I never thought much of the “tradition,” reportedly inaugurated by Barack Obama, in which the US president initiates a conference call to a bunch of American rabbis and Jewish lay “leaders” immediately before Rosh ha-Shanah. (Try to imagine such an event with, say, Richard Nixon at the helm: “Happy new year, my fellow Americans. Now here’s Henry to talk about the Jewish significance of Vietnam.”)
But Donald Trump is to silly ideas what a lit match is to gasoline, and this year’s Rosh ha-Shanah telephone message — the transcript of which has been made available to the press — came off less like a joke than the Great Fire of Rome. Not to put too fine a point on it, a portion of the rabbinate has just been treated to the spectacle of a US president, egged on by some of his most unscrupulous admirers, gibbering like a homicidal lunatic.
And if the rabbis (unnamed, but said to be Orthodox) were as shocked by that performance as they should have been, I’d say they’ve got their work cut out for the new year.
True, no one could have been surprised that Trump seized the occasion to crow over his May 14 transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But when Ambassador David Friedman (a party to the call) noted warmly that the new embassy opened “not [just] the date, but actually even the time that David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence 70 years ago,” the listening rabbis might have remembered that on that date — not 70 years earlier but on the very same morning and afternoon — nearly 60 unarmed Palestinian protesters were massacred by Israeli snipers. That fact was not mentioned. Instead, Friedman exulted that the new embassy has become a big tourist draw, while Trump (who, after multiple bankruptcies, still thinks he’s a shrewd businessman) claimed that his husbandry had saved “about a billion dollars” on the cost. Priorities, you know.
As if that weren’t weird enough, Trump even boasted to Alan Dershowitz (another participant) that he had been warned about the dangers of the move. “I have never received so many phone calls from foreign leaders,” said the president, “asking me not to do it…. And some were very strong on it. Really — ‘We really implore you, Mr. President.’… [S]ome said it would be massive, massive problems. It would be weeks in hell.” To a normal man, those predictions would seem to have been tragically vindicated. By June, the International Committee of the Red Cross had reported 132 demonstrators killed in Gaza and more than 13,000 wounded, the “vast majority” of those with severe injuries. But, as Trump informed Dershowitz and the rabbis, he had found a way around that problem too: he simply refused to take calls from worried heads of state. “I’ll call them back after I do the announcement,” the president proudly recalled telling his staff.
Maybe the listening rabbis couldn’t tell whether those remarks conveyed callousness or just a sort of willed ignorance. But when the call turned to demonizing Iran, the question of intent quickly became moot. Encouraged by Republican Jewish Coalition chairman Norm Coleman — who suggested that Iran was somehow behind the trouble in Gaza (he also seems to have forgotten that Saudi Arabia, not Iran, is the state bombing Yemen) — Trump switched from swagger to Schadenfreude.
“Iran is no longer the same country,” bragged the President; because of him, Iranians are now “fighting for their own survival.” True, his Secretary of State had warned of the consequences of punishing Iran’s inhabitants for nuclear weapons its government doesn’t have and which U.S. intelligence repeatedly confirmed it’s not building. But who needs advisers when you’re out to starve a vulnerable population? His sanctions have been so “devastating” to Iran’s economy, Trump claimed, that the country is now just “looking to survive,” whereas when he became president Iran was poised to “take over the entire Middle East…probably includ[ing] Israel, in the mind of a lot of people.”
So there it is. Now — were you listening, rabbis? Your president believes that Iran possessed magical powers of military conquest until the day he arrived at the White House. And he believes that its people deserve to suffer in order to demonstrate his clairvoyance. Palestinians, meanwhile, deserve to die — in silence, too, if news of their murders might rain on Trump’s public-relations parade. He’s just told you all this.
Yes, the delusional rant you heard (not to mention Trump’s conviction that building an embassy normally costs over a billion dollars) was not aimed at you. But consider. Nearly half of the world’s Jewish population lives in the Middle East, and the Middle East is a region largely in flames — flames the US president is obviously intent upon fanning. Sheer self-interest ought to leave you deeply worried over the fact that Trump doesn’t know how his policies are making a desperate region ever more dangerous — and, worse, clearly doesn’t care.
Even Trump’s sinister son-in-law, Jared Kushner, mentioned the “introspection and reflection” that “Jewish tradition calls for” just before Rosh ha-Shanah. Trump has used this auspicious moment to show you (and us) exactly where he is leading the world. Now, what are you going to do about it?