Pinchas: On Vigilante Justice

Pinchas’ vigilantism takes place at the end of the last parashah.

Numbers Chapter 25 

א  וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל, בַּשִּׁטִּים; וַיָּחֶל הָעָם, לִזְנוֹת אֶל-בְּנוֹת מוֹאָב. 1 And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab.
ב  וַתִּקְרֶאןָ לָעָם, לְזִבְחֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶן; וַיֹּאכַל הָעָם, וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶן. 2 And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods; and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods.
ג  וַיִּצָּמֶד יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר; וַיִּחַר-אַף יְהוָה, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל. 3 And Israel joined himself unto the Baal of Peor; and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.
ד  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, קַח אֶת-כָּל-רָאשֵׁי הָעָם, וְהוֹקַע אוֹתָם לַיהוָה, נֶגֶד הַשָּׁמֶשׁ; וְיָשֹׁב חֲרוֹן אַף-יְהוָה, מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל. 4 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them up unto the LORD in face of the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.’
ה  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-שֹׁפְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  הִרְגוּ אִישׁ אֲנָשָׁיו, הַנִּצְמָדִים לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר. 5 And Moses said unto the judges of Israel: ‘Slay ye every one his men that have joined themselves unto the Baal of Peor.’
ו  וְהִנֵּה אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּא, וַיַּקְרֵב אֶל-אֶחָיו אֶת-הַמִּדְיָנִית, לְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה, וּלְעֵינֵי כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. 6 And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting.
ז  וַיַּרְא, פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר, בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן, הַכֹּהֵן; וַיָּקָם מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה, וַיִּקַּח רֹמַח בְּיָדוֹ. 7 And when Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from the midst of the congregation, and took a spear in his hand.
ח  וַיָּבֹא אַחַר אִישׁ-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-הַקֻּבָּה, וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת-שְׁנֵיהֶם–אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-הָאִשָּׁה אֶל-קֳבָתָהּ; וַתֵּעָצַר, הַמַּגֵּפָה, מֵעַל, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 8 And he went after the man of Israel into the chamber, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.
ט  וַיִּהְיוּ, הַמֵּתִים בַּמַּגֵּפָה–אַרְבָּעָה וְעֶשְׂרִים, אָלֶף.  {פ} 9 And those that died by the plague were twenty and four thousand. {P}  

In this case, God seems to reward Pinchas for his vigilante action.

י  וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. 10 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
יא  פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי, בְּתוֹכָם; וְלֹא-כִלִּיתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקִנְאָתִי. 11 ‘Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy.
יב  לָכֵן, אֱמֹר:  הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, שָׁלוֹם. 12 Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My covenant of peace;
יג  וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו, בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם–תַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו, וַיְכַפֵּר, עַל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 13 and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’

Why would God reward a vigilante? And why give two rewards: God’s covenant of peace and the right of his descendants in perpetuity to be priests? A vigilante acts without legal authority. A vigilante justifies his actions because the law is non-existent, or exists but is not and/or cannot be enforced, or because whatever punishment is handed out is deemed to be insufficient, or because immediate justice is wanting and delayed. A vigilante often claims a higher authority – God or the will of the people – for authorizing his actions. The just authority is often self-perceived but, in this case, the text seems explicit that God viewed Pinchas’ action as carried on in defence of God’s jealousy because the Israelite princes were engaged in harlotry with Moabite women. God’s justification: Pinchas was jealous on behalf of his God and by his action, Pinchas atoned for the children of Israel and caused God to veer from his desire to wreak vengeance on the Israelites.

However, there are a number of puzzles that seem inexplicable, quite aside from Judaism somehow justifying vigilantism. The man killed was Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of the Simeonites. The woman killed was Cozbi, a Midianite princess, the daughter of Zur, the “head of the people of a father’s house in Midian.” She was not a harlot. She was not referred to as a Moabite. Were the Midianites the same people as the Moabites? No.

If you recall from last week’s discussion of the previous portion, Balak, the King of the Moabites, addressed the Midianite princes to enlist them to support his recruitment to curse the Israelites. “So Moab said to the elders of Midian, ‘Now this company will lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field’.” (22.4) Were both Moabites and Midianites punished because they conspired together to curse the Israelites?

