbolic; no one’s life (except for the ambassador's) would be enhanced by moving it, so the risk of disaster outweighed the benefits of symbolism.

But symbols are important. Our religious and civic lives are full of symbolism. For instance, at the Brandeis graduation yesterday, I was struck again by how full of  “ancient” symbolism our academic exercises are (from caps and gowns—make sure your hood is the right color!—to the regalia that the university president wears, to the solemn intonation of an alma mater). Israelis understandably feel delegitimized by the refusal, even of allies, to acknowledge that Jerusalem is the authentic capital of the State—the place where, de facto, everyone knows the political and legal seats of government are.

The move really has nothing to do with Palestinians, and nothing to do with peace processes, or two states, or even preventing a future Palestinian state from having its capital in East Jerusalem.

So the administration was right—I daresay, even courageous in moving the embassy.

And I was wrong.  I just hope and pray that six months from now, I won’t be writing a blog that says, “I was wrong about being wrong.”

Because these people sure know how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead of approaching Jerusalem with modesty and humility, as when Gen. Edmond Allenby dismounted his horse and entered the City of Cities on foot in 1917, the embassy opened with triumphalism and backslapping. Instead of celebrating Jerusalem, they celebrate themselves.

“Modesty and humility” are incoherent to these people. (“When President Trump makes a promise, he keeps it,” said son-in-law Jared Kushner, the sort of sycophantic and self-serving comment we’ve come to expect in lieu of what could have been a moment of oratorical inspiration.) The presence of uber-racist pastors, the voices of the evangelical hard right, is obscene. So, too, was the presence of the pro-Israel but anti-Jewish millenialist reactionaries (hello, Michele Bachmann? Are these people really interested in reviving this lunatic’s career?).

Supporters of the Administration love quoting the Bible. Some of them even compare Donald Trump to a modern day Cyrus of Persia! (As if Zionist history never happened! As if we hadn’t already returned to the Land!)

They might consider other parts of the Bible, such as the words of Jeremiah. Over twenty-six hundred years ago, Jeremiah (7:1-15) warned about the hypocrisy of those who spend too much time mouthing praises of Jerusalem (“The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, The Temple of the Lord are these!!”, v.4) while simultaneously promoting injustice, moral perversion, and arrogance. Jerusalem demands morality, both personal and social. To behave otherwise is to mock its religious premise.

Moving the embassy is a very good thing. It should be accompanied by a set of moral values that represent city’s ancient heritage: a place for God to dwell among human beings, a place of seeking moral repair, and a place of yearning for real peace.

Nuclear Dreams

If you can stomach just a few more words about the State of the Union…

I have no intention here of analyzing Donald Trump’s speech—nor the First Lady’s clothes, the opposition’s behavior, or any of that nonsense. States of the Union are usually non-events, and this one was no different.

But there’s one part of his speech that chilled me to the bone, and in the newspapers and websites that I read, I didn’t see any particular mention of it.

He said:

As part of our defense, we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression. Perhaps someday in the future there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.

On the page, those words are grotesque enough. But there was an insidiousness to how he said it—especially that last sentence, which had a sickly, condescending tone. It triggered some old, primal fears.

I was a teenager in the 1980s, at the height of U.S.-Soviet anxieties. I’m sure I’m not the only one of my generation who remembers waking in the middle of the night from nightmares about nuclear war. Our schools and popular culture scared the hell out of us with the prospect of the annihilation of the planet.

My memories of ‘80s pop culture echo the helpless fear that our leaders would be “forced” by our enemies to use nuclear weapons—the ultimate weapons of mass destruction. Like a lot of ‘80s detritus, much of it today seems campy and silly—but we took it very seriously. 

For instance, my favorite movie around the time of my Bar Mitzvah was WarGames, which imagined that two computer nerds (with their crackling antediluvian modems and monochrome computer screens) could inadvertently set off a chain of events that would lead to war. Today, we giggle at some of the dialogue:

 “Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of chess?”
“Later. Let’s play global thermonuclear war.”

