Meeting Trump’s moral and strategic challenge

What to do when a bully favors you?

POSTER in Jerusalem supporting Donald Trump.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
POSTER in Jerusalem supporting Donald Trump.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It happened on a Wednesday a short time ago. The president of the United States publicized a view that represented a striking departure from long-standing American policy and international norms. The response was predictable: Trump was deplored for his dangerous demagoguery by most. Some were enthusiastic though, embracing the prospect that America was finally declaring a suppressed truth. What about the reaction in the Jewish community? Well, notable Jewish organizations condemned Trump, but the Israeli government and most Diaspora Jewish organizations were silent.
What’s that? You were following me until the last sentence? That’s because you assumed I was talking about Trump’s December 6 pronouncement that the US would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there. In fact, I was referring to the prior Wednesday, November 29, when Trump retweeted three Islamophobic videos posted by the previously obscure British hate group “Britain First.”
When asked about the videos (one of whose protagonists was in fact not Muslim) and the president’s promotion of Britain First (whose leader has been convicted for anti-Muslim violence), White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it didn’t matter whether the videos were real because “the threats are real – no matter how you look at it.”
The president’s “goal,” she said, “is to promote strong border security and strong national security.” Never mind that native white non-Muslim gunmen have been the greatest threat to Americans’ security in recent years. And never mind that the president’s action had undoubtedly increased the sense of insecurity felt by Muslims and immigrants in America and throughout the Western world.
As noted, some Jewish organizations responded appropriately to what was just the latest effort by Trump attempt to sow division and hatred within the American and world publics.
Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL tweeted that Trump’s re-tweeting was a “four alarm fire” that “will embolden bigots in the US and abroad.” He also declared that “we stand with the Muslim community.”
This sentiment was then rebroadcast by various branches of the Jewish Community Relations Council, and some other organizations. Others – including the Orthodox Union and the Agudath Israel of America, who so warmly embraced Trump’s Jerusalem speech the next week – were silent. What does an attack on Muslims have to do with us? Beyond the Jewish community, reactions were predictable given the “new normal” of the Trump era, if shocking and terrifying in historical context.
“Making American Great Again” apparently involves taking actions that elicit condemnation from the prime minister of Britain (who needs all the friends she can get these days) and applause from former KKK leader David Duke.
What are the lessons of Wednesday, November 29, for Wednesday, December 6, and its aftermath?
In short, given Trump’s track record of lying demagoguery and the threat he represents to truth and decency, it is both a moral and strategic error to confer upon him the status of someone who has the ability to declare the truth.
It should be obvious what is morally problematic here. The only reason anyone cares what Trump has to say (especially about topics about which we all know he is ignorant, such as Jerusalem) is because he is the president of the United States.
But if that is the case, we need to care about every declaration he makes in that role.
In particular, there is no moral justification for only paying attention when he discusses Israel or Jews and ignoring his treatment of others. Moreover, it is insufficient to denounce Trump’s attacks on other groups while embracing positive treatment of Jews and Israel when they occur. If you tut-tut when a bully beats up other kids but then praise him when he pats you on your head as his sidekick, have you challenged the bully or enabled him?
And not only is it wrong to embrace a bully when he protects you while attacking others, it is a strategic mistake.
Do Jews anywhere need anyone else’s recognition of the fact that Jerusalem is the center of the Jewish world, as it has been for 3,000 years? Certainly not. But by embracing Trump’s declaration, we signal that we are in fact desperate for such validation. Indeed, consider how desperate we must seem if we are thrilled when the world’s most infamous liar offers us validation! And since no one else but Trump is willing to extend such approval before there is a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, this means that Trump has turned our apparent desperation into dependence upon him.
We can only stand to lose from such dependence. As with Trump’s supporters-cum-victims more generally, Israel has gotten nothing from embracing him but a ride on the slippery slope towards self-abasement and complicity.
After all, the last two weeks hardly augur well for Israel-Palestinian relations (it doesn’t help that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas took Trump’s bait, just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did, declaring Jerusalem to be solely Muslim and Christian), or for relations with others (except for authoritarian regimes such as the Philippines).
And it is becoming clear that the embassy will not be moving to Jerusalem anytime soon. Not that it matters because Trump is busy hollowing out the State Department, so nothing of consequence will actually happen in the Jerusalem embassy.
The upshot is that there is little essential difference between the two Wednesday declarations.
Each was a purely symbolic action aimed at sowing division and hatred. The only difference is that the second one contained a fundamental truth for Jews. But that very truth was a trap, into which Israel and right-wing Jewish organizations seem to have fallen.
We must be smarter and better.

The author is the Alvin J. Siteman Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he is deputy dean. His opinions are personal views and do not represent any institution.
He tweets at @ewzucker.