There is a further puzzle. The Midianites were much closer kin to the Israelites than the Moabites. Moses had married a Midianite woman. Even more significantly, Pinchas’ mother was a Midianite. The Midianites were direct descendants of Abraham through Keturah. In contrast, the Moabites were descendants of one of the sons of Lot as a result of the incest with his daughter. One explanation and justification for the vigilante action: the Israelites were consorting with Moabite harlots and were being seduced to worship Baal of Peor. Or was it because Zimri, a Simeonite prince, was consorting with a Midianite princess, Cozbi, or because Pinchas was until then considered an outsider because his mother was a Midianite and he was suspect and/or he was ashamed of his ancestry. But Moses married a Midianite and his father-in-law was esteemed by both Moses and the Israelites.

It is very difficult to figure out what is going on. Just when the Israelite men are to be killed for both consorting with harlots and worshipping Baal of Peor, Pinchas murders both Zimri and his Midianite consort, by putting a lance through both their bodies, presumably while they were both engaged in loving one another. Why does this stop a plague that we never heard was underway? Why after a series of great victories were the Israelites even suffering from a plague? Was it because they were intimately involved with harlots as they celebrated their victories? This is certainly the line we are led to take when Moses blames the Midianite, not the Moabite women, for worshipping Baal of Peor (Numbers 31:1-18), leading to the destruction of all of the Midianites except the virgin women who were taken as spoils of war. Weird!

The problem of justifying vigilantism has become even more complicated by all the apparent contradictions and inconsistencies in the tale.  One answer is that of the new criticism which simply sees two different stories from two different sources mashed together by a compiler in an incoherent way. Those familiar with my practice of hermeneutics recognize that, though this may have been the case, I am more concerned with finding coherence in the synthesis. The rationale that the priestly sources had a political motive in turning on the Midianites and becoming xenophobes is insufficient to justify the monolithic control of the Aaronites over the priesthood. Pinchas was a grandson of Aaron.

Review a few elements of the two strands:

The Israelites had become apostates The Israelites were loyal to their God and had been rewarded with victories
The jarring introduction of the apostasy The subsequent return to the tale of the occupation of the Promised Land.
Moabite + Midianite responsibility The shift from Moabite to solely Midianite responsibility

There are a number of ways to explain the apparent inconsistencies and textual as well as moral issue of justifying vigilantism. I list some.

  1. The effort at synthesis was driven by the priestly heirs of Aaron to justify their exclusive control of the priesthood which was supposed to be for eternity, but the synthesis was a clumsy effort.
  2. Pinchas’ zealotry was used to mollify God’s zealotry since it was better to sacrifice the loves of two people, especially one like Zimri who is a “wild goat,’ than have God’s wrath visited on the Israelites as a whole.
  3. The text is an effort to justify zealotry in general, whether applied by 1 Maccabees to justify the Hasmonean actions and the rebellion (1 Maccabees 2:24-28) or by the current West Bank extreme right-wing settlers in Israel.
  4. In Josephus, the rationale is not about Jewish religious politics, or about preventive action in providing boundaries, nor a catharsis for God’s passion for religious vengeance, and certainly not to justify zealotry but to explain the events in terms of political-military necessity. In the Antiquities, Josephus blames the zealots as culpable for the destruction of Jerusalem by Flavius, his patron. For Pinchas was countering sedition and effective desertion by the warriors of the Israelite army, both because of their behaviour with the women and because of religious practices that would undercut their morale and discipline. Hence, in his account, the judicial framework is indeed set aside, but for the higher purpose of “reasons of state,” in this case, preserving the military ability of the Israeli army necessary for completing the conquest.
  5. To fit in with rabbinical belief in juridical processes versus vigilante action, the action was considered not to be a vigilante one exactly since the story is given a legal framework: a) God enjoins Moses to impale the ringleaders, a punishment meted out to criminals, thus defining the action of consorting with non-Israelites as a criminal act, and b) Moses summoned the judges to offer a verdict, so that Pinchas is not viewed as a vigilante but as an agent of the court.
  6. But there is no mention that the verdict of judges impelled the action of Pinchas. The murders seem clearly portrayed as impulsive, unilateral and precipitous, and extra judicial killing contravenes: a) the rules of evidence; b) the rule of judicial procedure; c) the norm that punitive legal actions be the result of deliberation; d) that the authority to mete out punishment be clearly indicated, especially in cases of capital crime which require witnesses to testify and not simply be present. However, in the version of rabbinic justification, in extreme cases, unilateral citizenship action is justified and this instance falls within that type of case. The exception proves the rule.
  7. This was a case of tit-for-tat vigilante action for it had been Simeon, along with Levi, who had wrecked vengeance on the adult males of Shechem for the rape of their sister, Dinah.