But back in 1983, it wasn’t so funny. It scared the hell out of us.

Pop music at the time got on the nuclear fear-stoking bandwagon, too. U2—when they were young, vaguely punky, and cutting-edge—recorded War and The Unforgettable Fire, which seemed to nod toward these themes. Pink Floyd released the vinyl quaalude The Final Cut, which droned on about nuclear apocalypse. Even a disposable act like Frankie Goes to Hollywood released a hit single called “Two Tribes” about the dangers of nuclear proliferation—this is what passed as dance music in those days!

In school, they gave us books like Alas, Babylon (a holdover of the previous generation’s atomic terror) which depicted the aftereffects of a nuclear war. But the worst, by far, was The Day After—a televised movie “event” that was considered so important that it was aired without any commercials! It was about the futility of survival after the nukes go off, because of the environmental cataclysm that comes afterwards, making the planet uninhabitable. By the end of the film, the blast’s survivors have succumbed to radiation poisoning, nuclear winter has started to settle in, and the extinction of the human race seemed assured. Everybody watched it; it was one of the highest-rated TV programs of all time.

This is what we were raised on. One night in June 1989 there was an explosion at the Hercules munitions plant in my hometown, shattering windows miles away. I remember falling out of my bed from the blast, but the worst part was the sheer terror that this was it:  it was so loud, surely that it meant that the Soviets had launched their nukes (and we all knew that Picatinny Arsenal, not far away, would be a primary target when doomsday actually came). I don’t think I’ve ever been so metaphysically terrified at any other time in my life.

Even as teens, we knew the numbers: that our nuclear arsenal was so large it could destroy the planet hundreds of times over. We couldn’t comprehend the logic: if we could only completely destroy the entire Soviet Union 178 times, was it really more of a deterrent to be able to wipe them out 212 times? 

Miraculously, the Soviet Union collapsed without any of these horrors coming to be, and the Doomsday Clock slipped backwards a few clicks from midnight. But I presume I’m not the only one who senses that keeping nukes out of the hands of terrorists and lunatics couldn’t be more important. It’s a big part of why I take Israel’s warnings about Iran’s nuclear threat so absolutely seriously: a nuclear weapon in the hands of an apocalyptic regime is the stuff of real nightmares.

So to hear the President speaking of the need to “rebuild” our nuclear arsenal triggers certain long-dormant reflexes in me. Conservatives and progressives alike should be able to find common cause in being able to restrain this insane return of a ghost that should be resting permanently in peace.

Jews, especially, should know that exponential power of nuclear weapons is a moral anathema. A tradition that demands that when you go to war, you must not destroy the fruit trees in enemy territory (Deuteronomy 20:19) should be appalled at the idea of devastating entire ecosystems with weapons of ghastly force.

Moreover, the standard interpretation of an obscure passage in the Talmud (Shevuot 35b) is that a war that would kill a massive number of civilians—a sixth of the population, an atomic proportion—is absolutely prohibited.

Furthermore… my God, do we have to do this? Do we really need religious prooftexts to say that we shouldn’t contemplate wreaking devastation on a planetary scale? Can we just call this one of those things that the Talmud considers סברא הוא, just plain common sense?

As Joshua said back in ’83—and everyone in Eisenhower Middle School in Roxbury, NJ could quote it—it is a strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

Of Course Jerusalem is Israel's Capital...

…but sometimes it’s better to be smart than right.

The Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a cynical political maneuver—but there are plenty of good, historical reasons why Jews may feel torn. Here’s my attempt to sort through the issues and to explain why something that should seem obvious on one hand is so profoundly disturbing on the other.

Plenty of people may find themselves saying, “Isn’t Jerusalem already Israel’s capital?”  And of course it is. All of Israel’s government offices are in Jerusalem, Israel’s largest city. So, too, are the Knesset and the Supreme Court. So is Hebrew University, the national university of Israel, founded in 1918. The office of the Chief Rabbinate, a reprehensible institution but a significant national one nonetheless, is likewise in Jerusalem.

