Most everybody I know was happy to see 2015 go, with its shootings here, stabbings in Israel, terrorism in Europe, and chaos in the Middle East. We cannot predict what 2016 will bring, but one thing we know. By this time next year, we will have chosen a new president. Although it’s still early in the presidential race, we need to think about what we have seen and heard so far.
The weirdest phenomenon of that race, of course, has been the rise of Donald Trump. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about him already — and he loves every one of them, because even the most critical words keep his name in people’s consciousness. Yet for Jews there is still more to say. To the credit of the Jewish community many organizations instantly rejected his call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. I’m disappointed, however, that the community reacted only to that one issue and has not taken on Trumpism as a whole. We, of all people, know what a demagogue is, know the devastation that can result from someone who starts out looking like a clown and ends up being a monster. This is not 1933 and Trump is not Hitler. Nonetheless he is a demagogue. He plays on people’s fears — about immigrants, jobs, terror — and presents himself as a savior who can solve all the problems. Never mind that he has no substantive answers to any problems. He’s confident and charismatic, and passes himself off as bold in his willingness to denigrate — often viciously — anybody or anything he opposes.
To be sure, it is especially difficult for the Jewish community to stand up to the Trump spectacle. He has been a strong supporter of Israel, and has a daughter who converted to Judaism, making his grandchildren Jewish. Those are not meaningless matters to a minority community. Even so, we cannot, in all good conscience, simply sit back and let him bully his way to a possible presidential candidacy. Our communal organizations and our religious and political groups — Republican and Democratic — need to openly take a stance against him. The man is dangerous.
Ironically, the most anti-Trump figure on the candidates’ roster, Bernie Sanders, lacks the Jewish credentials some would like to see. He is a Jew who doesn’t speak about being Jewish, a member of the tribe married to an Irish Catholic woman, a supporter of Israel who can also be critical of Israel. It’s unlikely that he will get the Democratic nomination. Hillary Clinton seems destined for that, and that’s OK. She would make a fine president — strong, smart, and articulate. She knows more about foreign policy than most government leaders, and has been and will remain a supporter of Israel. Bernie Sanders may be too far to the left for many voters, and so has less chance of winning the nomination. But how fortunate we are that he has entered the race. He speaks with the voice of integrity, perhaps too gruffly at times, but always with honesty and passion. He reminds me of professors I had at Brooklyn College years ago, profoundly concerned about the needs of the poorest in the community, deeply caring about the values of this country and worried about their corruption. In the end, Sanders is the most Jewish of candidates after all, dwelling on the Torah’s principles of justice, compassion and fairness for all members of society.
I thought about Sanders and his concern for the middle class when I went to buy fresh fish the other day at Citarella, an upscale food market. That store and others around Manhattan instituted a new policy in 2015, or maybe earlier. Cashiers beckon people standing in line with the words, “Next guest, please.” Guest? But I am a paying customer. A guest is someone invited for a visit and not expected to pay. A guest is someone Father Abraham welcomed into his tent and fed roasted calf. Or a guest may be part of a large hotel community paying but sharing events and services together. Why are these stores using “guest” as a euphemism for “customer?” I can only think that this is part of the distortion that so bothers Bernie Sanders. In our over-heated economy, where billionaires purchase apartments in tall skinny buildings for $70 million, it’s not polite to actually talk about money. So the stores pretend we are not buying our fish and other products; we are their guests, paying the cashier only as an aside. How crazy is that?
Craziness abounds in the world, and especially here in the United States during presidential election years. Which is why we need to stake out a position against those who would distort our national and religious ideals, and cheer on those who make us proud.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.