Over the past 2 weeks, the issue of anti-Semitism has been elevated to the top of the pile of criticisms being leveled at President Trump and his new administration. Data from the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center has shown increases in anti-Semitic incidents, first over the course of the presidential campaign last year, and again in the opening weeks of 2017. Many critics of Trump accuse him of being anti-Semitic. Defenders of the president respond by saying how can this be if his daughter has converted to Judaism and if all of his grandchildren are Jewish?
The tensions over this began to boil over at a press conference on February 17, when the Chasidic reporter, Jake Turx, asked Trump a question. He began by assuring the President he did not think he was anti-Semitic, because of his family relationships, but asked what the administration was going to do about the surge of anti-Semitic incidents. Trump clearly did not grasp the nuance in the question, taking it as a personal accusation of anti-Semitism. He responded that he was neither anti-Semitic nor racist. When the reporter tried to interrupt to clarify, he told him to be quiet and sit down. This exchange fired up criticism of Trump, especially in the aftermath of the administration’s statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day that did not mention Jewish suffering in the Holocaust.
Finally, after the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, and after much criticism by multiple sources – both Jewish and non Jewish – President Trump issued a strong statement condemning anti-Semitism. This still did not satisfy his critics, who held that Trump must be proactive in his stance against anti-Semitism, indeed all prejudice, instead of reactive. So the question remains, is Trump really an anti-Semite?
I would say he is not. This will upset all my friends who are (justifiably I think) critical of Trump. No, he is not anti-Semitic. Trump is anti Buber, as in Martin Buber.
For those who are not familiar with the 20th century Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, allow me to offer a short lesson on his theology. Buber maintained that humans engage in two kinds of relationships. The first is our relationship with the items we use to get things done in every day life, i.e. our car, our clothes, our computer, our food. These relationships he calls “I/it” relationships. We are in relation with “things.” The second kind of relationship is with other humans. These relationships depend on personal connections, or what Buber calls “I/thou” relationships. The best “I/thou” relationships are those in which we feel deep and immediate synergy with another person. We have all had that experience. You meet someone for the first time and there is instant connection, instant appreciation, that both people feel. For Buber, the poisoning of human relationships occur when a person engages another as an “it” instead of a “thou.” In other words, when we treat someone like an object instead of a person who shares with us the presence of God within our souls, they become an “it.”
That is precisely what President Trump does. He does not see others as humans within whom God dwells, but as objects to be manipulated. This attitude was obvious from the very beginning of his presidential campaign, when he targeted Mexicans. In fact, he was not expressing his prejudice against Mexicans, rather he was using them to motivate support in a slice of the electorate that is prejudiced against Mexicans, indeed against any person who is not like them. I would bet that on a personal basis, Trump could care less about Mexicans, about Muslims, about African Americans or about Jews. He sees all people as objects, as “things” to be used. This is proven not just by politics, but by his attitude towards women, which his supporters refuse to acknowledge. All he cares about is how he can use and manipulate people’s prejudices against any of these groups to rally support for himself. In Buber’s language, his only relationships are “I/it.” This manipulation, by the way, includes his supporters, who have been played by a master manipulator and showman.
Our country’s great step backwards, I believe, is in the cold, uncaring way Trump, and his administration, looks at the American constituency. He sees us as two camps, either for or against him. If you do not agree with what he says, you are the enemy. He does not see the need to create any “I/thou” relationships with his opposition. This is completely different, by they way, from both the Obama administration and the George W. Bush administration. Both presidents, while certainly manipulative as most politicians, also had many moments where they demonstrated the desire for connection with the “other,” or at least a reaching out to understand the “other.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read, “When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” Rashi speculates that this only applies to an “enemy” who is Jewish. But in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 32b) is another perspective. It poses the possibility that your helping an enemy, any enemy, may help create an atmosphere of peace, to turn away his and your yetzeir hara, the evil inclination, which leads to aggression. It is our job, as commanded in this week’s Torah portion (and in the previous verse as well) to reach out and help those who we see as our enemy. It is the only way to change hearts.
President Trump is not anti-Semitic. He is worse. He is completely uncaring as to how his words and actions effect anyone not catering to his whim. He treats people like things, not like expressions of God’s presence.