By GWEN OREL
“When you think about tikkun olam, it’s ‘repair the world,’” said Jonathan Alter. “This dude ain’t repairing the world. You can say a lot about him but he’s not repairing the world.”
Tikkun olam, a core Jewish value, might suggest a focus on saving the earth, but Alter points out that it is “not only the environment, and health care and issues where he is doing damage. It’s in the way we treat each other and the way we respect, or in this case, disrespect each other.”
Alter, a longtime journalist and author and a commentator for NBC and MSNBC, will address “Jewish Values in the Age of Trump” at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield this Friday at 6:30 p.m. He spoke last week with a reporter in the living room of his Montclair home, while a car waited to take him to appear on “Meet the Press.”
A political button collection hangs in the foyer: “Obama y’all.” “Reelect Carter Mondale.” Vintage books stand on the foyer mantelpiece: “Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant.” “Lords of the Press” by George Seldes. Alter’s own books aren’t displayed there, though he’s written three best-selling books about American presidents.
Ner Tamid’s Rabbi Steven Kushner said by telephone that Alter’s focus as a journalist is that of a historian who can elucidate events and put them in context. Alter was a columnist and senior editor for Newsweek from 1983 until 2011.
While support for Trump isn’t a big issue in the American Jewish population – 70 percent of Jews voted for Hillary, comparable to the percentage that went for Obama in the last election, Alter said – there are issues that are sensitive to the Jewish community – and to the community at large.
“The disruption of small-d democratic norms in any society and the ascension to power of a strong man is never good news for Jews,” Alter said.
“There are some Jews, not most, but some who go, ‘oh, his daughter is married to Jared Kushner, who’s Jewish, pro-Israel. It’s all good.’ What I’m going to try to explain is that it’s not all good.
“It’s a real concern for Jews and all Americans and actually pretty much for everyone in the world,” Alter said.
“I don’t think that Donald Trump is anti-Semitic, but that doesn’t mean that ultimately he’s good for Jews, because when norms of tolerance, respect, nonviolence, democratic values erode there’s a history of Jews suffering.”
WELCOMING THE STRANGER
Kushner said that one core Jewish value is to welcome the stranger, and care for the orphan and widow.
“A lot of us are seeing a growing disconnect between the government and people in need. These are not Jewish issues, but religious issues,” he said.
“Jews know from our own inbred historical memory what it’s like to be a stranger, what it’s like to be a transient,” the rabbi said. America was the golden land to Jews fleeing persecution. “I would say the Jewish community is particularly sensitive to the people fleeing the madness of the Middle East.”
Jews were denied entry during to the U.S. during the Holocaust on the same grounds that the current administration is using to try to close doors to refugees from Muslim countries: “the fear that dangerous elements will come in to the country,” Kushner said.
Alter said he couldn’t understand how Jews, knowing that restrictive immigration policies forced on Franklin Roosevelt by Congress cost other Jews their lives, can support this “pull up the ladder” mentality.
The video Trump tweeted of himself smacking a man whose head was the CNN logo was made by someone who put stars of David by each Jewish CNN employee, Alter said, and Stephen Bannon, Trump’s right-hand man, described Breitbart News as a “platform for the alt right.”
“And yet we know alt right is not some anodyne far right organization. It is a true neo-Nazi organization. Last year, when they thought all the reporters had gone, they started with their arm extensions and ‘Heil Trumps.’”
It’s easier for Alter to understand how a laid-off white factory worker might think Trump has his back than how a suburban Jew would. Although there are some sincere, single-issue Jewish voters who think Trump would be good for Israel, Alter said, many who claim that’s what drives them really want to pay less in taxes.
FAKE NEWS AND FREEDOM
“One of the issues that is of extremely high focus for Jews is all this fake news talk,” Kushner said. “For me personally that is profoundly disturbing. No nation can adequately remain free without a respected free press.”
The Nazis used the word “lugenpresse,” or “lying press,” to discredit newspapers, Kushner explained. At a Trump rally in 2016, someone shouted “lugenpresse” to the media. “What we’re seeing here is that when the government accuses journalists of fabricating news they are engaging in the very tactics that Hitler used in the 1930s to discredit the press and the results … only Totalitarians do this. Communists. Nazis. It’s particularly in those situations that the truly great guarantor of freedom is the press. And people like Jonathan Alter are the ones that I’m placing my trust in.”
Alter said that Trump hijacked the term “fake news” last year. The term was established to describe what Russians and some others were doing during the election: “sending out totally phony stories, like ‘the Pope endorses Trump,’ ‘a pizzeria in Washington is running a child sex ring.’” These stories were often downloaded and read more often than articles in The New York Times, especially in some areas that ended up voting for Trump, Alter said.
Almost as soon as the term came out Trump began applying it to any media critical of him, turning it into a weapon.
“The original definition of fake news: stories that are 100 percent made up. The new version: extraordinarily irresponsible journalism, on either the left or the right. Trump’s version: anybody who criticizes him,” says Alter.
There will be a Q-and-A after the discussion, which Alter expects to be spirited.
“You watch these guys on TV, but don’t get a chance to ask them questions,” Kushner said. “We’ve got Jon, and you can do that with him. In a time when we’ve already cast our votes, so much of what we do revolves around watching and listening.”
Alter said, “Jews recognize that it’s not enough for them to be protected. Next time it could be them. And we’ve got to apply Jewish values to other people, including Arabs.”