It Can Happen Here

By Burt Siegel

Burt at Jef Pollock EventPresident Trump’s pitiful statements about the violence in Charlottesville re-ignited the debate concerning his attitudes about the Jewish people. In defending Trump, his supporters often point to the fact that his daughter Ivanka married a modern Orthodox Jew and converted to Judaism. However, this ploy continues to have little sway, as Trump remains an unpopular figure with most American Jews (see article in New York Times, August 23).

But no matter how much we opposed a Trump presidency, it is likely that few of us thought we would see men wearing Nazi regalia cursing and physically attacking Jews, African Americans, Gays, Hispanics, immigrants, and anyone else they hate on the streets of one of our most progressive college communities. Nor would we believe that any President, even one as inadequate and vile as Donald Trump, could see such violence and respond by only uttering “a plague on both your houses” sort of statement.

Despite this, poll after poll shows Trump maintaining tremendous support among Republicans (see Gallup poll, for example). What does our faith have to say about this unyielding support? We are told in Leviticus that God forbids us to stand idly by while our neighbor bleeds. But members of the Republican party, with few exceptions, have done just that. It is ironic that many of these elected officials have been critical of moderate Muslim leaders for not taking stronger positions in opposition to Islamic extremism. Certainly, to do so outside the U.S. takes a good deal of courage. Yet we have seen very little courage on the part of Republican members of the House and Senate. And those who have criticized Trump typically have little to fear when it comes to their political futures.

See Hear Speak No Evil

When I think about those who do nothing as others suffer, I am reminded of a passage from Dante’s Inferno. Dante and his guide Virgil pass by a group of dead souls outside the entrance to Hell. These individuals, when alive, remained neutral at a time of great moral decision. Virgil explains to Dante that these souls cannot enter heaven because of their neutrality in the face of evil. They are therefore worse than the greatest sinners and are condemned to the hottest circle. If this assessment strikes some as too harsh, so be it.

So, what do we progressive Jews do now? Atonement and well-meaning lawn signs opposing hate don’t change very much. If we truly care about the future of our nation and the legacy we will leave for our children and grandchildren, we must do all that we can to change the character and culture of our government. Republican elected officials, at every level, must be made to understand that if they don’t denounce the Trump administration and call for his removal from office now, they are accessories to the crime of a war on our American democratic values.

With this in mind, I urge DJOP supporters to call Republican Congressmen and Senators, even Republican state legislators, as well as party officials, and ask them what they are planning on doing to save our nation. And encourage your family and friends, regardless of their faith, to do the same. For a directory of members of the U.S. House and Senate, click here; for a directory of members of the PA General Assembly, click here.

I recently reread Sinclair Lewis’ frightening 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here about a fascist government taking over America. In the novel, the president’s appeal was largely to white, economically frustrated men. Increasingly, his rhetoric was racist, anti-Semitic and misogynistic, and before long, he establishes concentration camps to imprison his political enemies. Contrary to the title of his book, Lewis was actually cautioning that something like this could happen here. While I’m loath to be overly dramatic, present circumstances have caused me to worry that Lewis’ dystopian view of our future could become a reality.

We are seeing evidence of the first part of Lewis’ premonition. A candidate, who largely appealed to white, economically frustrated men, has won the presidency. His rhetoric is increasingly racist and anti-Semitic; he shows little regard for women and the issues that affect them.

Will the second part of Lewis’ premonition materialize? Will this president turn from using mean-spired statements to silence his opponents, to downright tyrannical methods? Whether this happens is up to us. Don’t take anything for granted.

Burt Siegel is a founding member of DJOP and serves on DJOP’s leadership team. He formerly served as Executive Director of the Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council. He also served as the Vice Chair of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. He has been honored by the NAACP, the Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, B’nai B’rith Educators, Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations and the Japanese American Citizens League. For questions or comments about the commentary above, contact Burt at burtsiegel@gmail.com.

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