Archive for August, 2017

Water Music


Something Will Shine

At the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Mall, 54 years to the day after the great man gave his greatest speech, clergy of all varieties, but mostly rabbis and black ministers, came together in common cause,

The Rev. Al Sharpton, joined by Martin Luther King III, stopped in at a pre-march prayer session held by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and addressed the assembly of 300 rabbis, cantors and lay leaders.

Sharpton told the Jews that “we could not commemorate 636395306990478867-XXX-20170828-MinistersMarch-03this day and face the challenges today without standing together as Dr. King stood 54 years ago.” Invoking those murdered in the Freedom Summer of 1964, he went on: “We should never forget that it was Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner that died together—two Jews and a black—to give us the right to vote.”

Sharpton spoke of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with King at Selma, and he addressed the more recent ill feelings. “We have had days good and bad, but from this day forward, we’re going to make sure we do our part to keep this family together,” he said. “When we can see people in 2017 with torches in their hands, talking about ‘Jews will not replace us,’ it’s time for us to stop praying to the cheap seats and come together.”

Some of the rabbis shouted “amen.”

Sharpton asked for 1,000 ministers, and got somewhat more than that among the 3,000 assembled for Monday’s march. Rabbis swayed and clapped to hip-hop and gospel music. There were skullcaps of every color and size, mainline Protestant ministers in white collars and colorful shawls, black evangelicals in bright choir robes, black-robed monks, Buddhists in saffron, a Sikh in a yellow turban. There were Black Lives Matter signs and posters with verses of scripture.

A cantor led the crowd in the Hebrew song “Hine Ma Tov”—how good it is for brothers to live as one. A black Jewish woman in a tallit—a Jewish prayer shawl—spoke, and a rabbi blew a shofar. A black Catholic nun spoke.

“God’s majestic creation,” observed Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, head of the Religious Action Center. From the Nazis in Charlottesville, Pesner said, “we learned that anti-Semitism and white supremacism are intertwined. They are dual threats that call us to act and confront them together and directly.”

African Americans responded with cries of “Yes!” and “All right!” to the rabbi’s preaching.

Sharpton picked up the theme. “You’re going to see the victims of Nazism, the victims of white supremacy, march to the Justice Department and say we don’t care what party is in, we are not going to be out,” he told the crowd. “We are coming together like Dr. King and Abraham Heschel did, like Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner did.”

“We don’t have a person to lose,” King told the Jews at their prayer meeting Monday morning. “We are brothers and sisters.”


I first heard the silence late Tuesday night, while pecking at my phone, waiting for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump to denounce President Donald Trump’s latest comments on neo-Nazis after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the death and mayhem that resulted.

After the President tried to compare neo-Nazis to what he described as the “alt-left,” saying “I think there is blame on both sides,” there was still no outcry from Jared or Ivanka.170721163651-jared-kushner-ivanka-trump-split-exlarge-169Slowly, as the hours ticked away, the silence descended.

Many think of silence as the absence of noise, but that’s only one type of silence. There is a different, darker variety, one Jews and African-Americans have gotten to know well over the centuries. This silence doesn’t suppress sound—it amplifies it. It is the boom of the MS St. Louis departing for Nazi-threatened Europe after being denied entry by port after port. It’s the whisk-whisk of Southern belles fanning themselves at the slave auction. It’s the presence of apathy amid injustice and horror.
I’d heard this kind of silence, long ago. I heard it in the Soviet Union, in the footfalls of teachers and classmates calmly walking around me and the other Jew in my class as we received our daily beatings. I’d heard it in the Doppler effect of cars passing my family and other refugees when we were hitchhiking along frigid Austrian roads.

But the silence emanating from Jared and Ivanka was exponentially more powerful than any I’d heard before. To me, as a Jew, seeing nothing but two tweets from Ivanka brought the kind of pain I’m sure is echoed by African-Americans anytime Ben Carson defends the President, and Asian-Americans in the wake of Elaine Chao’s and Nikki Haley’s equivocations: condemning hate in general terms while carefully avoiding criticizing the very administration they’re part of.

If two Jews at the pinnacle of American power—one, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, the other, a woman who had devoted years of rigorous study to converting to the religion—refuse to denounce Trump’s equivocations on neo-Nazis, are they still Jews?

By Wednesday, it was clear I wasn’t the only one wondering. In a stunning move, Rabbi Emeritus Haskel Lookstein—who had supervised Ivanka’s conversion—issued a statement condemning the Trump administration for its heinous response to Charlottesville’s bloodshed. Numerous Jewish organizations including the Union for Reform Judaism, the Orthodox Rabbinical Association of America, the American Jewish Committee and the Republican Jewish Coalition rebuked the President’s speech as well. Rumblings of a herem, religious censure, the Jewish equivalent of the bell, book and candle method once used by Catholics to excommunicate, began rolling through Twitter.Holocaust girl 13Wednesday night I asked a friend, Rabbi Andy Bachman, if something akin to an excommunication was warranted or even possible. It turned out I wasn’t the first one to call him on the topic that day. “A herem wouldn’t do much,” Bachman replied, “it would only be valid in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox. But do you really need an interdict? These people have chosen to stand aside from thousands of years of their tradition: What can you think of that’s worse?”

