Today, I felt like I was living in an episode of the Twilight Zone. I was sitting on a panel in a television studio in Tel Aviv watching President Trump read a speech on religious freedom – as if Trump doing religious freedom is a real thing, while the most important event in the world was being ignored by those around me, including the anchors, the producers, and my science-denying co-panelist. It was a challenging time to remember what is real and what is not.
Let’s start with what is real. The UN Climate Action Summit 2019, in which 60 world leaders are gathering to share best practices on climate change, is real. It is the most important moment for saving our planet since the Paris Accords, which Trump is dissing. Another 40 leaders asked to speak at the summit, but were not allowed to because their climate action plans were not deemed serious enough. Millions of teenagers marched last week in 163 countries in 2,500 locations to demand actions – the largest environmental protest in history, led by the indomitable Greta Thunberg. Their message is urgent. We have an estimated 10 years to stop carbon emissions before the damage to our planet becomes irreversible.
Meanwhile, the United States – which is the second largest producer of carbon emissions in the world, the largest consumer of oil, and the only country to pull out of the Paris accord – is being led by a man who says that this is all a hoax. He has been rolling back environmental protections put in place by Obama and even Clinton, and is even opening up Alaska to drilling. He is doing this even as we are already seeing the impact of his science-denying, money-grabbing, destroy-the-earth narcissism. Hurricanes are getting worse and more frequent, the Arctic is melting, water sources are drying up – and Trump is giving it all the finger.
This is where it gets unreal.
He did the most Trumpesque thing he could think of: create a diversion tactic for his science-denying right-wing evangelical base. It was a brilliant strategy in that Trump magician’s world of using blatant lies and alternative facts to rile his people and make them look where he says they should look. He held a session in parallel with the Climate Summit called “Religious Freedom” in which Mike Pence was the star. Media outlets, like the one I was invited to be on today, followed him like panting little puppies and dedicated their shows to this sham of a show instead of the real issue, climate change, going on at the UN in the other hall.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m in favor of religious freedom – which means freedom to practice religion, freedom to NOT practice religion, and freedom from being hurt or persecuted for either – as is the Constitution, which guarantees in the First Amendment that the American government will not be involved in religious practice or non-practice.
Yet, Trump’s administration regularly seeks to quash these protections. Which is why Trump’s performance would have been laughable if it weren’t so grotesque.
Trump, despite his attempted sleight of hand, is no patron of religious freedom. He is the master of the Muslim Ban, the one who has closed the gates to refugees, the one who separates babies from their parents and puts toddlers in cages, the one who is best friends with the misogynistic Christian Right where gays, women, and people of color are considered not quite human. It is absolutely sickening to listen to his people talk – as Mike Pence did today – about anti-Semitism, when some of the worst offenders are in the Trump orbit. Hate crimes against Jews and other religious minorities have gone up under Trump, obviously, because he gives permission and outlets for the worst kinds of hate in the world. The Tree of Life terrorist attack came from the Trump world. The attacker was just disappointed that Trump wasn’t going far enough or fast enough.
The speech wasn’t just offensive to me as a Jew. Also, as a woman, it was mind-numbing for me to listen to the Trump people talk about religious freedom in front of the whole world. After all, for American women, the greatest threat to religious freedom is Mike Pence himself. He is the king of the party in which women are considered nothing more than incubators for male seed, where contraception is considered murder, and a woman who has a miscarriage can end up in prison. Mike Pence and his radical Christian ideologies that are now being backed by packed courts throughout the country are the real threat to women’s religious freedom – and to women’s lives.
Worse than listening to these Trump frauds talk about anti-Semitism as if it is something they care about or know something about – once again, feeling like Jews are being used for political gain – was listening to Trump read the word “Yazidis” off of his page. This was the biggest sham. When Nadia Murad, the Nobel-Prize winning Yazidi survivor and warrior was in the Oval Office, Trump did not acknowledge her existence. He did not get up from his chair or look her in the eye or know her name. And when she said that her family had been killed, he insensitively asked, “Where is your family now?” This man, who is supposedly the leader of the free world, cares less about Yazidis than he does about anti-Semitism. Hearing him mention Yazidis today was nauseating.
The real motivation behind this “religious freedom” prank became obvious when he talked about Christians who die from religious persecution around the world. This is the narrative that fuels his entire campaign. It is the idea that Christians are under attack, and that his administration needs to save world Christianity from invisible enemies like feminists, gay men, and liberals. He even erroneously suggested that the American catchphrase “In God We Trust” supports his mission for saving a Christianity under threat.
Let’s remember that in America, there is still separation of Church and State. It is not the president’s job to protect Christianity – in fact, that would be against the constitution. Let’s also remember that Christian men are not victims in America. Christian men have been and continue to be the most dominant, powerful group in all of American history. To wit, every president and vice president has been a Christian man.
This entire spectacle was nothing more than an excuse for Trump to say to his religious right base that they are the real victims in America, threatened by what normal people could only call natural human diversity. He coopted what is an important and serious issue – religious persecution – and twisted it around in the way only Trump can do so that it means exactly the opposite of what it is meant to be while providing rhetorical ammunition to his white, Christian base. And he killed two birds with one stone by shifting the cameras away from this historic Climate Change Summit so that the media would not be writing about how Trump is the greatest destroyer of the earth. He accomplished all that. And I sat there in the studio, unable to share most of these thoughts, stuck in the media suck-up-to-Trump. It was awful on so many levels.
Trump doesn’t have the moral authority to act as protector of human rights when his administration is arguably the greatest violator of those rights that the office of the President has ever seen.
Still, within all this, there is a source of light. I watch Greta Thunberg, I think about the amazing movement she has created and about the beautiful youthful energies that she has inspired in just a short time, and I have some hope. If there are any adults left in the room, it’s time for us to start listening to the kids. They know what is real and what is not.