January 22, 2019

A reply to the Chabons’ ‘An Open Letter to Our Fellow Jews’

Michael Chabon and his wife, Ayelet Waldman, have written “An Open Letter to Our Fellow Jews.”

The Chabons let loose their online Jeremiad—addressed “To our fellow Jews, in North America, in Israel, and around the world: What side are you on?”— targeting the Trump-complicit “Court Jews” in and out of the White House including Jared Kushner, Steve Mnuchin, Gary Cohen, Sheldon Adelson, etc., etc., etc.:

“You have counted carefully as each appointment to his administration of a white supremacist, anti-Semite, neo-Nazi or crypto-fascist appeared to be counterbalanced by the appointment of a fellow Jew, . . . . You have given your support to the President’s long and appalling record of racist statements, at worst assenting to them, at best dismissing them as the empty blandishments of a huckster at work, . . . You have viewed him as a potential friend to Israel, or a reliable enemy of Israel’s enemies.”

And then the offer this final  haymaker: “You have tried to allay or dismiss your fears with the knowledge that most of the President’s hateful words and actions, along with those of his appointees, have targeted other people — immigrants, Black people, and Muslims — taking hollow consolation in how open and shameless his hate has been, as if that openness and shamelessness guaranteed the absence, in his heart and in his administration, of any hidden hatred for us. . . . So, now you know. First he went after immigrants, the poor, Muslims, trans people and people of color, and you did nothing. You contributed to his campaign, you voted for him. You accepted positions on his staff and his councils. You entered into negotiations, cut deals, made contracts with him and his government. Now he’s coming after you.”

The Chabons’ diatribe should be read in tandem with Dana Milbank’s execration in theWashington Post of “Court Jews” that reminds me of a curse to idolaters written on a pharaoh’s tomb. “These shtadlan . . . existed to please the king, to placate the king, to loan money to the king. He would dress like other members of the court, and he would beg the king for leniency toward the Jews but, ultimately, his loyalty was to the king.”

The Chabons and Milbank are not only certain that Donald Trump is an anti-Semite. They believe it is a moral imperative for everybody else among our coreligionists to share that opinion.

The Chabons’ is a letter that all of us should indeed read.

Anybody who’s read what I have written in the Jewish Journal knows that I never have been, and am not now, a fan of Donald Trump.

Why then do I have qualms about the Chabons’ open letter?

Their piece is a potent symptom of a powerful impulse that at this moment is turning up the moral heat and not just on Trump Administration Court Jews. All Jewish Republicans and conservatives—unless they dance to the Chabon/Milbank tune—receive, at least by implication, a rhetorical roasting.

The problem I have with such denunciations this. Even if the Chabons are 100 percent correct about Trump, their piece represents the opposite vice of Trumpian moral relativism about Charlottesville:  I mean moral absolutism. No  shades of gray, no nuance, no tolerance or benefit of the doubt for the other guy’s motives or predicament.

Moral absolutism comes too close to a form of totalitarianism: I am not comparing it to the Hitler-Stalin variety, of course.  Rather the danger here is something akin to that of the all-virtuous Robespierre during French Revolution.  He guillotined his fellow Jacobin revolutionaries over  any deviations from his political opinions.  It all did not end well for Maximilien Robespierre (himself guillotined in 1794) and the French—unless you are a big fan of Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial dictatorship.

The French Jacobins devoured their own back then. We American Jews should not do the same today.