Parallels with the Purim story are eerie, but nothing to laugh at.
It’s only natural these days to think of the most powerful and influential man in the land, if not the world.
He is known to be exceedingly vain, capricious and hot-tempered. Some take him for a fool; all fear him for the authority he wields. A womanizer, he has sponsored and judged international beauty contests, and takes great pride in displaying his beautiful wives. He surrounds himself with top aides who stoke his ego. He is known for making major decisions — often contradictory — that seem based on the counsel of the last adviser who had his ear.
Of special interest here, though, is the ongoing question of his relationship with the Jews under his domain: friend or foe?
Of course with Purim on the horizon (March 11-12), I’m referring to King Ahasuerus, who reigned over 127 provinces in ancient Persia, from India to Ethiopia, according to Megillat Esther. As the most-often named figure in the classic Purim story, he remains a mystery, neither outright villain nor hero, but an impulsive, unpredictable figure whose transactional style has him ordering the elimination of the Jews one moment, saving them the next.
Which led our sages over the centuries to wonder what he was thinking, what motivated him, and whether he should be remembered as ally or antagonist.
Those same questions now are asked about President Trump, who in the last week alone fully and publicly pledged his support for Israel while repeatedly resisting golden opportunities to condemn anti-Semitism here at home.
Standing beside Israel’s prime minster Feb. 15, Trump sought to reassure Jerusalem that its status as a key and coveted ally of the U.S. is secure after eight years of the nasty Obama-Netanyahu rift. But when asked about the disturbing increase in anti-Semitism in the U.S., Trump’s initial response was to remind his audience of his electoral college totals in the November election and speak of his observant Jewish daughter and son-in-law and three young grandchildren – an extreme example of the old “some of my best friends are” [fill-in-the-minority]” response often heard as an excuse from those who espouse bigotry.
The following day, at his marathon press conference, Trump replayed the scene, only more strikingly. Looking for a “friendly reporter” amidst a press corps he has ridiculed and sought to delegitimize, he called on a young charedi man, who prefaced his question by stating that neither he nor his community believe the president or anyone on his staff is anti-Semitic. He started to ask how the administration planned to respond to the dramatic increase in anti-Semitic acts in the country, but the president cut him off, annoyed. “Not a fair question,” he interrupted, “sit down.”
After the reporter, who writes for Ami magazine, obeyed, Trump asserted: “I am the least anti-Semitic person I know.” He accused the reporter of lying in saying that his question was direct and simple. “I find it repulsive, I hate even the question,” Trump said, pointing out that Prime Minister Netanyahu and others who know him vouch for his being a friend of Israel and not anti-Semitic.
Was this all just a misunderstanding? Did Trump hear the question as accusatory, even though the preamble made clear that it wasn’t the reporter’s intention? Further, given the uproar across the political and religious spectrum of the Jewish community following the president’s recent statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that omitted any reference to the Jews as the primary victim of the Nazis, why wouldn’t he seize the opportunity to clearly condemn anti-Semitism?
Last week President Trump fully and publicly pledged his support for Israel while repeatedly resisting golden opportunities to condemn anti-Semitism here at home.
Several administration officials responded to criticism of the Remembrance Day statement by doubling down. Rather than apologizing for the omission, they insisted it was intended to include all who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. That led to speculation Stephen Bannon, the White House chief strategist, had a hand in the statement. It was his Breitbart website that has given a platform to the alt-right, whose leaders seek to de-Judaize the Holocaust.
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After the incident, Deborah Lipstadt, the Emory professor and Holocaust historian, wrote in The Atlantic that “Holocaust denial is alive and well in the White House.” She describes it as “softcore” in nature in that it seeks to minimize rather than deny the facts, making “false comparisons to the Holocaust” and suggesting that “Jews use the Holocaust to draw attention away from criticism of Israel.”
Why Doesn’t President Speak Out?
There is no indication that Trump is an anti-Semite. But throughout 2016 and into his presidency, he has consistently averted full-throated condemnation of the kind of anti-Semitic statements, actions and rhetoric associated with his campaign — a campaign heralded by the likes of David Duke, the KKK and other racists. That lends credence to the notion that the president does not want to alienate his nationalist, white-supremacist followers. Otherwise, as the least anti-Semitic person he knows, wouldn’t he leap at the opportunity to acknowledge and condemn this disturbing trend?
The trend is clear that anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise, based on stats from the NYPD, ADL, Southern Law Poverty Center and other sources. Unless, of course, one considers them fake or alternative facts. Some defenders of the president in our community question the veracity of such institutions, saying they are biased, tilting left.
Morton Klein, president of the ZOA, discounts the ADL and poverty center reports, though he does find the NYPD credible. His explanation for the increase in anti-Semitism was new to me; he believes anti-Semites are so upset that Trump is pro-Israel and pro-Jewish that they are lashing out in anger through these acts.
(Klein also said Stephen Bannon told him he allowed the Breitbart website to include anti-Jewish content to expose the haters for who they are. Klein added that he himself didn’t necessarily agree with that explanation.)
Which brings us back to President Trump and his seeming resistance to speak out forcefully against the haters as he has against perceived enemies of our society. He is certainly not circumspect about calling out Muslims, Mexicans and other minorities. And historically, whenever national leaders have targeted specific groups as disloyal, Jews have suffered as well.
Is Trump’s behavior deliberate, or is he tone-deaf to American Jewish concerns? Is he a brilliant strategist giving voice to the base impulses of some among us, or is he more like the Peter Sellers character in “Being There,” one of limited scope whose every utterance is given great import by those around him? (Asked by the president about “temporary incentives” for the economy, Chance, a simple gardener played by Sellers, says “there will be growth in the spring,” sparking great enthusiasm.)
Theories abound, in part because Trump is so unknowable beneath the surface. But surely the Purim story will inspire intriguing parallels to current events when read this year. There is the malleable monarch (Ahasuerus/Trump) whose beautiful queen (Vashti/Melania) has distanced herself from the seat of power; the wicked adviser (Bannon, which doesn’t rhyme with Haman), rivaled by the elegant empress (Esther/Ivanka) who seeks to calm the king through the advice of the man she trusts (Mordechai/Jared).
Will the young couple prevail, convincing the persuadable president to ignore the menacing manipulator and assure security for the Jewish citizens of the land? The Book of Esther ends triumphantly with Haman’s hanging, and Mordechai and Esther accepted by all: “The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor,” we read.
As for The Book of Trump, we are only in the first chapter but it is already ripe with fear and feuding, conflict and conspiracies. Destined to be historic.