No Time to Stand Down

When the patriarch Jacob was deceived by his sons into thinking that his beloved son Joseph was no longer alive and told that he had been eaten by wild animals, Jacob became inconsolable. Joseph’s brothers tried to comfort him, but the Torah tells us Va’y’ma’en l’hit’na’hem (he refused to be comforted.) One commentary suggests that the reason why he could not be comforted was that Joseph was not, of course, dead. He had merely been sold off into slavery. The comfort extended to one who has lost a son was not going to impact his grief.

For those who regard the recent election of Donald Trump to the American presidency as a calamitous event, it has been difficult to find any peace of mind since the evening of November 8. I count myself among that group. And frankly, the efforts of those who say things like “you lost, get over it, go on with your life,” or “give him a chance– he’ll surely govern more to the middle than his campaign indicated” only tend to make me feel worse. I am not at all ready to be comforted, mostly because I believe that the worst, some of which is predictable and much of which is unknown, is surely yet to come.

After about a day or two of trying to grasp the reality of what had happened, I was preparing myself to give Donald Trump a chance. It wasn’t because I in any way regarded him as worthy of the Presidency, or fit to govern the country I love—not by a long shot. There is nothing about him that I like or admire. I was considering it simply because he won, and I had no choice. The protestors outside of Trump Tower who were chanting “Not my President!” had it wrong, I thought. Your problem is that he actually is your president!

When Trump, after meeting with President Obama, indicated that there were elements of Obamacare that he was prepared to preserve, I interpreted that as a positive sign of moving towards some semblance of rationality. And when he appointed Reince Priebus as his Chief of Staff, I interpreted that too as a positive, given that Priebus is about as mainstream a Republican as you might find. Maybe what I had thought all along was true. I always understood Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency as an episode of The Apprentice. The goal was first to win the nomination, and then to win the presidency, and Trump was a contestant. He did what he thought he had to do in order to win, and the fact that so much of what he did was beyond despicable could not negate the fact that he won. And now that he won…

But then he appointed Steve Bannon of Breitbart News as his “Chief Strategist,” on an equal footing with Reince Priebus, the Chief of Staff, and all of that willingness to “give him a chance” went right out the window.

I have actually heard people say that we should try to appreciate what Steve Bannon brings to the table. He’s a brilliant strategist with an MBA from Harvard. Well, that’s nice. But he’s also the focal point—by choice—of the entire Alt-Right movement, and a home base for just about every group of people whom most of us would regard as hateful and beyond the pale… neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, White supremacists, anti-Semites– the whole lot of them. There is no statement too outrageous, too hateful, or too blatantly false to be banned as a headline in Bannon’s media empire. If the Statue of Liberty proclaims “Give me your poor, your huddled masses…,” Breitbart’s message is “Bring me your miscreants, your misogynists, your racists, your haters.” No variety of hate is alien to him, or to his world, and now he has an office in the West Wing, within shouting distance of the Oval Office…

Tell me, I want to understand. Why should I be comforted?

When the Environmental Protection Agency is about to be handed over to a climate change denier who wants to reverse years of dedicated effort to slow down global warming, I and people like me are supposed to feel better and “not be afraid?” When Rudy Giuliani, who appeared, at least to me, to have had some kind of psychotic break during the Republican convention when he screamed his way through a hysterical (not funny, clinically hysterical) speech and then called Trump “brilliant” for not paying taxes for nineteen years, is being seriously considered for Secretary of State—Secretary of State!!—that is supposed to inspire confidence? And when swastikas are appearing all over the place, and Latino children are being hounded in middle schools and told that they’ll soon be sent home, and Muslims who are fine American citizens are feeling as if—at best—they have no stake in this country, I should feel sanguine?

No! Absolutely not! This is not a time to be placated. It is a time to make what Congressman John Lewis would call “constructive trouble.” We dare not be silent in the face of what is happening before our eyes. Silence, and acquiescence, is not an option, not for those of us who see the values we cherish being tossed aside like yesterday’s trash.

At a meeting of the leadership of the Rabbinical Assembly this week (the professional organization of Conservative rabbis), I heard the organization’s Executive Vice-President, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, recount a cherished lesson from her late father, first learned at another time of crisis. He recalled how, in the Navy, when the “Battle Stations” siren was sounded, a sailor had two responsibilities. The first was to get to his assigned post. You can’t worry about the whole ship; you have to secure your assigned post. And the second responsibility was to hold that post, not abandon it or give it up.

The message of her presentation was clear, and I agreed. The siren of hatred and racism is sounding, the alarm is impossible to ignore, and all of us—rabbis and laity—have been summoned to defend what we hold most dear, and not to roll over and pretend that this whole sad state of affairs will blow over. This is not a call to revolution, or to violence. It is a call to conscience, and to the courage of our convictions.

The days to come will be days of challenge for many Americans—but not for all. Many of those who voted for Donald Trump were obviously convinced that the only way for America to move forward, to “become great again,” was to elect someone whose ideas, vague though they were, represented a total break with all that had gone before in Washington. Some saw him as “the lesser of two evils,” something I’ll never understand. Clearly, though, not all of them were bad people, not by a long shot, and I realize that I risk maligning some very good people by writing so direct an opinion piece. That is surely not my intent.

But I am completely convinced that America’s greatness will never be maintained, or achieved, by tapping into racist hatreds and xenophobic fears. This is a dangerous time, not just for Jews, but for immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans, for America. Please don’t tell me to “get over it”. Donald Trump is not a cold that lasts a week and then goes away. He’s a cancer on America, and on its values. It’s time to man our battle stations, and hold our posts. Together, we shall overcome.

God bless America!

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.