I want to offer a somewhat different explanation as well as condemnation for the vigilante action. Once, when I had only two children, I was walking with my eldest when he was about two years old. I was holding his hand. We came to the north-west corner of Spadina Avenue and Bloor Street and waited for the light to change. When it did, I stepped off the curb with my son on my left. Suddenly a car traveling south on Spadina did not stop, but turned the corner driving very fast. I stepped back and snatched my son out of the path of the car.

My two-year-old son was unhurt, but in my wrath, I lifted my leg and smashed in the back fender of the car in with my foot as it went by. The driver stopped, got out of his car and confronted me for causing serious damage to his car. However, when he saw me and detected my rage, he quickly got back into his car and drove off. I clearly was ready to kill him, but I did not have a spear in my hand.

If I had killed him, I would have been found guilty of manslaughter. I was, however, guilty of the material damage I caused, but I would have defended myself based on a natural impulse that was understandable even if unjustified and I might have gotten away with a token fine. I was saved from that result because of the fear I instilled in the driver with my fury.

I believe I can understand vigilante action motivated by passion rather than Josephus’ rationale of a deliberative action for military purposes or other efforts to justify what Pinchas did. But understanding does not excuse. And vigilante action is easily used for vicious purposes, as when the white racists in 1964 killed three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were working for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) trying to register Blacks to enable them to vote to counter. They were zealots for racism and white supremacy and the event is seared into my memory.

I can understand the actions of the racist murderers, but those murders were horrific and not even just deplorable. It does not matter what justification one offers. Due legal process demands the condemnation of vigilante action, no matter what the motive or whomever is the agent carrying out the task or whatever the rationale, whether because one is dissatisfied with current morality, defending a regressive creed, countering an injustice or because of the failure of legitimate authority to adequately deliver justice and good governance.

I am not sure what motivated Pinchas. Some explanations appear more powerful than others. However, not one of them can justify vigilantism. Attempts to do so merely undermine any motive to use the Torah as a moral guide. In any case, God revoked his promise of a priesthood in perpetuity for Pinchas and transferred the right of descent to the youngest son of Aaron.

The Resurrection of Racism and the Erection of a Wall Part V: Mueller versus Mueller

It was 5:30 a.m. on Bowen Island near Vancouver when it was 8:30 a.m. in Washington when the Mueller hearings started. What follows is my impressions of the hearings. It is not derived by consulting the opinions of others, though I did have recourse to the transcript of the hearings to check my impressions and insert quotes where relevant. Since I supplemented but did not change what I had perceived, I felt that I had fulfilled my objective, an objective that never claimed to be comprehensive but impressionistic.

I would be remiss if I did not comment on the questioning and testimony of Robert S. Mueller III yesterday before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees. On the other hand, I suspect my views will largely echo those of reasonably objective viewers of the proceedings. However, though the hearings were intended to bring the contents of the Mueller Report to the attention of the public, I cannot see that they could have much effect, except in a most general way, since a detailed understanding of both the report and the political context seemed to be a prerequisite to following the questions and responses. My initial impressions concern style rather than substance, but perhaps, in this case, style may be more important than substance.

Mueller’s Demeanor

  1. There was a contradiction between the Mueller we saw giving testimony before Congress and his illustrious record as a Marine who was awarded a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for Valor in Vietnam and in his service to the justice system of the USA, including serving as Director of the FBI that both Republicans and Democrats noted.
  2. Mueller was unimpressive; he did not know that he served under Reagan rather than Bush Sr.
  3. On a number of substantial matters, he was excruciatingly vague.
  4. His need to consult text all the time suggested that he did not know the report.  
  5. His demeanour fed into a narrative that his staff rather than he was in charge.  
  6. He stumbled over a key word – exculpate.
  7. He sometimes seemed confused and hesitant, but in the afternoon testimony he was clearer and more forceful.

