Remedial lesson: A response to the open letter to the Kushners 

The author of the open letter to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner that appeared here on February 6 asks the “royal” couple to “internalize biblical lessons” regarding “silence and inaction,” drawing on numerous biblical and historical parallels to persuade them that Jewish law and history all but requires them to directly oppose President Trump’s executive order, lest they face implied Divine retribution.

In fact, a closer examination of the biblical and historical record might indicate otherwise.

Let’s begin with Job.  Granting for argument’s sake that the travel ban might be unjust, it is far from clear that the Kushners have given assent to the policy by their silence; the CNN panel and the SNL skit on the subject indicate that their assumed silence may speak loudly enough. Job also is held to account for his silence in the face of Pharaoh, but not for lack of a public statement, as there is no indication from the narrative that any of the three Pharaonic advisers ever spoke outside the palace. There is therefore no biblically justified reason to demand that the Kushners speak publicly, and since they can’t be held to account as far as that goes, we’ll never be able to judge one way or another what they said in the Oval Office. (Whatever happened to dan lekaf zechus?)

Furthermore, all that is based on granting the argument that the travel ban is a policy that rivals in oppression the persecutions of Haman and Hitler, that they’ve been “slapped” like Shoah victims. That argument need not be granted: as the author herself notes, the Persian “Executive Order” was for direct annihilation, and the moral equivalence implied by labeling both Haman’s decree and Trump’s action as “Executive Order[s]” (with the capitalization) serves to, ironically enough, both cloud the historical truth and possibly needlessly inflame interested parties.

Furthermore, the Persian “Executive Order” was carried out by a polity that was characterized by an absolute rule by decree, and the Persian Empire ruled virtually the entire Eastern hemisphere. It would be ridiculous to assert that the United States under Trump remotely nears fulfilling either criterion; the United States does not rule by decree, has not concentrated all political power in the hands of two men, and it does not unilaterally rule its hemisphere; if it did, it would not allow Canada to even assert its opposition to the order.

As in Haman’s time, the Jews during WWII ended up having no place to go, because the international community legally closed its borders to the Jews through a combination primarily of the Evian Conference and the White Paper, which gave the international community cover to shun a stateless people with no ethnic or religious peers to give them shelter. In the current case, the temporarily restricted populations may find other nations that share their traditions and cultures, and other polities that have been less reluctant to open their borders. The United States is under no special obligation to do anything other than not force the rest of the world to close their borders as they did in 1938; in fact, a more effective use of American power would be to persuade certain reluctant stable nations in the Middle East to be more receptive to the plights of their brethren. (Maybe that is the real Jewish lesson to the world here: take care of your own when you have the ability.)

The Mordechai/Esther paradigm of speaking truth to power also does not hold as a parallel to Ivanka and Jared. Mordechai was not chiding Esther simply for her failure to protest; Mordechai was chiding Esther for her reluctance to reveal her origin — which, ironically, he had instructed her not to do until this very point in the Purim narrative — and employ that to save her own. In noting that he believed “rescue and recovery” were inevitable, he reminded her she was to take her part in said salvation by speaking up because she was the only one with direct access — the only one in the entire Hemisphere — who could and would speak up for her own people.

It is precisely because of our history of persecution that we question the apparent de-Judaization of Holocaust Remembrance Day, yet we do ourselves no further favors by invoking the Holocaust to make inaccurate historical analogs to our possible detriment that provide talking points to our mortal enemies; even less when labeling that a religious obligation and then broadcasting that assertion. Our history, traditions and experiences are unique, even our experiences with eliminationism; no one else’s eliminationist enemies have been as universal or diverse in their origins, ideologies or justifications for their eliminationism. Often, said eliminationism is the only thing they have in common.

There are salient reasons to both support or oppose the policy, but to imply that there is only one possible Jewish response in this case is more than inaccurate; it is a distortion. To further imply that failure to follow the author’s directive is deserving of Divine retribution might make her sound prophetic, but she can be countered by the talmudic “one who asks G-d to judge is punished first” (TB Baba Kama 93a).

About the Author
Jon Taub is an ex-Upper West Sider, now-married Riverdalean who has two MA's, plays three instruments, and consults for biostartups.
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