Fire in the Brush

Everything will be fine now. He didn’t mean most of what he said — it was just campaign rhetoric. He’s better than Corrupt Hillary. You liberals are ridiculous — why are you so riled up? Stop being sore losers and suck it up.”

We have all heard these statements, or similar ones in the past week. What Trump supporters and opposition optimists do not realize is that once you start a fire in the brush, it doesn’t limit itself to the weeds. Fires don’t pick and choose — they burn everything in sight.

Despite being a vehement opponent, and being disgusted by his racist and sexist statements, I do not doubt that Trump himself doesn’t intend for any actual harm to come to blacks, Hispanics, homosexuals, Muslims or any of the other groups he has attacked. Surprisingly, I buy the “he didn’t mean it, it was campaign tactics” narrative. But I also think that his personal intentions are not relevant.

As a public figure, you have enormous influence on others. What you say can be, and is, heard and interpreted by everyone. That includes political extremists and people who are psychologically unstable, it includes bigots and misogynists. Public figures must be cognizant of that fact at every moment.

We Israelis have the dubious honor of being very experienced in the unintended consequences of incendiary rhetoric.  MK Betzalel Smotritch didn’t ask people to grab an innocent 16-year-old Palestinian boy off the street and burn him alive. Prime Minister Netanyahu didn’t encourage settlers to throw a firebomb into the home of a sleeping Palestinian family, killing 3 and severely burning a small boy, and didn’t intend for such a thing to happen. Education Minister Naftali Bennett didn’t call his supporters to stab a 16-year-old girl to death at the Gay Pride parade and even condemned the crime. No right-wing politicians even called for the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the majority were truly and honestly horrified when it happened. However their intent does not absolve them of responsibility- they consistently and irresponsibly used rhetoric that made these acts legitimate in the minds of their most radical supporters. They ignited a fire that they could not control.

Putting out a blazing fire takes true leadership, grand gestures in the public sphere. One of the best examples of this is King Hussein of Jordan, who in 1997, after a mentally unstable Jordanian soldier killed 14 Israeli school girls, went personally to the home of every one of the families to express his condolences, getting down on his knees before the grieving parents. His valiant efforts were successful- there was no escalation of tensions between the two countries following the incident.  What a strong message Netanyahu and Bennett could have sent had they visited the mourning tents of the Abuhdair and Dawabshe families.  What a statement it would have been for Trump to nominate a Muslim or a Hispanic to his cabinet, or sit down with the residents of a black neighborhood to hear their concerns the day after the election instead of holing up in his tower of gold. Their decision to do nothing feeds the blaze.

Donald Trump did not pledge support to the KKK, but he created a climate in which they feel confident to stage public demonstrations of hate. He didn’t encourage people to attack innocent blacks, Muslims and Jews at the park, the gas station or at school. But he created an atmosphere in which those acts are perceived as legitimate. The majority of his supporters are not racists and bigots, they are people with legitimate concerns and claims who felt ignored by the establishment. Those supporters turned their wrath on Hillary Clinton, creating a barrage of memes and hate rhetoric far exceeding the norms of all past campaigns. Yet the same supporters, as well as Trump himself, have been glaringly silent in the face of the shocking, blatant racism that has erupted in the last week. Their intent does not absolve them of responsibility- their silence is fanning the flames.

The belief that all humans were created equal and are of equal value is a zero sum proposition. On this topic compromise is negation- there can be no exceptions such as “I believe in basic human rights except in the case of illegal immigrants.” “I believe in due process except in cases where soldiers are accused of vigilantism.” “I believe in fair allocation of resources, but only for my country.” Once you make an exception, once you question the sanctity of the principle, there is no barrier to alternative interpretations that you never intended. It’s a slippery slope. This is not a political issue- it is a fight for the very pillars that uphold our democratic society, right and left, such as equal rights for all ethnic groups and due process for all. The destruction of those pillars will have earthshattering ramifications for all sides of the political spectrum.

Donald Trump has lit a fire in the brush. Netanyahu, Bennett and their party members have done the same in Israel. They are the leaders in power. When a fire is raging, their half-hearted attempts at appeasement are as effective as tossing a cup of water on a forest fire. If they don’t take an active stand, they WILL lose control of the flames and we will all burn.

About the Author
After having several life-changing educational experiences in her teens, Elana Kaminka has dedicated her career to creating those experiences for others. Originally working in the field of Israel programs, she became fascinated by the field of development and is now working in Tevel b'Tzedek, an Israeli NGO that both runs quality volunteer programs and does quality development work in Nepal.
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