Furthermore, spiritually speaking, there has never been any doubt in the Jewish mind about Jerusalem's status. Since the days of King David some 3,000 years ago, Jerusalem has been the earthly capital of Jewish worship. Of no other city did the Psalmist cry:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither
Let my tongue cleave to my palate if I cease to think of you,
If I do not keep Jerusalem in mind even at my happiest hour.
(Ps. 137:5-6)

For the Jewish soul, Jerusalem is home.

In a perfect world—of course the U.S. embassy should be in Jerusalem, the only capital of Israel.

So what’s the controversy?

When the United Nations in November 1947 voted to partition British Mandate Palestine into two states, a Jewish one and an Arab one, Jerusalem was considered too contested; it was to be internationalized. After the 33-13 U.N. vote passed, the Zionists accepted the plan and the Arab nations rejected it. (There were some enraged voices, especially from far-right nationalist corners of the Zionist movement, to reject the U.N. plan on the grounds that there could be no Jewish state without Jerusalem as its capital. David Ben Gurion sagely chose otherwise.)

When Ben Gurion and the Zionist leaders signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, it was an endorsement of the U.N. plan—the Declaration was signed in Tel Aviv, and the understanding was that Jerusalem would, indeed, be internationalized.

But the U.N.’s proposed boundaries never came to fruition. Within hours of Israel’s independence, she was attacked simultaneously by the surrounding Arab nations. When an armistice was reached the following year, Israel’s precipitous borders were somewhat expanded—and a foothold was established in Jerusalem, a lifeline to the thousands of Jews who lived there (and who were isolated, endangered, and on a few occasions, massacred during the War of Independence). Jerusalem was a divided city: the Old City and eastern neighborhoods of Jerusalem were under Jordanian rule; the western part of the city was Israeli. Into those western neighborhoods, the apparatus of the government moved.

After Israel’s stunning victory in the Six Day War in 1967, all of Jerusalem came under Israeli control. While the Muslim holy sites were handed over to the waqf—the Jordanian-controlled Islamic religious authority—both East and West Jerusalem became one Israeli municipality. Everywhere in the Jewish world, souls were stirred. The new anthem of the Jewish people became Naomi Shemer's Yerushalayim shel Zahav / "Jerusalem of Gold." 

But for most of the nations of the world, including the U.S., Jerusalem never gained its status as Israel’s capital, because they continued to cling to the 1947 U.N. Resolution 181 rather than comprehending that the status quo had irrevocably changed. 70 years later, that’s still the case.

The problem is precisely this: everything about Jerusalem causes passions to be inflamed. Even though many Jewish residents of the city have never stepped foot in the Palestinian neighborhoods such as Beit Safafa, Silwan, or Shuafat, there is a strong sense that Jerusalem can “never be divided again.”  And for Palestinians, Jerusalem is the inevitable capital of their state-in-waiting.

So there are threats. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has indicated that if the Trump Administration makes this move, it will pull the plug from the barely-on-life-support peace process. Worse, the implied threat is that the Palestinian street will go ballistic, launching, G-d forbid, a Third Intifada and new wave of violence and terror. That violence could easily spread beyond Israel.

On one hand, some supporters of Israel will understandably say—why should we allow the threat of terror to stop us from pursuing a goal that is ultimately right? Why would we cave in to that sort of blackmail?

But on the other hand—often it is better to be smart than to be right. What, really, is to be gained by this move, besides a sense of historic injustice corrected?

The danger of this spiraling out of control is real. No one’s life would be changed or improved by this symbolic U.S. recognition—but a lot of people’s lives could be devastated by the eruption of tensions. That is why one pro-Israel U.S. administration after another—Republican and Democrat alike—has put off making such a move as this. (I suspect that behind the scenes, the Israelis were nodding in assent. You really don’t hear about the Israelis making a big deal that U.S. embassy is not in Jerusalem—and for good reason.)