Mueller Content

  1. In avoiding speculation, especially about motives of actors, testimony that compromised investigations underway, and testimony that revealed internal discussions, investigative information, deliberations and decisions within the Justice Department, Mueller set forth clear boundaries for his testimony, which he introduced at the beginning and which he repeated many times during the day to explain why he would not answer a question. Mueller was, at one and the same time, very clear about the boundaries of his probe while also inadvertently giving the impression of being evasive.
  2. The impression left was that Trump had stonewalled and delayed Mueller’s taking out a subpoena to force him to testify by running out the clock and making Mueller choose between pushing the issue and getting a court case going that would delay the publication of the report and run into the election or give up on the effort to get Trump to testify. Mueller chose the latter course of action and left the impression in me that he had been flummoxed by Trump.
  3. Mueller was very successful in conveying the conclusion from all the intelligence agencies that Russia extensively, intentionally and massively in a multipronged approach not only tried to intervene in the American election “in a sweeping and systematic fashion,” not only at the Presidential level in favour of Trump, but at other levels as well.
  4. Mueller was also vociferous that those efforts were continuing, were being imitated by other countries and that the American Congress had to be far more proactive in countering the threat.
  5. Mueller was clear, except at one point where he had to catch himself, that he could not come to a conclusion that the president was guilty of obstruction of justice because the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) had determined that a sitting president cannot be indicted. But neither did he conclude that he was not guilty, though he presented a horde of evidence of obstruction of justice.
  6. When asked by a Republican, who had served in the military as a prosecuting attorney and a judge, how he could offer evidence to the public of possible guilt when he could not indict since doing so contradicted the ethics of prosecution, Mueller initially fumbled but eventually made somewhat clear that this was a special case of an inquiry into the president’s conduct in part, where an indictment a priori was not permitted, but where he was given the responsibility and the authority to present the evidence.

Republicans

  1. The Republican attack dogs that tried to shift the discussion to the missing emails, to Clinton, to the Steele Dossier, but especially to the Democrats commissioning the research that they claim instigated the inquiry, looked, frankly, stupid, but their efforts will be used to reinforce the belief that the Mueller Inquiry was a witch hunt, a claim Mueller dramatically denied. Mueller was very clear from the beginning that he would not and could not address questions “about the initial opening of the FBI’s Russia investigation which occurred months before my appointment or matters related to the so-called Steele dossier. These matters are subject of ongoing review by the department. Any questions on these topics should, therefore, be directed to the FBI or the Justice Department.”
  2. In the backdrop of this line of inquiry can be found the narrative that Mueller was a member of the Deep State that controlled all the intelligence services and that collectively were involved in an effort to protect the FBI and the national surveillance system held to be guilty of high crimes and misdemeanours for gathering information on private individuals.
  3. Other Republicans who flattered Mueller, but tried to catch him out on legal issues and apparent contradictions, did much better – for example, that the Report itself defines collusion as virtually identical with conspiracy and, hence, if there was no actual conspiracy proved, i.e. preplanned cooperation with malevolent intent, the implication was that Trump was and is correct in insisting that there was no collusion; Doug Collins, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, effectively led this line of inquiry.
  4. Though there was a plethora of evidence of attempts to obstruct justice, Mueller asserted that there were no efforts to interfere with the inquiry itself, in particular by the Attorney General, William P. Barr.
  5. Though Mueller confirmed that Barr’s summary of his report did not reflect his own summary, he seemed very reluctant not only to ascribe motives for the difference, but even to specify in any detail what those differences were.  
  6. Republicans were clearly divided between those who claimed the inquiry was a witch hunt by the Deep State and those who took a broader view. The ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, for one, seemingly endorsed the conclusion of the Mueller Report that Russians intervened in the American presidential election, “accessed Democrat servers and disseminated sensitive information by tricking campaign insiders into revealing protected information,” but he also crossed the line and clearly signalled that he believed there was a bureaucratic conspiracy at the highest levels of the American government that led to the harassment of private citizens and the president.
  7. Republicans were very effective in pointing out that it was NOT the responsibility of the investigation to find Trump innocent because that was not part of the mandate and the foundation of any prosecution is the presumption of innocence. It would seem that the inquiry could neither indict the president nor exonerate him – in spite of Donald Trump’s insistence that he was exonerated.

