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Article: Dignity, Dialogue and Donald Trump

Published: November 18, 2016. Author: Rabbi Zalman Kastel. Theme:  Politics.

About The Author

Zalman Kastel was raised and ordained as a Rabbi in the Chasidic Jewish tradition in
a racially divided part of Brooklyn NY. Encounters with Christians and Muslims transformed him. He is National Director of Together for Humanity Foundation, an interfaith organisation that fosters acceptance of difference, a sense of belonging together, and connectedness between people of different beliefs and ethnicitie

Dignity, Dialogue and Donald Trump

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Human dignity is greatly emphasized in Judaism. The threat that Trump’s election poses to the dignity of women and minorities is very serious. As one Trump supporter put it: “the effect of Trump is that everything becomes permissible” (1). The risk is that Trump will normalise bigotry and hate-speech to the extent that we are less aware and less questioning of hurtful and humiliating behaviour in the future. However, our solidarity with minorities does not require dismissing the indignities of those doing it tough, including rural white voters who voted for Trump in overwhelming numbers. . Furthermore, I suggest we even take a moment to think about Trump’s own indignity. I know, I ask for a lot from many who are outraged about this election, but there is a time for everything, (2) and now more than ever is a time for dialogue and exploration rather than building walls.  

My call for dialogue does not preclude howling in indignation. On the contrary, it might well be a time “to hurl (assertive but civil and strictly verbal) stones”. To speak of Trump without condemnation is, in most cases, to condone his sins. His rhetoric against Mexicans and Muslims recalls the cruelty of the city of Sodom to outsiders in a xenophobic effort to preserve the wealth of its fertile valley (3). Condemnation counters the normalization of deplorable views, but of course calling people deplorable based on their likely voting intentions is unwise, and it is also wrong.

As Jews we need to emulate Abraham, who welcomed all travelers into his homes even if their beliefs (5) and values were diametrically opposed to his own. On social media, I have noticed a ‘trend to unfriend’ those who support trump by those opposed to him. The research shows that engaging people with prejudices can be effective (6) (see the article referred to in this footnote for one touching example of successfully canvassing for Trans rights through non-judgemental conversation and empathy). In such conversations it is important to listen more than we talk.

I tried some respectful engagement myself this morning in a Jewish Whatsapp group that includes some Trump supporters, where someone posted a racist comment. Instead of moralising, I appealed to self interest by pointing out that the racists who despise Muslims, Mexicans and Blacks also hate Jews. My comments on the Whatsapp chat emboldened other members of the group to also speak out against racism within the group chat.

trump-supportersSome have argued, and I think correctly, that one factor that contributed to Trump’s support was an anger by white rural voters toward sophisticated city people who talked down to them. This perceived disrespect is part of what drove the anger toward elitism that pervaded American society, that was exploited, by Donald Trump to drive passion and energy into his supporters. This anger doesn’t justify degradation of any group, but we should not ignore the manifest anger that exists. This anger is borne of passion and stems from stories and backgrounds that we cannot always comprehend or understand – but we should try to understand it and address any genuine injustices and needs. The distinction between condoning specific expressions of anger and understanding their sources can be applied when thinking about Trumps relationship with the media.

One of the most powerful articles I read about Trump was by a journalist who observed Trump rile up his rural poor audiences against the “elite” journalists. He recounts:

“I was huddled in the media pen with the traveling press, awaiting the moment Trump would point at us and incite his 5,000 minions to jeer… (but) it only now dawned on me, in the final week of the campaign, to my great horror, that the real reason they put us in the pen was so they could turn us into props…He never once failed to invite his crowds to heckle us. He was placing us on display like captured animals. Behold, Trump said to his fans, I’ve rounded up a passel of those elites you detest. And I’ve caged them for you! Allow me to belittle them for your delight. Here, now you take a turn—go ahead, have at it! Do it again, don’t be shy!”.

However, an incident in 2011 suggests there might have been reveal a more personal l reason for Trumps enthusiasm for humiliating journalists, one which exemplifies the cycle of hurt and hate that Donald Trump was once a victim to, but is now perpetuating and leading. During that the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, Trump was repeatedly humiliated by President Obama and another comedian with cutting jokes. “Mr. Trump at first offered a drawn smile, then a game wave of the hand. But as the president’s mocking of him continued and people at other tables craned their necks to gauge his reaction, Mr. Trump hunched forward with a frozen grimace. After the dinner ended, Mr. Trump quickly left, appearing bruised” (7). He had been humiliated by 1000 laughing journalists. His revenge demonstrated that “hurt people, hurt people (8)”. We must break the cycle of hurt and take great care with our words (9). It is a time to heal!

Herein lies the one lesson of hope from an otherwise draining election: We must employ a radical empathy and understanding to all those who we encounter, regardless of divergent ideologies. Indeed, Leviticus instructs that “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk.” Thus, despite the hate-filled rhetoric from Donald Trump and his supporters, that has served to embolden hate, and the hostility from city folk toward rural people, now is the time to move past that mood and embrace dialogue over division.

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As Martin Luther King said “We’ve got some difficult days ahead..”, however “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”, for all people regardless of their skin color, gender, sexuality or faith. It our task, with patience, listening, compassion and curiosity as well as assertiveness to make sure that it does.

 

 

Notes:

  1. Milo Yiannopoulos, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/2016-election-day/elite-got-it-wrong-trump-s-supporters-want-you-know-n681121
  2. Ecclesiastes – Chapter 3
  3. Genesis 19, Talmud, Sanhedrin 109
  4. http://www.vox.com/identities/2016/11/15/13595508/racism-trump-research-study
  5. Rashi to Genesis 18:4
  6. Stevenson, S. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/11/on_the_trail_for_the_final_week_of_the_trump_campaign.html
  7. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/13/us/politics/donald-trump-campaign.html?_r=0,
  8. Will Bowen
  9. Jacobson, Y.Y., Rabbi, in a recorded talk shared on whatsapp
  10. Martin Luther King Jn. in The Mountaintop speech. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm