Bernard-Henri Lévy– ‘Fellow Jews, Be Wary of Trump’
By BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY, New York Times
A few weeks back, both Israel and American Jews were betrayed by Barack Obama. By allowing the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution condemning Israeli settlement building, the outgoing president took the easy way out at their expense.
But today the risk is that Israel and America’s Jews (as well as those of other countries) should harbor the same illusions of true support that they did during the Obama administration, and be strung along before being betrayed again, this time by President Donald J. Trump.
One might object that Mr. Trump has given ample evidence of his benevolence — for example, by naming a friend of Israel to serve as ambassador, by promising the transfer of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and by asking his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, an orthodox Jew and the grandson of Holocaust survivors, to advise him on the peace process in the White House. Aren’t these decisive steps that should reassure Jews who support Israel?
Yes and no.
There is a law that governs the relations between the Jews and the rest of the world. That law was articulated in one form at the time of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, when the great Jewish thinker Gershom Scholem faulted Hannah Arendt for falling short of “ahavat Israel” — for showing insufficient “love of the Jewish people.”
This love is precisely what is required of an American president in dealings affecting Israel.
In such circumstances, and contrary to the adage that applies in most ordinary circumstances of life, that law says that demonstrations of love count for less, paradoxically, than love itself. It says, to be precise, that gestures of friendship, when they do not come from the bottom of the heart and are not built on sincere love — that is, finally, on a deep and true knowledge of the love object — are gestures that eventually may turn into their opposite. To put an even finer point on it, we cannot rule out the possibility that Trump’s series of ostentatiously promising signals directed at Israel may have sinister effects in the long or even short term.
Those signals may, for example, strengthen the most shortsighted and therefore suicidal fringe of Israeli politics. It may send the wrong signal to those who would be only too happy to see the United States set the example of making unilateral, unnegotiated decisions, thereby opening the way to other shows of force. In the United States, it may generate an overly enthusiastic embrace by pro-Israel Jews of a volatile president (one likely, depending on the needs of his deals, to change his mind), one who is so deeply unpopular with so many Americans that his embrace of Israel, however fleeting, could endanger the bipartisan consensus that has been so beneficial to Israel over the decades.
I cannot claim any knowledge of Donald Trump’s “heart” or of the sincerity of his commitment to the Jewish state. But there have been indications going back decades.
One was provided by John O’Donnell, a former chief operating officer of Trump’s Atlantic City casino, who, in his 1991 book “Trumped!” quoted Trump as saying: “The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.”
More recently, there was a 2013 tweet storm in which, desperate to show that he was “smarter” than the “overrated” Jon Stewart, Trump saw fit to rip off the mask behind which stood Jonathan Leibowitz, the Jewish name Stewart was born with.
And then, in mid-campaign, there was the meeting in which Trump told donors from the Republican Jewish Coalition: “I know why you’re not going to support me! It’s because I don’t want your money.”
These statements suggest, to say the least, a certain contempt.
More precisely, they reflect that well-known variety of contempt that, according to Freud, serves to anticipate and defend the ego against the presumed contempt of the other.
Whether the original disdain is real or imaginary matters little.
Whether Jon Stewart or the Jewish Republican donors disdained the kitschy builder with his flamboyant hair, his money, his bling and his properties, including the now world-famous Trump Tower, is obviously not the question.
The essential thing is that President Trump thinks they did, that he seems to see Jews as the caricature of the New York establishment that, for decades, took him for an agreeable but vulgar showman.
This is a perfect example of the self-defensive contempt that has so often fed anti-Semitism, with the Jews appearing, once again, as representatives of an elite that patronized him and against whom he can, now that he is in power, quietly take his revenge.
It reminds me of a story from the Talmud that illustrates this logic well.
It is the story — part history and part “aggadic” embellishment — of Rabbi Yehudah Nessia, one of the foremost figures of Jewish thought of the third century.
Rabbi Yehudah ran a school that a young Roman swineherd would pass by nearly every day. The students at the school, their heads full of knowledge and a sense of their own superiority, never missed a chance to mock and beat the pig farmer. Years later, Rabbi Yehudah was summoned to the distant city of Caesarea Philippi, to appear before Roman Emperor Diocletian. It seemed that the emperor was full of consideration for his guest. He sent to him one of his most distinguished ambassadors and ordered that a sumptuous bath be provided to allow his guest to cleanse himself after his dusty voyage.
But Diocletian also sent his ambassador on a Friday, so that Rabbi Yehudah would be forced to travel on the Sabbath, violating the most important of commandments.
The emperor also heated the baths to such a degree that the rabbi would have been boiled to death — a fate from which the rabbi was saved by the last-minute intervention of an angel, who cooled the waters.
When the rabbi appeared before Diocletian, he recognized the former swineherd, who said to him with spite, “Just because your god performs miracles, you think you can scorn the emperor?”
I cite this story because it provides a good metaphor for the West today, where, as in ancient Rome, the triumph of nihilism can enable a pig farmer — anybody — to become emperor.
It is a good example, too, of Jewish wisdom, which responds to the situation as follows: “We had contempt for Diocletian the swineherd, but we are ready to honor Diocletian the emperor provided he, like Saul — who, before becoming king had tended donkeys — heeds the prophecy, rises to his office, and becomes a new man.”
And, above all, it is a good allegory of the double-edged favors, or, if you will, the poison apples, proffered by a humiliated swineherd, eager for revenge, who decides to show Jon Stewart and his fellow Jews that he is indeed smarter than they are.
In the face of this situation, nothing is more important, it seems to me, than to maintain a measure of distance.
Like all other American citizens, Jews must respect the president-elect in the forms provided in the Constitution. But they must not fall into the trap of believing in his inconsistent and ultimately double-edged benevolence. They must not forget that, no matter how many times Mr. Trump declares his love for Israel, for Benjamin Netanyahu or anyone else, he will remain a bad shepherd who respects only power, money and the perquisites of his palaces, while caring nothing for miracles, of course, and not a whit for the vocation of study and the cultivation of intelligence that are the light of the Jewish tradition.
And they should be aware, finally, that in this period that has been labeled, for lack of a better word, populist, and of which the American election is but an outsize symptom; in a time when thought is attacked from all sides and when lies are flourished with unparalleled arrogance and aplomb; in this new political culture that has now encircled the earth, one in which, from the American plutocrats to their Russian oligarch cousins, the swineherds slap their pedigree shamelessly on imperial palaces, the little Jewish nation has no part to play.
To ally with that sort of “populism” would be to betray Israel’s calling.
To surrender to Diocletian would be to betray oneself and to take the terrible risk of no longer being who one is.
For the heirs of a people whose endurance over millenniums was because of the miracle of a tradition of thought nourished, rekindled and resown with each generation and through a constantly refined body of commentary, the challenge is clear: Any sacrifice of the calling to intellectual, moral and human excellence; any renunciation of the duty of exceptionalism that — from Rabbi Yehuda to Kafka and from Rashi to Proust and Levinas — has provided the ferment for its almost incomprehensible resistance; any concession, in a word, to Trumpian nihilism would be the most atrocious of capitulations, one tantamount to suicide.
I say this out of an old and enduring love that forms the core of my being, love not only for Israel but also for the world’s greatest democracy, the United States of America.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French philosopher, filmmaker and activist. His most recent book is “The Genius of Judaism.”
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