Donald Trump and Kristallnacht

So now we know. President Biden will face the American people and Mr Trump will face the American courts. For many Jews, a long nightmare has come to an end, but how will we understand the Trump interregnum in the years to come? Can we draw any lessons from Jewish history and the trauma of the twentieth century?

Seventy-six years ago, on November 12, 1944, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle laid a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It commemorated the multitudes who had fallen during World War I. Churchill, De Gaulle and many others who gathered there on that cold November day after the liberation of Paris must have quietly reflected: ‘Why did this happen again? How could we have allowed this conflagration to take place? Why Hitler? Why Nazism? After all, the Great War of 1914-1918 was the war to end all wars.

All this coincided with the last anniversary of Kristallnacht to be commemorated with Nazism still in power in a shrinking Reich.

For many acculturated German Jews who saw themselves as Jewish Germans, Kristallnacht was a traumatic wake-up call in 1938. On the night of November 9-10, 1938, synagogues burned, Jewish shops and homes were ransacked, 30,000 were sent to Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen – and 100 were butchered for no other reason than that they were Jews.

Teachers brought their charges to the burning and to glory in this destruction, but there were other Germans who hated Hitler for how he had sucked their countrymen into a Judenrein dreamworld. When Churchill was laying his wreath, Hitler was hanging Bernard Letterhaus, a Catholic trade unionist, at Plötzensee prison in Berlin, for his part in the July plot to bring an end to the Nazi regime.

As history records, Hitler survived and ferociously exacted his revenge on all those who had participated. Letterhaus would have been appointed Minister of Reconstruction in the new Germany if the coup had succeeded.

Letterhaus died because he believed in a democratic future for Germany where every vote mattered. Jews who survived to dance on Hitler’s grave therefore lauded democracy and regarded the rule of law as their ultimate protection.

This sense of resistance to national bullies and their embrace of moral obstinance coloured Jewish belief in apartheid South Africa, Soviet Russia and in many other repressive regimes around the world.

In one sense it also defined the long-time and disproportionate Jewish support for the Democrats in the USA despite the relative affluence of American Jews.

While Trump is not Hitler and the Republicans not Nazis, Jews around the world were undoubtedly shocked to hear the 45th president of United States evoke conspiratorial voter fraud, the ‘magical disappearance’ of his lead in the polls and his demand for the curtailing of the counting of postal votes.

His close supporters threw fuel on his fire and encouraged the American people to expose those who wished to do down the great man and his great cause. It justified the call of patriots to take to the streets.

Significantly it has been reported that Joe Biden only decided to emerge from semi-retirement and run for president after his astonishment and anger at Trump’s indifference to the events in Charlottesville in 2017 – when young men took part in a torchlit parade, chanting ‘Jews will not replace us!’ For Biden, this was a watershed. Yet 70 million Americans voted for Trump in 2020.

In a recent article in Ha’aretz, Rogel Alpher wrote about the disbelief of Jews worldwide four years ago when Trump was elected – and that a Trump presidency was, in particular, inconceivable to the template New York Jewish intellectual. It just did not happen in the land of the free.

Even though parallels were inevitably drawn with Philip Roth’s The Plot against America, where Donald Trump merged into Charles Lindbergh, Alpher argued that: “(The coming of Trump) is a political event that surpasses what Philip Roth thought possible. Waking up in his final years to an America in which Donald Trump is president – is like the Jew who is so sure of his German identity until that conception is suddenly shaken on Kristallnacht. He is faced with a fact he thought was impossible.”

Alpher remarked that Trump was not elected president because of a fluke, but because of his genius in presentation and communication – and his loathing for figures like Roth – intellectuals, liberals, New Yorkers that Roth personified.

Kristallnacht taught Jews not to be bystanders – not to sway in the wind when others did so. At a polar opposite, Trump possessed a battalion of fellow travellers who looked the other way. Some held their collective nose in order not to smell the stench while others searched for “alternative facts” to explain away the latest inanity.

Trump also hired people who thought that they knew better and could control him. Figures like John Bolton, the hawk’s hawk, irritated multitudes with his bellicose rhetoric, yet he too had red lines which he would not cross during his time in the Trump Administration. Like many others, he did not last as national security adviser and simply became the latest candidate for the revolving doors at the White House.

This human condition of fellow travelling has been a factor down the millennia of Jewish history. Jews remembered that the Catholic Centre Party in Germany voted for the Enabling Law on March 23, 1933, which allowed Hitler to rule without parliament for four years.

A poll for the American Jewish Committee last month suggested that 77% of American Jews would not vote for Donald Trump – all this despite the president’s broad support for the cause of Israel.

In every sense, this majority of American Jews did not vote in their own interest, but for something far wider – the moral health of the nation and the promise of democracy by the founding fathers in 1787. They went beyond the self-interest of the Christian evangelicals and many Jewish ultra-Orthodox who bowed down before idols.

In the Warsaw Ghetto, Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum interpreted Moses’s attempt to understand God’s fury when the Jews built a golden calf to worship. “They are indeed an obstinate people…But just as now they are stiff-necked in their disobedience, so one day they will be equally stiff-necked in their loyalty. Nations will call on them to assimilate, but they will refuse. Mightier religions will urge them to convert, but they will resist.”

American Jews have demonstrated once more that the Jew is the canary in the mine of humanity – and they instinctively smell the gas.

Plus 61j 10 November 2020

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