As scholar Micah Goodman has written in his important book Catch-67, the United States could be using its power to ease tension between Israelis and Palestinians, taking short-term incremental steps to build trust (rather than trying to force final stages of a peace process at this time). His book—a bestseller in Israel—offers concrete examples steps about how to do just that.

We should question the timing of this move:  Does it have anything to do with distracting attention from Donald Trump’s growing panic over the Justice Department investigation of possible collusion with Russia? Or with the increasing momentum in Israel of corruption charges against Prime Minister Netanyahu? And in a time of great tension between Israel and American Jews, over the Western Wall and pluralism issues in general, doesn’t the timing seem just a little self-serving for these politicians?

Whether or not the announcement is self-serving for the embattled politicos, all of us should pause to think about whether we want to be smart or right at this particular juncture.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 93b) maintains that one aspect of King David’s leadership was that he was mavin davar mitoch davar: that he could anticipate how one thing causally leads to another. Thoughtful leaders should know that their actions have consequences, both intended and unintended.

That is what this moment calls for. Sadly, tragically, we are not currently blessed with leaders who have this sense of foresight.

After Charlottesville

I’ve been reticent to write about the horrors of the past few days. Not because I haven’t been completely obsessed with it all; simply because I didn’t think I had anything new to contribute.

After all, when my family and neighbors and I were at our town’s rally against hate on Sunday night after Charlottesville, I was in kind of snarky mood. (It happens.) My overwhelming sense was: “Really? We still have to do this? We have to protest the KKK and American Nazis? In 2017?” What was running through my head that evening was the voice of John Belushi ז״ל: “I hate Illinois Nazis.”

And of course, I’m appalled by the moral black hole that is the Executive Branch of the government.

So I’ve read the articles (obsessively), and the op-eds, and the letters from rabbis to their communities, and the statements from community organizations—all of whom appropriately have expressed revulsion that Nazi slogans and symbols are resurging and that the White House can only muster half-hearted condemnation (at best; at worst, “they made me do it!”) of the most appalling people in America. The movement to normalize white supremacy in the highest level of governments is terrifying.  This meme by satirist Andy Borowitz kind of summed it up for me: “Man with Jewish Grandchildren Reluctant to Criticize Nazis.”

But it turns out that there are a couple of wrinkles I’d like to see get some more attention, so here goes:

(1)  The Jewish members of Trump’s inner circle—and I mean National Economic Council chairman Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin—what are they still doing there? They should follow the lead of the CEOs who resigned from presidential advisory councils and resign their posts. Collaborating with evil is evil; this is no time to say, “Well, maybe I can change things from the inside.” 

Just as it was the moral responsibility of Jewish board members to resign from the Carter Center when it became apparent that former President Jimmy Carter was irredeemably anti-Israel, there are bigger things at stake. You can’t say, “Well, in my little corner of the administration, we had a different agenda.” 

(2)  Domestic terrorism:  You don’t like American Nazis and the KKK? Great—that shouldn’t exactly be controversial.  But legislatively speaking:  Now we must be calling out the administration for its proposing to remove domestic groups from certain anti-terrorist organizations, in order to focus solely on Islamic terror. I don’t think this actually went into effect—this administration is insidiously non-transparent—but it did openly propose the idea. Reject it; make sure that lawmakers keep all these groups on domestic terror watchlists (and having the funding to do something about it).

(3)   Don’t change the subject. I was bemused to watch yesterday’s press conference with the President, where at the beginning, middle, and end of the questions-and-answers it was clear that he wanted to talk about anything other than Charlottesville. “How about a couple of infrastructure questions?” he kept asking to reporters who weren’t interested in discussing infrastructure while the residue of a Nazi march in Virginia lingered.

