Last week I debated my good friend Bret Stephens of The New York Times on the question of President Donald Trump and the Jews.
Stephens, one of the finest men I know in journalism and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, has been very critical of Trump, beginning during the campaign when he was at The Wall Street Journal. A frequent guest at our Shabbat table with his family, I had suggested to Stephens that we bring our fascinating discussions about the president to a public audience.
Stephens feels – and I can’t do full justice to his criticisms, which are far better expressed in his own words – that Trump has sent dog whistles that have fostered racism and even antisemitism; that he has behaved and continues to behave in a manner that is corrosive to the presidency; and that his policies on immigration are antithetical to American values of welcoming immigrants.
Having been born in Mexico City, Stephens is especially passionate about his opposition to Trump’s wall and what he sees is demonization of Mexican immigrants, who come to America for economic opportunity and have no terrorist history.
There can be no question that the Jewish people must be extremely sensitive on immigration and always be strong and vocal advocates for rescuing those in harm’s way. I am reading a new book titled Rescue Board
about the War Refugee Board and how it was set up in 1944 largely as a response – by moral men in the Treasury Department, led by Henry Morgenthau – to the antisemitic policies of Breckinridge Long, who headed the State Department’s visa division and kept so many Jews out of America who died in Hitler’s ovens.
Immigration deserves an entirely separate column, which I look forward to writing, God willing.
I told Stephens that on Israel Trump has exceeded all our expectations. Prior to Trump and Nikki Haley, the UN’s principal purpose, it seemed, was to use Israel as a punching bag for global prejudices and biases against the Jewish state. No president before Trump stopped it. But this one has. And it has led to global repercussions, with nations now thinking twice before they unfairly slam Israel for fabricated human rights abuses, lest they fall afoul of the most powerful nation on earth.
On Jerusalem, every US president since Bill Clinton promised to move the embassy, including a phenomenal friend of Israel named George W. Bush. None kept his word, save for Trump. And the move is not merely symbolic. The heart and soul of the Jewish people is tied to Jerusalem, and recognition of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people is a de facto recognition of the history and national claims of our people.
On Iran, President Barack Obama negotiated with a regime even while it called for the annihilation of the Jewish people throughout the negotiations. It may seem incredible that the leader of the free world could legitimize a government that openly incites genocide against the Jewish people just 70 years after the Holocaust. But Obama went beyond negotiations and rewarded that government with $150 billion, with which they sewed further murder and mayhem across the Middle East. With one stroke of a pen, Trump ended the dishonor of the Iran deal and made it clear that nations threatening the incineration of Israel will not be rewarded but punished.
The same is true of Trump’s defense of Israel in the wake of the Gaza riots – which I witnessed with my own eyes from about half a mile from the border fence – where Trump and Haley again had Israel’s back at the UN while the rest of the world condemned Israel for stopping terrorists from entering its domain and murdering its farmers and residents.
None of this even begins to address other undertakings by Trump toward the Jewish community, such as the pardoning of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, who six former attorneys-general, both Republican and Democrat, said had endured remarkably unjust sentencing.
To be sure, there have been failures as well. Trump should have spoken out strongly and clearly against the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville last summer – not because neo-Nazis are in any way, in our time, as great a threat as Islamic terrorism is to Israel and the Jewish people, but, rather, in deference to the memory of the six million and to make morally clear that Nazis are the incarnation of evil and are the most wretched and vile people on earth.
But none of this negates how Trump has ushered in a new era where the United States stands squarely with Israel before the eyes of the world.
And what about character? I addressed the issue from a Jewish and biblical values perspective.
Unlike Christianity, which gives us Jesus Christ, a perfect man-god, a divine being, as an example by which to live and to emulate, there is not a single perfect person in the Hebrew Bible. From Abraham, who messes up with Ishmael, to Isaac, who raises an Esau, to Jacob, who favors Joseph, to Moses, who smites rather than speaks to the rock, to David and Bathsheba, our Bible is filled with great but flawed men and women, none of whom is perfect.
The reason? Whereas Christianity defines righteousness by perfection, Judaism defines righteousness through struggle. The special man or woman is he or she who battles their own nature to do good.
In addition, whereas Christianity puts personal salvation – the question of whether you’re going to heaven – as its highest ideal, Judaism puts world redemption – the question of how much you have contributed to the community – before personal perfection. The main question in Judaism is not, Are you personally pious or righteous? but, rather, Have you left the world in better shape than how you found it?
That’s why Judaism has always extolled the virtue of those who contribute to the public good, even if they are of flawed character. Hama’aseh hu ha’ikar
, it is action, not character, that is the most important. This does not mean that character is unimportant. To the contrary, Judaism demands constantly that we strive for moral refinement and ethical excellence. Rather, it means that personal character is subordinate to tikun olam
, world improvement.
Harry Truman, we now know, expressed incredibly painful antisemitic comments in his personal diaries, calling Jews the cruelest people he had ever met. Yet he recognized the State of Israel within 12 minutes of David Ben-Gurion’s declaration of statehood, and that is what counts – his actions rather than his personal sentiments.
Richard Nixon’s recorded conversations are littered with antisemitic remarks. But when Israel was fighting for its very survival during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he ordered the rearmament of Israel and helped to save the country from destruction.
With Trump, there is no such suggestion that he is in any way personally antisemitic, and the very suggestion would be ludicrous. He supported a beloved daughter’s conversion to Judaism, has three Orthodox and observant Jewish grandchildren, who attend Jewish day school, and has populated his administration with some of the most pro-Israel public officials in modern history, such as Jason Greenblatt, David Friedman, Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, Steve Mnuchin, and John Bolton.
Our president may be an imperfect man, and his Twitter feed can at times be incendiary.
But on the question of whether he has advanced the credibility and security of Israel, has shown that he is an ally who has Israel’s back, and is prepared to stand with the Jewish people in world forums and incessant crisis, the answer must be a resounding yes.The writer, “America’s rabbi,” whom
The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is founder of The World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 31 books, including his most recent,
The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.