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November 9: My Coming Out Time (November 2016)

     I began my column in last week’s newsletter, entitled “November 9,” with “While I am concerned, very concerned, about what happens on November 8, I am more concerned about November 9 and beyond.”  I was as shocked as most of the country was with what happened on November 8.  I remain very concerned about “November 9 and beyond,” but for reasons other than what I anticipated.
     These are challenging times, to say the least.  Our nation and society are fragmented, divided and polarized, arguably more so than they have been in decades.  Millions of Americans are in pain, fearful, angry and confused. Both of our major political parties are in turmoil. Our democratic system, and the values and ideals upon which it is based, have been questioned and challenged. The uncertainty of where all of this will lead weighs heavily on all of us.
     Worst of all, we have elected a man to be our next President who, in my opinion, is responsible for much of the fear, anger and confusion we now confront.  Donald Trump, our President Elect, “crashed and burned” his way to the presidency, from the beginning of the Republican primaries through the general election.  He vilified and demeaned entire groups of people as well as countless individuals, attacking them because of their race, ethnicity, religion, disability, and/or gender.  He attacked the media, the generals, the intelligence experts. His degrading comments about women and their appearance, dating back years, and his recently revealed acknowledgement about his having sexually assaulted women, are unacceptable for anyone, let alone the person who will soon be the leader of our country and the free world.  Is there any doubt that at least some, more likely most if not all of the women who came forward with their personal accounts of his unwanted sexual aggressions were telling the truth? Mr. Trump, you think Hillary Clinton should be locked up? You should be locked up for what you did!  By your own account, you are a sexual predator.
     Both major candidates in the presidential election were extremely unpopular with unprecedented unfavorable ratings.  Both were incredibly flawed.  If the Republicans had been able to nominate a candidate who is a decent human being, I might have voted for that person. They did not, and in my opinion, when you compare the pros and cons of these two candidates, certainly in terms of character and temperament, I much prefer Hillary Clinton.  
     I cannot help but evaluate candidates in light of several core Jewish values, which are universal values of decency and civility. One is that each and every human being is created in the image of God, and therefore deserving of being treated with dignity and respect. Trump failed time after time after time in this regard. He routinely and consistently demeaned and publicly shamed (or tried to) individuals and groups.  He displayed a consistent lack of empathy for those he attacked, and empathy is another core Jewish value:  “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you,” teaches Rabbi Hillel.  Empathy was the focus of Rabbi Carol Glass’ (my wife) sermon on Rosh Hashanah.
     Another core value that Mr. Trump consistently violated is using and choosing our words responsibly. This was my focus on Rosh Hashanah. The book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible teaches, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue." This is one of many, many traditional sources that implore us to use our words wisely and carefully, because our words have power. Trump spoke time after time irresponsibly and recklessly, not caring or not thinking about the effects that his words might have. His reference to "Second Amendment people" being the ones to stop Clinton was a not so veiled hint at violence, which he later tried to dismiss.  He reminded me of the violent rhetoric and incitement that led to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. All of us have a responsibility to use our words carefully. How much more so someone who aspires to be a leader in any context, let alone to be the President of the United States! 
     One group that Mr. Trump did not attack directly was the Jews.  In fact, at a Republican Jewish Coalition forum last year he pointed out how much he and we have in common:  “I’m a negotiator like you folks, we are negotiators.”  Come on, that’s funny!  Additionally, Mr. Trump’s beloved Ivanka and her family are Jewish, so of course he wouldn’t attack the Jews as he has so many other groups.
     However, I consider him to be an inadvertent anti-Semite. He has articulated and spread anti-Semitic images and ideas, in all likelihood unwittingly. Earlier in the campaign he retweeted an anti-Semitic image from neo-Nazi websites.  Later he claimed, first in a speech and then in his campaign’s last ad, that there is an international conspiracy of bankers and others attempting to overthrow and take over our political system. This conspiracy theory was central to "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a classic anti-Semitic tractate that first appeared in Czarist Russia (although its roots go back to medieval Europe), and was later used by the Nazis. Each time he or his campaign invoked it the Anti-Defamation League and other organizations issued stern warnings. 
     I do not think that Donald Trump is anti-Semitic, I think he is clueless about all of this.  But I suspect that the people who wrote the speech and the ad were much more aware of what they were doing.  This is an indication of the kind of people he has brought into his campaign, like Steve Bannon, as well as the kind of people he has attracted, like David Duke and the KKK. His repeated hate speech has emboldened the “alt-right” (why not just call them “hate groups,” which is what they are?) to come out much more into the open than they have in quite some time.  There have already been some very troubling signs of their emergence.
     In late October, shortly after the “Access Hollywood” revelation, a group of over 400 female rabbis issued a public letter slamming Mr. Trump for his hate speech.  In it they stated, “He has denigrated people by race, by nationality, by their gender and by their most intimate, personal challenges,” the message reads. “His callous descriptions of uninvited physical contact and even sexual assault offend our understanding of appropriate relationships between human beings.”  Well put!  Their letter was inspired by a similar letter signed by over 1,000 female Christian clergy.  Most of my male rabbi friends and I would have gladly added our names to the letter, had we been invited to do so.
     I suppose this is my political “coming out” column, but I write on moral grounds, not political ones.  I chose to keep my opinions to myself previously (not without regret), but now that the election is over I feel compelled to speak up, for these are issues of morality and integrity.  I am not only shocked, but appalled by the outcome, for all of the reasons I have stated above and more, and very worried about where we go from here.  We will have to make the best of it, and hopefully our system and our democracy will prevail.   

     I include two other reactions to this week’s news.  The first is a piece by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of England.  Rabbi Sacks writes about the “politics of anger” which resulted in the Brexit vote in England and the election of Donald Trump here in the U.S.  His diagnosis of how we got to where we are is quite astute.  He also offers how we can and must move toward a “politics of hope,” and rightly describes the urgency of our current crisis.

And for a more politic reaction, I offer excerpts from the reaction of Barry Shrage, the President of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (CJP):

Yesterday, Americans elected a new leader. We join with Jewish organizations across the country in wishing the best to Donald Trump as he assumes the awesome responsibilities and challenges facing the President of the United States. We accept the outcome of this free election – and the blessing of living in a country that has enshrined the peaceful transition of power as one of the pillars upon which our freedom and security rests. And we will pray as Jews always have that God gives strength to our nation and wisdom to our leaders…

We are blessed to be living in a free and democratic country, but that means that we live with some degree of uncertainty in every election – especially when we elect a new President. I have voted in 13 national elections and each came with its own hopes, fears, and uncertainties but never more so than this year’s election. You all know that I am an optimist with great faith in our beloved country, the strength of our constitution, and our heritage of freedom and democracy. But it would do no good to fail to acknowledge that the democratic process is sometimes very painful, even in the greatest of countries.

Our role is not political. Rather, it is aimed at the repair of civil society and advocacy for the basic values of our nation, our people, and our faith. It is to defend our rights and the rights and dignity of all of our neighbors, especially the most vulnerable, the poor, people with disabilities, immigrants, and all who have been left behind and forgotten, remembering our most sacred values as a community and as a nation.

Our Torah commands us: “Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt. Do not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be a stranger… because you were strangers in Egypt.”

Our Torah speaks to our individual capacity for kindness, strength, and justice, and our nation’s responsibility to be a welcoming place for all.

As we move forward, we must also re-dedicate ourselves to working together as a country, not as “red” or “blue” states, to restore civility; to remind ourselves and our neighbors of the values that made our great nation secure and humane.

Fri, July 12 2024 6 Tammuz 5784