A Time for “Eternal Vigilance”

Trauma is everywhere.

I know. My experience would not be shared if I lived in Youngstown, OH; Lansing, MI; or Green Bay, WI. But I don’t. I live in suburban Washington DC and I am a rabbi who works with and among Jews.

My synagogue was packed on the shabbat after the election. Many came who were not regulars because they needed one another and our rabbi created the space for people to share their feelings during the Torah service. It reminded me of how people flocked to our small, suburban synagogue on Long Island two days after the assassination of President Kennedy. It was not a shabbat; people were traumatized by the event and needed a community of comfort. A friend of mine who has been a long-term attorney in the Department of Justice indicated that he would need to resign, not because he was a political appointee but as a matter of principle; he could not serve in a Trump Administration. Another friend, a psychiatrist, indicated that new prescriptions for Xanax (anti-anxiety medication) were flying off her pad.

This column appeared in the New York Jewish Week on November 23, 2016.

In the week after the election I followed several rabbinic list serves. There were voices of reason suggesting that we need to work harder to understand the Trump voters so that we don’t exacerbate the divisions in our society. Admirable sentiments but I am not there yet. Our democracy is at grave peril from a President-elect who fans the flames of bigotry, has no regard for truth (e.g. Obama is not an American; climate change is a hoax), and whose primary behavioral filter is how his wealth or ego can be serviced.

A night that might have ended with a woman breaking the proverbial glass ceiling instead ended in a frightening echo of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Donald Trump won the Presidency on Nov. 9, 2016, the anniversary of the night that demonstrated that Hitler intended to act on his promises. It would be a pleasant surprise if a President Trump would walk back the dozens of irresponsible promises he made during the campaign. But for Americans to count on that would not only be utterly irresponsible but would also demonstrate a total disregard for history. Authoritarians are not mollified when they attain power, they become addicted to it and their appetite is rarely satiated.

I am not a person prone to fear or anxiety. I tend to be hopelessly optimistic and I am often teased about how much I trust everyone. But today, I am scared. The Southern Poverty Law Center recorded close to 500 hate incidents across America in the one week since the election. The Jewish tradition teaches us that human beings have both good and evil inclinations. The campaign of Donald Trump fed off of people’s fears. Hate speech, bigotry and even violence were the hallmarks of his rallies. Now, that behavior has been given sanction by his elevation to the highest office in the land. In schools and stadiums and public squares across the country, the bullies now have a champion and the weak will cower in fear. For the first time in my life, I feel deeply ashamed to be an American.

Thomas Jefferson said “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”. Indeed. I say that not in any partisan sense. It is not just progressives who will suffer when climate change deniers and the fossil fuel industry start to control environmental policies in this country. It is not just minorities who will suffer when the Department of Justice gives a wink and a nod to more “law and order” instead of serving as a break on the exercise of undue and often lethal force by police. Ironically, it will be Donald Trump’s base of the white working class that will suffer the most when tax rates are cut for the top 1%, the estate tax is eliminated, deficits balloon, and there is no money for jobs program, subsidized college education or health care.

We-as Americans and as Jews-have our work cut out for us. Now is not the time to “normalize” a President-elect who is so ill equipped to govern a nation or to give him six months to see if our worst fears will come to pass. It is a time for eternal vigilance.

It is a time for Americans to get back into the civic arena with time, energy, ideas and money. Join non-profits that champion the causes you care about. Ally with populations that are most at risk. Fight efforts to restrict voting rights that mostly target minorities and the poor. Exercise your rights to assemble in peaceful protests wherever and whenever power is exercised unjustly. Let the world know that the America that was once known as “the land of the free and the home of the brave” has not disappeared. If that spirit will not be made manifest in the corridors of political power, it will be manifested by the American people.

Let us take a lesson from the common ancestor of Jews, Christians and Moslems, from Abraham. In the Hebrew language, he was called an ivri. It is translated as “a Hebrew”. The word’s origin means “from the other side (of the river)”. The rabbis of the Jewish tradition teach us that it is the destiny of those faithful to the lessons of our Patriarch to be willing, when necessary, to stand on the other side. To stand in sacred opposition.

Now is such a time.