Have we learned nothing?

It was then that I finally understood that there would be no limit to the extents to which some Jews would go to justify their support for the man who is now president.

HAREDI TRUMP supporters in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
HAREDI TRUMP supporters in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Several months before the American election, I was sitting at Shabbat dinner with a couple and their young adult daughters in the social hall of a very traditional synagogue. They were the classic Jewish Trump supporters: they despised Obama, could not countenance the idea of eight Clinton years that might continue Obama’s policies, and thought Trump would be terrific for Israel.
Befuddled as I always was when I heard seemingly decent people express their support for Trump’s then-candidacy, I pointed to their daughters sitting at the table and asked them, “What if any one of these girls brought home somebody with Trump’s middot [personal qualities]? Would you let them marry that guy?”
Not in the least nonplussed, they said, “That’s an irrelevant question. When a goy is going to be the head of a goyish country, what do middot have to do with it?” I must have looked shocked beyond speaking, because they called over their rabbi, who happened to be walking by, and told him about my question and their answer. “They’re right,” the rabbi insisted. “When goyim run goyish countries, their middot are not our concern.”
It was then that I finally understood that there would be no limit to the extents to which some Jews would go to justify their support for the man who is now president.
And that has not changed. It is now obvious that Trump’s promises about Israel were hollow. The embassy is not moving to Jerusalem at any time in the near future. Those who hoped he and David Friedman would represent carte blanche for the settlement movement now see that that is not the case. A confused US foreign policy in the Middle East and the vacuum it has wrought now force Israel to contend with Russia and Iran right over our northern borders, making the days Hezbollah was the main problem seem dreamily idyllic.
Will there ever come a moment when even those who voted for Trump – because they could not imagine “another four years of Obama,” or because they thought that Jared was the new Kissinger, or because they thought America needed a strong leader – acknowledge that what we now have is an affront to everything Judaism stands for? I do not know, and I suspect not. If this week did not do it, then nothing ever will.
The vast majority of the people I know who came to traditional Judaism as adults were attracted not by theological certainty, but by an appreciation of the values that traditional Judaism espouses. There was the sanctity of marriage and the nuclear family – not exactly a Trump virtue. There was respect for women – not precisely what emerges from “grab ‘em by the …” or from gross references to Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle. There was the belief in the dignity of human beings as ends in themselves – not what ridiculing people with disabilities would seem to communicate. There was pride in unabashed support for Israel – a promissory note that seems to have bounced.
Still, since pro-Trump Jews are sticking by their guns, it is time, for those who have not done so, to read Volker Ullrich’s stunning recent biography of Adolf Hitler. Titled Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939, it is 998 packed and depressing pages that trace Hitler from his birth until just before the war. Despite its length, the book does not even take the reader into the war or the Shoah. Its central unasked question, looming on every page, was “how did a sane nation elect a man who had said time and again precisely what it was that he had planned to do?”
Ullrich’s phenomenal book makes clear that there is no single answer to that question. But one point emerges with chilling clarity. Every time Hitler crossed a new line, of rhetoric or violence or policy, those who had decided that he was what Germany needed found a new way to overlook his latest egregious step. His speeches and books, to say nothing of his policies, were dripping with Jew-hatred, but decent Germans, including many Jews, found reasons for looking the other way, all in the service of some other ostensible good which his election would serve. One does not need to read Ullrich’s book to know that matters did not work out terribly well for Germany – or for the Jews.
No, this is not a claim that Trump is Hitler. But it is a claim that Jews ought to know better than anyone else that when the leader of a country stands for the very opposite of moral leadership, the chances are high that for that country, and its Jews, a dark period may loom not far ahead. Donald Trump is many things, but stupid is not one of them. His statement after Charlottesville that violence, bigotry and hatred were coming “from all sides” was a classic wink, just as was his pretense during the campaign that he did not know who David Duke was. Both were clear signs to the neo-Nazis that he would not criticize them.
One commentator on the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, wrote this week, “Trump comments were good… He didn’t attack us… Nothing specific against us.” Then he wrote, “Also refused to answer a question about white nationalists supporting him... When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
Are the neo-Nazis really more intelligent than many of us? How long will we continue to deny what is obvious to them? What matters now is not whether Jews who care about Jewish values should have voted for Trump. The choices were bleak and the election is over. Now, there is but one question. Another prime Jewish value is keeping memory alive, and we sanctify our obligation to learn from history. Did we learn anything about demagoguery, about winks and hate from the previous century? Will Trump’s Jewish supporters finally speak out on his violation of values that are so core to Jewish life?
I’m no longer certain. But if we do not, we may well deserve the looming future that many of us still refuse to decry.
The writer is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, just received the National Jewish Book Award as the 2016 “Book of the Year.” It will appear in paperback in September.