November 21, 2018

Beware of ‘great friends’

Yesterday’s press conference with President Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrated, as if one needed more evidence, that political leaders—no matter the nation they lead—have agendas that force them to bend logic and good sense. They have no compunction about opining on issues on which they have limited expertise.

At the press conference Trump was asked by an Israeli journalist about the rise in anti-Semitic incidents since the inception of his campaign. In now typical Trump fashion, he answered with a non-sequitur that had nothing to do with the question or the underlying issues. He meandered through a citation of his Electoral College victory, clichés about “you’re going to see a lot of love” and “we are going to stop crime,” and then the coup de grace (his universal antidote for charges of insensitivity or ignorance about Jewish issues) that his daughter, son-in-law and three grandkids are Jewish.

Neither his Electoral College margin nor the religion of his daughter and grand kids have any relation to the question of whether he is “playing with xenophobia and maybe racist overtones.” His failure for the umpteenth time to respond to the question of anti-Semitism in an appropriate way elicited a brave response from the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt (one of the few Jewish leaders to demonstrate leadership in challenging times),

[Trump] missed an opportunity to decry the rhetoric of hate that seems to be surging online and in the real world…..Intentional or not, this emboldens anti-Semites.

We have come to expect this tone deafness from the Trump Administration—from their use of the fraught “America First” theme as their motto, to omitting any mention of Jews from their Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, to their even more egregious denunciation of the leaders who dared to question that omission as “pathetic.”

But for the prime minister of Israel to reflect the same tone deafness on the issue of anti-Semitism is deeply troubling. His gratuitous and inappropriate endorsement of the president as “a great friend of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, there is no doubt about this,” reveals that he doesn’t get the dynamics of prejudice and hate in the Diaspora.

To suggest, as Netanyahu did, that “Trump and his team” were “friends of the Jewish people” is absurd on its face.

Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor, Steve Bannon, trafficked in conspiracy theories about international “elites” just a few months ago when he was the head of Breitbart News. He fostered links between far right movements in Europe and the US. He attacked “globalists, international bankers” (often code words for Jews), described Pope Francis as a “socialist/communist;” he expressed admiration for one of the intellectual forebears of Italian fascism and proponent of anti-Semitism Julius Evola. That is to not even mention his proclaimed admiration for Lenin: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Netanyahu needed to do a bit of homework about whom he gave his hechsher (a kosher seal of approval) to. His vigorous endorsement of “Trump and his team” was gratuitous and troubling. There has never been a chief advisor to the president whose priorities are so alien to how our system operates.

Trump has made his bed with Bannon and his baggage, but Netanyahu might want to take a lesson from history before he jumps in any further. Whether Bannon likes Jews or not is not the dispositive issue—it’s his distorted dangerous Manichean view of the world.

Those who consort with extremists like Bannon who have a single vision (for him that vision is “America First” and an arcane notion of “Traditionalism” that decries the influence of modernity and even the notion of compromise) will find they have a bedmate who will come back and haunt them. They don’t value allies, they value only clones because they know the right and the ONLY way.

In 1852 Nathaniel Hawthorne sounded the alarm about those, like Bannon, who have surrendered themselves to a single overruling purpose and who are convinced that they alone know the course of history,

They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience. They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them and cannot take the second, and the third, and every other step of their terribly straight path.

As long as Bannon and crew are in power, Bibi, and boatloads of others, better beware of whom they ally with and “their terribly straight [and uncompromising] path.”