I couldn’t. For me, embracing a Jewish identity came as the result of a battle, years of slowly undoing the damage of Soviet persecution which lasted long after I landed on US soil. I couldn’t imagine people born into safety and privilege throwing away their birthright like trash. And yet, that’s what happened—that was the silence I’d heard.
It was the scratching of matches lighting White House Shabbat candles, the humming of carefully memorized prayer, the rote motions of Jewish life without the true practice of Judaism. It was the silence of two of the world’s most powerful Jews, cutting themselves off from their people.


What Gary Cohn, Steven Mnuchin and Jared Kushner did—or, rather, what they didn’t do—is a shanda.

They’ll know what that means, but, for the uninitiated, shanda is Yiddish for shame, disgrace. The three men, the most prominent Jews in President Trump’s administration, could have spoken out to say that those who march with neo-Nazis are not “very fine people,” as their boss claims. Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, and Cohn, the chief economic adviser, were actually standing with Trump when he said it. They said nothing.

We have seen such a character before in Jewish history: the shtadlan. The shtadlan , or “court Jew,” existed to please the king, to placate the king, to loan money to the king. He would dress like other members of the maxresdefaultcourt, and he would beg the king for leniency toward the Jews, but, ultimately, his loyalty was to the king.

I thought we were past the age of the shtadlan. So did my rabbi, Danny Zemel. “These guys are the princes of American business power,” he said. “If they can’t find an ounce of moral fiber from their own Jewish past, we’re in a very sorry way. If they view themselves as court Jews, then they’ll keep their mouths shut and keep their nice jobs.”

Certainly, Cohn, Mnuchin and Kushner have a particular obligation as Jews, because the violent white supremacists in Charlottesville were targeting Jews with their swastikas and chants of “Jews will not replace us” and “Sieg Heil.” One of their leaders told “Vice News Tonight” it was objectionable that Trump would “give his daughter to a Jew.” A few stood outside a synagogue brandishing rifles, forcing Sabbath worshipers to slip out a back door.

But Jews, because of our recent history, know what results from silence in the face of any type of bigotry. Before Trump dabbled in anti-Semitism, he made scapegoats of immigrants, African Americans, Latinos and, especially, Muslims. Two years ago, when I described the many actions that made candidate Trump a bigot and a racist, I noted that he hadn’t yet gone after Jews. That followed soon: the tweeted image of a Star of David atop paper money, and the speech and ads linking Jews to a secret “global power structure.”

This racist demagoguery now comes from the president of the United States. In tweets Thursday, Trump proclaimed his sadness at the removal of “our beautiful” Confederate statues, and he revived the bogus claim that, a century ago, Gen. John J. Pershing dipped bullets in pig blood before shooting Muslim prisoners.

Why is it so hard to condemn such filth?

As I write this, my 13-year-old has come into my office and said the neo-Nazis at the Charlottesville synagogue make her reluctant to return to Hebrew school. She also asks if our family will be a target because people know I’m Jewish.

This is what Trump has done to America. And this is what Cohn, Mnuchin and Kushner allow with their shameful silence.

Do they prize their appointments so much? Well then, don’t quit. Speak out. Let him fire you. But don’t play the court Jew.

Dana Milbank

Mongo Law

Resident Trayf spent 18 months as the ultimate law-and-order candidate, promising to rescue an American way of life he said was threatened by terrorists, illegal immigrants and inner-city criminals.

But during seven months as president Mr. Trump has shown a flexible view on the issue, one that favors the police and his own allies over strict application of the rule of law. Over the past two years, in ways big and small, Mr. Trump has signaled that taking the law into one’s own hands is permissible, within the executive branch or in local police departments, or even against a heckler at one of his rallies.

The president’s pardon last week of Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., and a strong supporter of Mr. Trump’s during the 2016 campaign, illuminated the impulses that shape his opinion. The case, and the pardon that ended it, involved an assumption that minorities were more likely to tumblr_ndyc2tL2Bl1tt6oy1o1_1280commit crimes, a belief in the use of force to keep people in check, and what some of the president’s advisers privately describe as at best a lack of interest in becoming fluent in the legal process.

In his words and acts, Mr. Trump has sent a permissive message to people in law enforcement that they can bend the law, if not break it.

“Arpaio is a public official accused of racial profiling, and in the pardon statement, he was praised for his actions,” said Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Mr. Waldman drew a line from the pardon to Mr. Trump’s statements last month to police officers on Long Island in which he appeared to encourage local law enforcement officials to give suspects rougher treatment. The president made those comments despite years of wrenching debate over a string of cases of police shootings of unarmed black men. “When the president says, ‘Make sure to hit the heads of people on the door of the police car,’ or pardons a sheriff accused of racial profiling, it redefines the law as just brute force,” Mr. Waldman said.