And kudos to right-wing pundits such as Charles Krauthammer, with whom I agree practically never.  But on Fox, Krauthammer wasn’t standing for any dissembling from Trump apologist Laura Ingraham:

Ms. Ingraham, a Trump supporter who has been courted by the White House, allowed that the president’s remarks might have hurt his agenda [my italics]. But she also offered a partial defense, saying of Mr. Trump, “He made some points that were factually right.”

Mr. Krauthammer retorted, “What Trump did today was a moral disgrace,” and said that the president had broken from his predecessors who recognized the history of civil rights.

“I’m not going to pass moral judgment on whether Donald Trump is morally on the same plane as you are, Charles,” Ms. Ingraham replied.

Don’t let them change the subject. That goes too for the likes of Rabbi Marvin Hier—whose moral blinders let him intone a bathetic prayer at the Inauguration—who this morning on CNN condemned Nazis, but tried as hard as he could to change the subject to Iran’s pursuit of nukes. Iran is a horror—but Hier's desire to talk about anything other than the topic at hand was pretty transparent.

We know what we have to do—stand with those of our neighbors who are most likely to be disenfranchised; have zero-tolerance for leaders’ racist dog whistles; sign petitions, attend rallies, write letters and op-eds. Remain aghast, don’t be silent. But I hope drawing out some of these points above is useful. 

And a reminder:  in this week’s Torah portion we read two seemingly contradictory verses:

אֶ֕פֶס כִּ֛י לֹ֥א יִֽהְיֶה־בְּךָ֖ אֶבְי֑וֹן
There shall be no needy among you (Deut. 15:4)

כִּ֛י לֹא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ
There will never cease to be needy ones in your land (Deut. 15:11).

Which is it? Will there be people in need in the future or not? 

Bible scholar Richard Elliott Friedman addressed this in his Torah commentary: Verse 11 doesn’t mean that there will always be people in desperate straits; the Hebrew word yehdal ("cease") means that it won’t come to a stop on its own. If you want suffering to disappear, you’ve got to do something about it, reaching out to hurting brothers and sisters.

So it is with extreme hate. It isn’t just going to go away—not unless people of good faith come together and clearly articulate our vision of a decent and just society, and demand that elected leaders make it so.

Jerusalem, A Fractured Unity

Yom Yerushalayim 5777

As Jerusalem recovers from President Trump’s whirlwind visit, the city moves on to its next milestone. As evening falls, we celebrate the fiftieth Yom Yerushalayim / Jerusalem Day.

In fact, the Trump team’s quick departure is timely, because its visit inadvertently raised doubts about the very meaning of Yom Yerushalayim. 

In the days leading up to the President’s arrival, controversy was stirred as one of his advisors reportedly told the Israelis, “The Western Wall is not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank.” Subsequently, members of the administration both refuted and tacitly affirmed the remark. And while the President indeed made history by visiting the Kotel, his rebuff of Prime Minister Netanyahu who wanted to join him at the Wall only made his actual position more inscrutable.

Apparently, even though the state is 69 years old and Jerusalem has been united under Israeli sovereignty for 50 years, there remain those who doubt the city’s status as the legitimate capital of Israel.

Under the U.N. partition plan of 1947, Jerusalem was supposed to be an internationalized city. After the War of Independence, the city was bifurcated; Jordan ruled its eastern half and all of the Old City, and the western part of the city was controlled by Israel. The national institutions of Israel—including the Knesset, Supreme Court, and residences of the Prime Minister and President—all became rooted in western Jerusalem. And it has flourished: Jerusalem is Israel’s largest city.

Yom Yerushalayim marks the anniversary of the unexpected and dramatic unification of Jerusalem under Israeli rule in the Six Day War. On the 28th day of Iyar—corresponding to June 7, 1967 and May 24, 2017—Israel pushed back the attacking Jordanian forces and conquered the Old City and East Jerusalem. On that day, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan proclaimed:

This morning, the Israel Defense Forces liberated Jerusalem. We have united Jerusalem, the divided capital of Israel. We have returned to the holiest of our holy places, never to part from it again. To our Arab neighbors we extend, also at this hour—and with added emphasis at this hour—our hand in peace. And to our Christian and Muslim fellow citizens, we solemnly promise full religious freedom and rights. We did not come to Jerusalem for the sake of other peoples' holy places, and not to interfere with the adherents of other faiths, but in order to safeguard its entirety, and to live there together with others, in unity.

