Several weeks after 9/11, with the nation still reeling in shock and despair, “Saturday Night Live” returned to the air and provided a pivotal moment in the national road toward recovery.
At the opening of the show, and with a large group of New York’s finest first responders on stage, “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels turned to Mayor Rudy Giuliani and asked, “Can we be funny?”
The quick response: “Why start now?”
The laughter that followed was cathartic. America’s Mayor had given us permission to begin to ease back into some sense of normalcy.
I’ve been thinking of that moment in recent days. In the new era of Trump, with the president in open warfare with the press and other perceived enemies — including, now, his predecessor in the White House — and with the country so bitterly divided over its future, half the citizenry is still reeling in shock and despair over the November election results.
Surely it’s time to bridge the political chasm and find a way to begin to understand each other. I’m talking about the Trump critics who can’t get past his coarse narcissism and the Trump defenders who can’t understand why the critics won’t let go.
After many months of seeing this man satirized as a national joke and embarrassment for his boorish behavior, how are we to respond in the wake of his decidedly — perhaps shockingly — presidential manner in delivering a major address to Congress and the country last week, with its gentler tone and plea for unity?
No doubt many of us were relieved to find the president capable of speaking for an hour without focusing on the size of his crowds, electoral victory or body parts. But within days he seemed to revert to form, insisting without proof that President Obama, who had treated Trump with dignity, was responsible for leaks coming from the White House.
So the questions continue: Can Trump’s critics take him seriously? Are they prepared to engage with him rather than fight him every step of the way? Can his defenders acknowledge his flaws in personality and policy? Can we even talk it out? What’s best for the country?
As American Jews, loyal to both our flag and our heritage, the questions are even more pointed. We now have a president who openly favors the State of Israel in its struggle with its neighbors, whose U.N. representative boldly asserts that the U.S. will not abide by the world body’s blatant bias against Jerusalem and who has gone out of his way to show friendship to Prime Minister Netanyahu as a close and trusted ally.
I don’t take this attitudinal change at the White House lightly. Whether Trump’s diplomatic hug of Jerusalem could be too tight for its own good, limiting its future options and setting its neighbors off on a renewed path of violence, remains to be seen. For the moment, we should appreciate why so many Israelis are more hopeful today about a U.S.-Israel relationship that was strained for the last eight years because its top leaders couldn’t stand each other.
But this president has also embodied a violation of countless Jewish and Western values. His lack of compassion for minorities and foreigners, his efforts to undo environmental advances, his long resistance to call out racists and yes, anti-Semites, and his emphasis on nationalism add up to a direct rebuke of tikkun olam, the call to help heal the world, and our mandate to be a light unto the nations.
How, then, do we weigh Trump’s embrace of Israel with his rejection of half of America and much of the rest of the world?
These and other similar questions were raised in various forms on Sunday at the annual reunion of the alumni of The Conversation, The Jewish Week-sponsored retreat for a wide variety of thoughtful, creative and accomplished Jewish women and men from around the country.
One of the discussions I took part in was whether Jewish federations and other foundational organizations should steer clear of politics or lead the way in such debates. Was it their duty to speak out on the Iran nuclear agreement of two years ago? Some did (mostly in opposition to the Obama plan), the majority did not. One of our group said the mission of federations is to be apolitical in serving community needs, at home and around the world, and to politicize the charities is to weaken them. Others insisted they are losing respect for communal organizations expressing caution over the new administration’s actions, particularly on immigration, asserting that these groups have a moral responsibility to lead.
At the end of the day most of the participants at the reunion expressed appreciation for the fact that it allowed them to participate in open (though off-the-record), respectful and deep discussion on delicate subjects, even if they hadn’t reached a consensus. “This kind of safe space,” one person said, “is all too rare in our community,” which was described variously as “brittle,” “restless” and increasingly divided.
Whether our organizations should be avoiding or speaking out on controversial issues is part of the conversations they should be fostering. We need to create more safe places to talk about what’s best for our country — and our people — without rancor or revenge.
One approach is to hear and empathize with the position of “the other” before seeking compromise. Another is to put aside the past and not look back or agonize over old offenses or hurt on either side — just move forward.
Either way, the key is the willingness, even insistence, on reaching a better place together rather than justifying one’s resistance. If we can’t talk to each other, we can’t really call ourselves a community, much less a family.