Levy: American Jews have good reason to be wary about their President
Editor’s Note: Bernard-Henri Levy is a French philosopher, filmmaker and activist. His most recent book is “The Genius of Judaism.” The opinions in this article belong to the author.
I had no idea how right I was, a month ago, when I wrote in The New York Times that American Jews should be wary of their new President.
Since then, we have had the incredible slip on January 27: Holocaust Remembrance Day. Except slip is not the word, as we later learned from Politico. The White House claimed it did not see a draft of a statement prepared by the State Department until after the White House had issued its own statement, which left out mention of Jewish victims. The State Department release had contained, as in past years under preceding presidents, mention of the six million Jews exterminated by the Nazis.
The White House says it did not know about this draft. But the President’s ghost writers clearly knew, when they decided to “forget” the Jews, what they were doing and why.
We were witnessing a deliberate effort to push the Jewish victims of genocide into the gray area of killings in general and of faceless and nameless crimes. It was a tell-tale trope of Holocaust deniers and, in the United States no less than anywhere else, one of the hallmarks of the new anti-Semitism. Terrible, but true.
A few days later, there was Trump’s strange news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of his visit to Washington.
An Israeli journalist got up to ask the President about the worrisome increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the US. And instead of responding, instead of seizing the opportunity to utter the clear and unimpeachable assurances that one expects of any American president worthy of the name, instead of vigorously condemning the return of the oldest form of hate within the borders of one of the few nations on earth where it appeared to have been contained, Donald Trump spoke, as he tends to do, about himself.
With the same obsessive compulsion that he showed at his visit to CIA headquarters the day after his inauguration, he lurched onto the topic of the scale of his victory on November 8. And when he finally returned to the question asked, it was to observe vaguely and mechanically that “a lot of bad things have taken place over a long period of time,” that “we are going to stop crime in this country,” and as if to reassure us, “we are going to have peace in this country.”
Not a word about the situation of Jewish children who go to school full of fear. Not the wispiest idea about how to deal with the billions of tweets and retweets since his election that, according to the Anti-Defamation League, have spread jokes about gas chambers, called for reopening “the ovens” for the Jews of New York and Los Angeles, and advanced the most sickening conspiracy theories.
Twenty-four hours later, there was a second news conference at which another journalist, this time representing an orthodox Jewish-American weekly, stood and posed more or less the same question, asking respectfully what the administration proposed to do about the spate of vandalism of synagogues and the series of bomb threats, so far not carried out, that had led to the emergency evacuation of Jewish schools and community centers.
“Quiet! Quiet! Quiet!” ordered the President, in a tone that stunned the reporters present. “Sit down.” And after telling the gathering that he was “the least anti-Semitic person that you have ever seen in your entire life,” the least anti-Semitic of presidents again had nothing to say about what the America of Martin Luther King, Elie Wiesel and Bill Clinton would do to block the wave of anti-Semitism that is breaking over the country, as it already has in Europe, a wave of a size unseen since the 1930s.
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First among several subsidiary points that complete this ugly picture is the image of the 20-odd rabbis who were arrested and handcuffed for having dared to demonstrate, too close to Trump Tower, their disapproval of the president’s Muslim ban: The new administration replied in the most indecent way to this bold but classic act of civil disobedience.
Then there is the petty vulgarity that causes Mr. Trump to trot out, whenever these questions are raised, what he no doubt imagines to be the sledgehammer argument of his daughter, son-in-law and their wonderful children – in addition, of course, to his “Jewish friends:” Always, in the United States as in France, the same old story and bad excuse.
Finally there was the spectacle that followed the omission of Jews from the White House statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day. We watched those, particularly Press Secretary Sean Spicer, trying to shift responsibility for the mistake onto a senior member of Trump’s team, Boris Epshteyn, presented not only as “Jewish” but as “the descendent of Holocaust survivors.”
That President Trump, during a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and after 11 bomb threats were phoned in to Jewish community centers around the country, later says that anti-Semitism is “horrible” and “painful,” does not change the general picture. What is the value of a reaction which comes, not from the heart, but after a storm of pleas, criticisms and protests?
And, that the Israeli Prime Minister takes no exception to any of this, that he believes it fitting or perhaps just convenient to heap praise upon Mr. Trump, going so far as to describe him as an unmatched “supporter of the Jewish people and of the Jewish state” and that he does this while appearing in public with him and hamming up their friendship and complicity changes nothing either.
At best, Mr. Netanyahu will go down as a very distant relative of Joseph making an alliance with Pharaoh to protect his people.
But we know how that story ends: just as a new pharaoh “arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” and reduced his descendants to slavery, so, sooner or later, a new president will arise over America.
Leading, according to the Talmud, to two equally tragic scenarios.
Either the newcomer is indeed a new pharaoh and will associate the Jews with the predecessor whose cause and destiny they so recklessly embraced.
Or, as the sages say, he is the same pharaoh but has changed sides. Translating this into present-day terms, the unpredictable Mr. Trump becomes another Mr. Trump; he makes a 180-degree perspective shift in his vision of the Jewish world; and he turns against an Israel about which, at bottom, he cares not a whit and which, therefore, has everything to fear, beginning right here and now, from his cynical “pragmatism.”
Bernard-Henri Levy is a French philosopher, filmmaker and activist. His most recent book is “The Genius of Judaism.” The opinions in this article belong to the author.