But there have always been two Jerusalems. Literally: Hebrew speakers know that the –ayim suffix means “a pair,” so its very name Yerushalayim implies not one but two.

The first appearance of Jerusalem in the Bible is in the Book of Joshua, where Joshua battles an alliance led by King Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem (Joshua 10).  By the end of the saga, most of the land has surrendered—except for Jerusalem, of which it says: “The men of Judah could not dispossess the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the people of Judah dwell with the Jebusites in Jerusalem to this day” (Josh. 15:63).  Already in Joshua’s time, the city was multicultural.

David was the first to “unite” Jerusalem; he made the city his kingdom’s capital. His son Solomon built the Temple there, making Jerusalem the dual religious and political capital of the people of Israel. With palace and temple, Jerusalem came to represent both the body and soul of the Jewish people.

Fractiousness amidst unity has remained part of the city’s identity ever since. In the Talmud (Ta’anit 5a), Rabbi Yitzhak imagines two Jerusalems, a heavenly city above that matches its earthly counterpart below:

Rabbi Yitzhak said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:  “The Holy One says, ‘I will not come into the Jerusalem that is above until I come into the city of Jerusalem that is below.’”
Is there really a “Jerusalem that is above”?
Yes, for the verse says, “Jerusalem built up, a city with its companion” (Psalm 122:3).

In other words, Rabbi Yitzhak knows Jerusalem as both a spiritual ideal and as an earthly reality. Unifying the ideal with reality remains a messianic aspiration.

Today, we know that Jerusalem still bears these contradictions. On one hand, we have no doubts about Jerusalem’s centrality to modern Israel. We rejoice that for 50 years it has been united under Israeli rule. The streets of the Jewish Quarter—which had been demolished under the Jordanians—are flourishing. An American President just caressed the stones of the Western Wall. And the religious sites of all the city’s religious faiths are protected. Jerusalem is a thriving city of culture, spirit, and politics.

And yet: how unified is Jerusalem really? The Arab and Jewish neighborhoods certainly feel like two different cities. Do Israelis frequent Silwan or Beit Safafa or Shuafat? Even Jewish Jerusalem feels divided. Do secular residents visit haredi outposts like Sanhedriya or Kiryat Tzanz?

The Western Wall itself is a symbol of the schisms among Jews. The dispossession of non-Orthodox Jews at the Kotel is a pungent reminder that Jerusalem undivided is still a heavenly ideal that is far from reality. The Chief Rabbinate and its supporters distribute ugly posters around the city that slander non-Orthodox Jews and spew hatred at the Women of the Wall. President Trump is welcome at the Kotel, but Jewish women in tallit and tefillin, or men and women together in egalitarian prayer, are derided and scorned.

The ideal is that every Jew in the world has a stake in Jerusalem. But the reality is that its internal divisions reflect the discord that exists among our people.

Still, there remains a vision of heavenly Jerusalem floats above it all, reminding us that this is not the way it is meant to be.  Jerusalem also carries a whiff of peace—as ‘ir shalom, the city of wholeness.  The reality may be painful and fractured, but the ideal is that we should learn how to pray and live side by side with one another.

This Yom Yerushalayim and its celebrations should be a reminder of a future unification, when ideals and reality can be brought together. Celebrate it in joy and hope!

Why I Walked Out on Donald Trump at AIPAC

March 22, 2016

Just as Donald Trump has dominated the recent news cycle, so too did he overshadow all the nuanced presentations that took place at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC, this week.

I was one of many who walked out on Monday evening when Mr. Trump, the Republican frontrunner, addressed the crowd of over 18,000 Israel supporters. I’d like to explain why.

