Wednesday, April 5th, 2017...11:34 am

Editorial: Back to Egypt

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In his recent review of Haggadot, Forward columnist Jay Michaelson comments, “We disagree about many things, and we argue about them at the Seder. But this year, as we watch a minority-elected president attack the press, the courts, immigrants and allies around the world, it feels like the opposite of seder, which means ‘order.’ It feels, to many of us, like a new pharaoh has arisen — arbitrary, capricious and mean.”

The “new pharaoh,” of course, is Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, and his presence in the Oval Office makes many of us anxious. We awake each day with the sense that things are not quite right with the new regime in Washington.

“Jewish mental health professionals… say they have seen an unprecedented increase in stress, sadness and other negative feelings that clients are directly tying to the election and its aftermath,” writes JTA’s Josefin Dolsten, in a story that appears in this issue.

“Their testimonies speak to a larger trend: A January study by the American Psychological Association found that more than half of all Americans cited the political climate as a very or somewhat significant source of stress.”

To put it in the context of the Exodus story — which Jews are commanded to recount in personal terms, as if each of us was with the Children of Israel leaving cruel bondage in Egypt — the fresh air of freedom now seems polluted. Mitzraim, Egypt, has descended upon the Promised Land — or its American version, a country where Jews found great opportunity and prosperity.

As we prepare to celebrate our Festival of Freedom, we see a threat to civil liberties in many spheres. As a journalist, I parted ways with a candidate who joked during the presidential campaign about killing reporters. Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, referred to the press as the “opposition party”; and the president branded journalists as “the enemy of the American People!”

As far as I can see, the main crime committed by the press has been accurately reporting the lies and inanities spewing from the Tweeter-in-Chief.

Some readers might reflect, “Well, all politicians lie.” This is true in a sense; but we have a horse of a different color with Trump. He is a profligate liar, and sends out his subordinates (Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller, et al.) to back up the boss, with their own extravagant dissembling. Conway, as many will recall, defended press secretary Spicer’s flagrant lies about the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration as “alternative facts.”

The mainstream press, which stills clings to a thin shred of hope that the president will soon stop acting like a juvenile delinquent, is coming around to the unpleasant truth about the extreme narcissist wielding executive branch power.

The Los Angeles Times, for example, is rolling out a four-part editorial this week that assembles all of Trump’s debacles and failings over the first few months of his presidential tenure.

The first editorial is titled “Our Dishonest President.” The Times editorial writers note, in part: “What is most worrisome about Trump is Trump himself. He is a man so unpredictable, so reckless, so petulant, so full of blind self-regard, so untethered to reality that it is impossible to know where his presidency will lead or how much damage he will do to our nation. His obsession with his own fame, wealth and success, his determination to vanquish enemies real and imagined, his craving for adulation — these traits were, of course, at the very heart of his scorched-earth outsider campaign; indeed, some of them helped get him elected. But in a real presidency in which he wields unimaginable power, they are nothing short of disastrous.”

With a president uttering a continual stream of lies, who will believe him in the event of a major geopolitical crisis? We see a ramping up of bellicose rhetoric about North Korea and Iran; and the U.S. has drastically escalated the number of drone and missile strikes in Iraq and Yemen, which have resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties. We should not be surprised by this turn of events, as Trump boasted on the campaign trail that he was the “most militaristic” person in the world — except for the part about actually serving in the U.S. military.

A number of commentators have raised the possibility that Trump will initiate a war in order to distract attention from his failing presidency. In a Jewish World editorial last August, I warned: “Most readers can see the potential problem of a thin-skinned neophyte politician having access to nuclear weapons: If a foreign nation would rile Pres. Trump in some way, he could nuke ’em. Problem solved.”

As Jay Michaelson notes, there should be some raucous arguments at Seders this year, in regard to the “new pharaoh.” We are equipped to resist tyranny — from a pharaoh or a president — by the liberation message in the Passover liturgy, our prophetic tradition and our experience of repression in many lands and eras.

“Liberation itself is sacred. To come out of bondage is to discover God, even if you don’t call it by that name,” wrote Rabbi Arthur Green, in a blog for The Huffington Post last year. “To exult in freedom is to reclaim the divine image that had been robbed from you by your oppressor. When the Torah says (in Deuteronomy 26:8) that God brought us forth from Egypt ‘with great awe,’ the Passover Haggadah comments: ‘This was God’s presence revealed!’ This is true no matter what your ‘Egyptian bondage’ is.”

The Jewish community, a minority in America, is resourceful and influential beyond its numbers. We have excelled in the arts, sciences and politics. I occasionally point out that Minnesota, with a Jewish community numbering less than one percent of the state population, has been represented by a Jewish U.S. senator continuously since 1978. (In three Senate races during this time span, Jewish major party candidates ran against each other: Paul Wellstone and Rudy Boschwitz, 1990 and 1996; and Al Franken and Norm Coleman, 2008.)

Perhaps some us are made nervous by talk of Jewish political influence; but the point is that we can wield power for the benefit of people who are struggling, for those on the margins of society. We should be proud of the efforts of local activist groups like Jewish Community Action (JCA), which participates in coalitions promoting racial and economic justice. The contradictions in our society have been sharpened by the emergence of an extreme right-wing agenda on the federal level. As JCA, along with other groups, tries to bring “a distinctly Jewish voice to the fight for justice,” each of us can find some way in which to help better society and protect our planet.

As we consider the Passover message of liberation, and celebrate the birth of the Jewish people, we should be mindful that our fates are intertwined. Many of us live comfortable lives in Twin Cities suburbs; but we all depend on the health of the planet for our sustenance. And if our society corrodes, the future will find us no matter where we reside.

The editors and staff of the American Jewish World wish all of our readers a happy and meaningful Passover.

— Mordecai Specktor / editor (at) ajwnews [dot] com

(American Jewish World, 4.7.17)

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