The pardon, the conservative Washington Examiner said in an editorial, showed “once again Trump really means ‘busting heads’ when he says ‘law and order.’” The editorial added: “But ‘law and order,’ if the words have any meaning, has to apply to government actors as well. Lawless sheriffs promote disorder, and that’s what Arpaio did to get himself convicted.”

While Mr. Trump has spoken often of the significance of the rule of law, his actions have raised questions about his commitment to hallmarks of the American system like due process, equal protection under the law, independence maxresdefault.thumb.jpg.c13c3e410f47861454129ecc2215b746of judicial proceedings from political considerations, and respect for orders from the courts.

As a candidate, Mr. Trump enthusiastically endorsed a brutal interrogation technique declared illegal under international law. “Torture works,” Mr. Trump said at a South Carolina event in early 2016. When protests erupted at his rallies, he repeatedly waxed nostalgic about the “good old days” when people could take such matters into their own hands. He endorsed stop-and-frisk policing, and said immigration by Muslims should be banned to protect Americans’ safety. He argued to Bill O’Reilly, then a Fox News host, that immigrants in the country illegally may not be entitled to due process at all. On the same program, Mr. Trump insisted, despite established law, that the 14th Amendment does not guarantee citizenship to people born in the United States if their parents are here illegally.

Robert Bauer, who was White House counsel under President Barack Obama, said: “It’s very difficult to say that he stands for law and order—in fact, in many respects he’s kind of the president of disorder. He’s lurching around and basically responding to what he sees as his personal imperative at any given moment.”

Maggie Haberman

The decision of many leftists to maintain an equal distance is inexcusable. The imperative to oppose racism trumps opposition to neoliberal policies.

A more confident left used to understand that our humanism compelled us to stop the xenophobes from getting their hands on the levers of state power, particularly the police and security forces. Just like in the 1940s, we have a duty to ensure that the state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of violence is not controlled by those who harbour violent sentiments toward the foreigner, the cultural or sexual minority member, the “other.”

The belief in the state’s checks and balances, and in the idea that the rule of law would prevent turning state power against the vulnerable, is not one that the left can risk entertaining. Trump confirms this.

Yanis Varoufakis

What Mongo Means By “Our” Country

Resident Trayf’s twitler lamenting that the removal of Confederate statues tears apart “the history and culture of our great country” raises numerous questions, among them: Who is encompassed in that “our”?

Mr. Trump may not know it, but he has entered a debate that goes back to the founding of the republic. Should American nationality be based E-White-statue-120715on shared values, regardless of race, ethnicity and national origin, or should it rest on “blood and soil,” to quote the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., whom Trump has at least partly embraced?

Neither Mr. Trump nor the Charlottesville marchers invented the idea that the United States is essentially a country for white persons. The very first naturalization law, enacted in 1790 to establish guidelines for how immigrants could become American citizens, limited the process to “white” persons.

What about nonwhites born in this country? Before the Civil War, citizenship was largely defined by individual states. Some recognized blacks born within their boundaries as citizens, but many did not. As far as national law was concerned, the question was resolved by the Supreme Court in the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857. Blacks, wrote Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (a statue of whom was removed from public display in Baltimore this week), were and would always be aliens in America.

This was the law of the land when the Civil War broke out in 1861. This is the tradition that the Southern Confederacy embodied and sought to preserve and that Mr. Trump, inadvertently or not, identifies with by equating the Confederacy with “our history and culture.”


Why Mongo Wants To Touch Joe’s Penis

Resident Trayf had little to offer that was specific or coherent in the rambling, hate-filled speech that he delivered in Phoenix this week—the one that he later assessed in a self-congratulatory tweet as “enthusiastic, dynamic, and fun.” The speech lurched between schoolyard bragging (“I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment” than the “élite” and “I live in the White House, too, which is really great”), the usual whining about reporters (“sick,” “bad,” “dishonest” people), and insults to Arizona’s two Republican senators, one of whom is currently battling brain cancer. The rhetorical flourishes borrowed from Fascist tropes, with their distinctive mix of vague language and unmistakable menace: the virtuous “we” and the unspecified “they,” who are trying to take away “our” customs and culture; the “thugs,” who protest the leader’s vision of America.

But there were a few moments when Trump got very particular, and one of them was when he chose to express his keen admiration for Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County. In July, Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt of court, for defying an earlier court order to stop detaining people joe-arpaio-Picture-quotes-_1_solely on suspicion of their immigration status. In Phoenix, Trump hinted that he would pardon Arpaio. He said that he wasn’t going to cause controversy by issuing a pardon then and there, but Sheriff Joe “can feel good,” he pledged, and was “going to be just fine.” Trump is likely a fan of Arpaio’s because Arapio is a fan of his—an early supporter who also went all in for birtherism, at one point sending members of a so-called Cold Case Posse to Hawaii to dig up something incriminating about Barack Obama’s birth certificate.

But Trump probably also likes Arpaio because the former sheriff represents in miniature what the President would like to be more maximally—a successful American authoritarian. Earlier this month, in a conversation with Fox News, Trump called Arpaio “an outstanding sheriff” and “a great American patriot.” It’s worth considering what it takes, in Trump’s view, to deserve such tributes.


When I Worked

August 2017
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