AIPAC, the premier pro-Israel lobbying organization in America, has remained remarkably on-message over the years. The organization has a singular mission: to advance the security and well being of the State of Israel with the U.S. government. AIPAC does this in a disciplined bipartisan manner; it consistently balances its programs with Republicans and Democrats. During an election year like this one, its policy is to invite every candidate for President to address its annual forum. This year Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich spoke in addition to Mr. Trump. (Only Bernie Sanders did not accept the invitation to speak.)  AIPAC—quite correctly, in my opinion—believes that a secure, democratic State of Israel is consistent with American national security and foreign policy goals, and that those goals transcend partisan politics of left and right. Overwhelmingly, the U.S. Congress and the majority of the American people agree.

So Mr. Trump’s invitation was consistent with AIPAC’s agenda and past behavior. Still, I was compelled to leave when he came to the stage. Many others did likewise. We objectors gathered in the hallways of the Verizon Center to voice our spiritual protest by studying Jewish sacred texts on the themes of human dignity and derech eretz (kind and decent behavior towards others). 

“To walk out or not?” was the question Conference participants asked one another. I felt compelled to do so, for a variety of reasons. 

I walked out because this protest was about the tone and attitude of the campaign, not the content of Trump’s policies.  Again, AIPAC is a single-mission organization, and a remarkably consistent and effective one. Understanding their nonpartisan policy, I would not walk out on other candidates, even when I aggressively disagreed with their policy positions.

But Trump is different. He’s an outlier; a once-in-a-generation (God willing) phenomenon. He has injected overt racism, vile sexism, and the insinuation of violence into the Presidential campaign. (Other candidates, left and right, have played the race card in the past, but none with the overt bigotry that Trump and his supporters have displayed towards Mexicans, immigrants of many backgrounds, and Muslims. For that matter, his comments last fall at the Republican Jewish Coalition were also overtly anti-Semitic.)

I have Muslim friends.  How could I look them in the eye by attending an event where Trump was celebrated and applauded—this man who grotesquely has called for banning Muslims from our shores and monitoring those who are our neighbors?

Likewise, there is the tone of violence that he has injected into the campaign. Fierce words unsurprisingly spilled over into physical violence at Trump rallies in recent weeks, and the candidate not only refuses to condemn it, but winks and encourages it, saying, “I’ll pay the legal fees” of his supporters who assault protesters.

I walked out because Donald Trump is bad for Israel. Unquestioned, uncontested association with Mr. Trump is bad news for Israel, no matter how vociferously he proclaims that he will be “the best friend Israel ever had.”  So-called friends (earlier in the campaign declared his “neutrality” on Israel’s conflicts) who are thugs and bigots do not promote Israel’s cause. Mr. Trump’s slow disavowal of the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, only benefits those who cling to slander that “Zionism is racism.” Israel’s democracy is vigorous, but her political enemies would love nothing more than to link Trump-style demagoguery with the Jewish State.

Ultimately, I walked out because I needed to walk out—for me. Watching our politics ossify into hyperbolic displays of idiocracy should be distressing to Americans of every ideological persuasion. There’s a coarsening of the national soul taking place—and I don’t want my soul succumb to it.  Moreover, I don’t want my community or my country to succumb to it, either.

The electoral process should be an impassioned, vigorous, and freewheeling debate about differing visions of our mutual future. American democracy is built upon that principle and so is Jewish tradition. “Both these and these are the words of the Living G-d,” says the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) about the virulent debates that took place 2,000 years ago between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. Judaism holds a healthy reverence for argument, as well as recognition that the other person is entitled to their point of view. But yesh g’vul: there is a limit. Mr. Trump and his followers, with their coarse rhetoric and propensity towards violence, must be held accountable.

The politics of vitriol, of scapegoating and shaming, of bigotry and violence, should have no place in our discourse. It’s the responsibility of all of us to get up and turn our backs on it.