Democrats

  1. Both Jerrold Nader, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee, and Adam Schiff, who chaired the House Intelligence Committee, were impressive in running the committees and providing summaries of key points of the testimony.
  2. The Chair of the Judiciary Committee noted that, over the course of Mueller’s investigation, he had obtained criminal indictments against 37 people and entities, including securing the conviction of President Trump’s campaign chairman, his deputy campaign manager, his national security adviser and his personal lawyer, among others. The Chair was very effective in painting a portrait of a president who surrounded himself with felons.
  3. The Chair noted that in the Paul Manafort case alone, Mueller recovered as much as $42 million, so that the cost of the investigation to the American taxpayers was zero and undercut the Republican repeated claim about the thirty plus million dollar cost of the Mueller inquiry.
  4. The practice of yielding time to the Chair ended up allowing the Chair more time to summarize and other Democrats in a row to question near the end to leave a Democratic dominated narrative as the last message of the hearing.
  5. The distribution of topics among the representatives was very well done.
  6. Many of the Democrats were very impressive in their questioning and in getting on the record and out to the public many of the conclusions of the Report.
  7. Trump met numerous times with Putin after he was elected and kept up efforts to advance his own business interests with the clear implication that Trump might have been motivated by both financial interests as well as possibly or potentially being blackmailed by the Russians. Those meetings began at the G-20 in a two hour confab with others present and then followed up at the same G-20 later with a private conversation for an hour with only a Russian translator present.
  8. One moment that lit up my interest was when Ted Lieu asked about Trump’s written answers to the questions Mueller posed to him; Mueller went beyond what was said in the report that Trump’s answers were evasive and vague but were also “untruthful.” Though Mueller half took back that answer in the afternoon, since he only wanted to assert what was in the report and insisted that he had only concurred that Lieu’s paraphrase was “generally” correct, the reality is that the message of the “untruthfulness” of Trump remained.
  9. Mueller was very clear that Report did not exonerate Trump and did not conclude that he was not guilty of obstruction of justice that included an obstructive act connected to an official proceeding and motivated by a corrupt intent.
  10. Volume 2, p. 7 of the report stated that when the president became aware that his own conduct was being investigated in an obstruction of justice inquiry, “the president engaged in a second phase of conduct, involving public attacks on the investigation, non-public efforts to control it, and efforts in both public and private to encourage witnesses not to cooperate with the investigation.” 
  11. Another interesting exchange took place over the discussion of WikiLeaks when Trump was quoted as repeatedly praising WikiLeaks but the Report concluded that the spread of information by WikiLeaks was under the auspices of the Russian intelligence services and that its efforts were treasonous.
  12. The Democrats successfully made the point that if Trump were not president, he would be charged with perjury by a prosecuting attorney for many of outright lies.
  13. The evidence of Trump’s attempts to obstruct justice was overwhelming. The ten incidents documented “public attacks on the investigation, non-public efforts to control it, and efforts in both public and private to encourage witnesses not to cooperate.” 
  14. One item outstanding for me was the repetition of the material in the report that Donald McGahn, White House Counsel, had been instructed to arrange for the firing of Mueller, but McGahn packed his bags to resign over the issue and only then did Trump relent.
  15. What was entirely new to me was that, if the president were to be defeated in 2020, he could be indicted for obstruction of justice as a private citizen but if re-elected, he possibly could not be indicted because of the statute of limitations.

On Impeachment

According to the report, “The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrong doing,” That process is a congressional impeachment. Would I impeach Trump based on what I heard? I have been hesitant to offer an answer thus far. Now I would answer, “Yes.” Not because it would be successful in convicting Trump. I would do so in spite of the fact that such efforts would be used to energize Trump’s base. I would do so to uphold the principle that a president who is a liar, who appears to be in the service of an enemy foreign power, who systematically tried to obstruct justice, should be impeached in principle otherwise the principle of holding the president accountable to Congress would be surrendered to President Trump’s autocratic view of the Constitution, in particular Article II, that Trump claims allows him freedom to do whatever he wants. As the chair of the Judiciary Committee stated in his opening remarks, “there must be accountability for the conduct described in your report especially as it relates to the president.”

I do not know whether impeachment would be counter-productive and undermine the effort to defeat Trump in the coming federal election, but sometimes principles are far more important than political considerations.

