November 12, 2019

Eisen and Ross on Ethical Democracy

From left: David Lehrer, Dennis Ross and Norm Eisen at Valley Beth Shalom. Photo by Ryan Torok

Author and CNN commentator Norman Eisen believes there is an “axis of illiberalism that is anchored on the two sides of the [Atlantic] ocean,” when it comes to President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Eisen, the former ambassador to the Czech Republic and ethics czar under President Barack Obama, made his remarks at a Sept. 26 event at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) titled “The Assault on Ethical Democracy at Home and in Europe.” He was also in town to promote his recently published book, “The Last Palace,” inspired by his experiences living in the Ambassador’s Residence in the Czech Republic.

Ambassador and Middle East expert Dennis Ross, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, co-headlined the conversation, organized by Jews United for Democracy and Justice (JUDJ) and Community Advocates, Inc., headed by David Lehrer.

The event drew about 600 people, including former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Jewish World Watch co-founder Janice Kamenir-Reznik, who was among the founding members of JUDJ in 2017.

Eisen spoke of how the Petschek House (the name of the palace in his book), was a metaphor for the three main surges of democracy Europe experienced over the last century: in 1918 and in 1945, at the end of World War I and World War II, respectively; and in 1989, when the Berlin wall came down.

Referring to a Rosh Hashanah sermon denouncing President Trump by VBS Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Eisen said, “Every one of these surges has been met with on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean eventually with a counterattack, but never before —I feel liberated by the rabbi’s sermon to say whatever I want — has the counterattack invaded the Oval Office, the holy of holies of American democracy. So we are in a very unique situation now.”

Eisen quipped, “I can say [Rabbi Feinstein’s] inspiring Rosh Hashanah sermon made it all the way to the East Coast. I only shared it with my fellow socialists, so no one was outraged by it.”

Ross was also blunt when it came to critiquing the current president. He called on the Jewish community to stand up and speak out against his falsehoods. 

“We look at these populist leaders who challenge expertise, who want to fuzz facts and the reality,” Ross said. “Jews are the people of the book. If you’re the people of the book, you really cannot believe in alternative facts.”

With his anti-immigrant rhetoric, his quotas on refugees and his “America First” slogan, Trump’s emphasis on nationalism undercuts Jewish values, Ross added.

“In our tradition, we’re supposed to accept the stranger,” he said. “Accepting the stranger appears 36 times in the Torah. The idea that you accept ‘the other’ is the essence of democracy. The idea of rejecting the other is the essence of nationalism.”

Despite his criticism of the current presidency, Ross said he is nonetheless optimistic that things will eventually return to normal.

“[I] can’t predict if it will be a short eclipse or a long night,” he said, “but the dawn of democracy always comes back.”