A time to speak
I thought I’d never have to write about Donald Trump again. I hoped and prayed I’d never have to write about Donald Trump again.
I believed he was finished with official public life (though he would continue to be active on social media), and that we were finished with him. I assumed Trump was history — a difficult, problematic, and deeply embarrassing history — but he was the past, and we had a future to look forward to and fight for.
Yes, I know Trump announced he’s ru nning for president again, and I know that there’s still a cult of MAGA Republicans who support him. And yet I watched his presidential announcement, which was as flat as a Diet Coke left on my night table overnight; I saw his candidates rejected over and over again in the midterms; I read decision after decision where judges — even Trump-nominated judges, with just a few exceptions — ruled against him, his lawyers, and his political disciples. I reveled in the January 6th committee making a criminal reference against Trump regarding the insurrection and assault on democracy that he led; I applauded the jury finding his company guilty in criminal court; I laughed at his “major announcement” that he’s hawking NFT collectible cards where his head is superimposed on the bodies of superheroes.
The walls seem to be closing in around him, and soon he’d be just an unpleasant memory, whether in Mar-a-Lago or a jail cell.
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So if I think he’s washed up and didn’t plan on writing about him again, why does it look like I’m doing just that?
The answer is that Trump’s not really the focus of this column. My concern is much more personal and parochial: that Torah U’Mesorah (TU), an important educational institution in the Orthodox community, debased itself by inviting Trump to address its recent convention. And even worse, that many attendees stood and cheered when he was introduced and throughout his speech.
TU, which says its mission is to ensure that every Jewish child receives the highest standards of Torah education, inexplicably determined that Trump was the right type of person to invite to address its leadership. Why? In light of his lies, his assault on democracy, and his enabling of antisemites and white nationalists, is he the type of person who has any relationship to the highest standards of Torah education? The type of person educational leaders should listen to and honor with standing ovations? The questions answer themselves. For shame. For shame.
But my disappointment goes deeper. Even though the relationship between TU and the Modern Orthodox community and many of its educational institutions has weakened over the years, it still has an affiliation with schools in that community. Moreover, at least one highly respected Modern Orthodox educator on its staff serves as a liaison to Modern Orthodox schools. Because of these ties, and because of the publicity the Trump invitation has engendered, especially coming so soon after Trump dined with antisemites and a white nationalist, I would have hoped that the leaders of my Modern Orthodox community would have condemned this desecration of the values that we, and TU, are supposed to stand for.
I waited for statements from YU, the OU, and the RCA — organizations on the forefront of speaking out against the recent rise of antisemitism — decrying the chilul haShem (desecration of God’s name) of educators cheering someone who, in addition to all his other major failings, is an unabashed enabler of antisemites. I would have welcomed hearing our rabbis lament this turn of events from their pulpits. Perhaps those statements and sermons are coming soon. I can always hope. But they can’t come soon enough.
In a recent column, Gail Collins, one of my favorite New York Times columnists, wrote about an incident that started decades ago and ended recently. She told a story that when she was a student at Marquette, a Jesuit institution in the 1960s, she met Allen Ginsburg, the famous beat poet and writer, and invited him to speak at her school. After he agreed to do so, the dean of students, Father Richard Sherburne, learned some information about Ginsburg he didn’t like (most probably that he was gay) and canceled the reading.
Well, it was the ’60s, so there were student protests, including, unsurprisingly, a sit-in at Father Sherburne’s office. It didn’t help. However, once Marquette’s neighbor, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, agreed to host the reading, Collins and her fellow protesters left their sit-in and marched across town to hear Ginsburg.
Fast forward several decades, to when Collins was invited to speak at her alma mater. As she spoke — well, here’s Gail telling you the rest of the story in her own words:
“As I spoke, pictures of my time in school flashed in the background, an unusual number of which seemed to involve sit-ins at Father Sherburne’s office. Really, I did do other things, but a good time was had by all.
“As I was getting ready to leave, an elderly Jesuit came up to me and introduced himself as . . . Father Sherburne. ‘I’ve been retired for a long time,” he said, ‘but I came tonight to find you and tell you . . . that you were right and I was wrong.’ One of the great moments of my life.”
I hope my leadership will do the right thing now, not 50 years from now. Fifty years may well be too late. History has taught us that sometimes our people don’t have the luxury of time; that we can’t put off to tomorrow the task of confronting and condemning evil and bad decisions.
I hope our leadership will stand up NOW for decency, for democracy, for devotion to Torah values, and will affirmatively demonstrate their disapproval of not only demagogues like Trump, who defend antisemites, but also of his devotees in our midst. I hope it won’t take months or years or decades for them to do so, and to realize and admit that they should have done so quickly; for them to understand that by not doing so they’re shirking their responsibilities; for them to apologize to us (or to our grandchildren) and say that others were right, and they were wrong.
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, the New York Times.