Thursday, April 2, 2020

Passover And The Plague Of Trump

Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax.  -- The Big Lebowski
Passover is a celebration of the liberation of the Jewish people from Egypt three thousand years ago. We've been telling and re-telling the story ever since -- including many times over the centuries where we have had to improvise in the face of danger and uncertainty.  It is a story that continues to resonate with us – especially during dark times -- because, as Jews do, we ask questions, search for answers, and try to connect the ancient story of overcoming hardship to our lives, our experiences and the society we live in today.  This year some of us will be lucky enough to be together with our families and to have the wherewithal to hold virtual seders with our loved ones who are sheltering in place elsewhere.  Others will not.

The Passover story is a universal story of liberation that not only reminds us that Jews were not always free, but challenges us to recognize that others throughout the world have suffered from and continue to struggle against tyranny in its many forms.  Indeed, there are now more displaced people around the world than at any time in recorded history, and there are even greater numbers of people at risk because of the corona virus.  This is their story too.  And so on Passover we not only put ourselves in the shoes – sandals, more likely – of the Hebrew slaves, but we stand with all who seek freedom, dignity, health and safety.

Some like Schmuel Rosen, who wrote an op-ed in the New York Times a few years ago, believe that the seder shouldn't be politicized -- that bringing contemporary politics into the mix of ritual and tradition trivializes this sacred festival.  But the Passover story is not an apolitical one.  It is about speaking truth to power, it is about how an oppressed people find and build power in their quest for freedom, and it is ultimately about finding solidarity with the stranger and those who continue to be oppressed.  I don't see how we can meaningfully celebrate our story of freedom and redemption without reflecting on how the current administration is undermining social justice and putting so many of us in harm's way, particularly those who already lack essential resources and community support.

Jonathan Chait responded to Rosen by pointing out that "this would not be such a problem if the sitting president did not bear such an uncanny resemblance to a villain from a traditional Jewish narrative. Like the Pharaoh, Trump is a builder fond of exploitative labor practices and an arch-nationalist, with a nasty habit of making deals then welching on his side of the bargain."  And, more recently, Trump, like the Pharaoh has been confronted with a deadly plague and made things worse, refusing to take even the most fundamental steps to thwart it.  (Pharaoh needed to let people go; Trump needed to get them to stay [at home].)

In the context of Trump's willfully ignorant and unconscionably inept response to the outbreak of the corona virus, Sarah Kendzior explains how nothing matters to him:  "not only in the sense that the things that matter to other people, like love and loss, do not matter to him. Nothingness itself matters: Destruction and annihilation are what he craves."  And so, "[f]or months, Mr. Trump has done little to stop the coronavirus from spreading throughout the U.S., creating a death toll that grows rapidly every day. As citizens self-isolate, he refuses to supply federal funds to states for the much-needed medical equipment, such as masks or ventilators ... This is who Mr. Trump is, who he always was. In a time when everything is changing, you can rely on Mr. Trump’s apathy to suffering."

It is Trump, himself, who is a plague on this country and on the world.  He rose to political power by promoting a racist lie about President Obama and then demonizing Mexicans and Muslims.  He continues to exploit our Nation's darkest and most racist tendencies, inspiring and encouraging white nationalists and anti-Semites.  He has unleashed the federal government on undocumented immigrants, breaking up families with unspeakable malice and sweeping up hard-working, law-abiding, long-standing residents.  Now he is scapegoating "others" for the spread of the corona virus when his abject failure of leadership is at its root, while using the fear of the virus's spread to further clamp down on immigrants and asylum seekers.  Meanwhile, with extraordinary numbers of people getting sick, his administration continues its efforts to restrict access to health care.  Most recently, Trump callously refused to reopen Affordable Care Act enrollment so that the uninsured -- including the vast numbers of recently unemployed -- can get much-needed assistance with rising medical costs.

In short, Trump continues to aggressively pursue policies that cause unrelenting hardship to the most marginalized and vulnerable in our society.  As Adam Serwer stated in a much-quoted essay, "the Trump era is such a whirlwind of cruelty that it can be hard to keep track" --  indeed, for Trump, "the cruelty is the point."  But we have to keep track of the cruelty, the corruption and the lack of human decency, which are having increasingly devastating consequences.

As Chait noted, Passover commemorates not only "a minority group’s survival against persecution, [but] contain[s] larger warnings about the kinds of conditions that give rise to such persecution."  If Passover isn't a time for speaking out against injustice and calling out today's tyrants and their enablers, then, to paraphrase that great Jewish scholar Alvy Singer, "what's the point?"

The original version of this post was published on April 11, 2017.  

Follow Fair and Unbalanced on Twitter @FairUnbalanced1 and on Facebook

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