The Resurrection of Racism and the Erection of a Wall Part IV: Polling, Actions, Responses and Results

In addition to all Democrats, many if not most Republicans were both stunned and taken aback by the extent of Donald Trump’s verbalized racial outburst last week. Though well aware of that racism, they hoped it would be kept within bounds, if not of deniability at least without arson. Quite aside from any ethical repugnance, elected Republicans fear the potential damage to their electoral prospects. However, almost all of them are in greater fear of confronting or contradicting Trump.

According to reports this week, both the White House and the Trump campaign tried to contain the furor, but then the “Send her back!” rally took place in which Trump failed to rebuke those in the loud chorus screaming the new revised glee club epithet of hatred. One result is that Democrats united to defend the members of The Squad and roundly condemn the president.

Polls reinforce this analysis. For example, The Atlantic published a poll showing that swing voters may approve of Trump’s economic performance, but their disapproval of his personal traits and practices, especially his use of the race card, outweigh their support for Donald Trump. Values count. Elections are not just a transactional exercise. Trump’s temperament, bad manners and character certainly weaken his support, not only among swing voters, but among virtue conservatives.

Overall, Trump is approved of by at most 45% of voters. Though his pull is very strong among the white supremacists and still relatively strong among virtue supporters, the latter support is vulnerable. Trump’s campaign strategy has certainly pushed independents away from Trump and possibly even some members of the supine Republican Party that has so easily acceded to his racist messaging.

The reality, incumbents with approval ratings below 50% generally lose even when polls suggest they will be victorious. Gerald Ford went into his race deeply wounded from his contest for the nomination with Ronald Reagan and only garnered 48% of the vote. Jimmy Carter, far from a strong candidate, beat Gerald Ford and won 50.08% of the vote. Even if Eugene McCarthy had not run as an independent, Carter’s vote total would have been 51% with the balance of 1% going to others. However, when Jimmy Carter faced Ronald Reagan four years later, Reagan won a landslide victory despite trailing Carter significantly in most polls two weeks before voting day.

Ronald Reagan won the 1980 general election in a landslide despite trailing as much as 8% behind Jimmy Carter in some mid-October polls. In mid-October polls in the Donald Trump – Hilary Clinton match, Trump also trailed Clinton significantly, by an average of 6% in most polls. Both times, the results confounded expectations by the Democratic inadequate response to late breaking news – the failure of Carter to get the American diplomats held by the Iranians released and the late “news” that Hilary was once again a possible suspect by the FBI. These were not just chance or unplanned events; they were part of the Republican strategy to bring out their vote and to weaken the Democratic turnout. Expect much of the same in the November 2020 election. Hopefully, the Democrats will have learned from 1980 and 2016.

Finally, George H. W. Bush lost in his re-election bid against Bill Clinton. But the economy was in recession as it had been when Carter ran for re-election. And, given the economic context, going speedboat racing in a period of recession did not endear Bush Sr. to voters. The lesson – events count far more than polls. More importantly the way a candidate responds to adverse events, to the angel of God holding the Sword of Damocles over one’s head, counts even more than the polls and even more than the events.

Those in power always are in imminent and ever-present danger of a fall from grace. Power and authority, pomp and ceremony, wealth and position, are all maintained by the single strand of hair from a horse’s tail. The task of the opposition in an election is to ensure that the single strand of hair is cut since it is easy enough for conflicted voters to break away from Trump as shown in the 2016 election.

Currently, swing voters are poised to break away from Trump in even increased numbers since they distrust Trump on:

  1. handling taxes fairly (Democrats have increased their support in this group to 9 points);
  2. deal with immigration with both greater compassion and better management skills (Democrats now enjoy a 10 point spread);
  3. and, not surprisingly given the botch up of the job by Republicans, Democrats have increased the gap between themselves and the Republicans by 34 points on managing the health care crisis.

Since conflicted voters already overwhelmingly disparage Trump’s narcissistic and lying character, to repeat, Democrats are poised for a very strong victory, but they must, they have to be prepared for events to upend their planning. With Trump’s openly racist and xenophobic attacks on four Democratic congresswomen this past week, he steadily incinerated his economic arguments that could favour him. A clear majority of Americans disparage his comments as racist and un-American. Given the pattern of Bush and Obama, Trump will carry at most 5% of the majority of voters who disapprove of his overall performance as president.

Trump’sspecial and out-of-the-ordinarypolitical campaigning is simply stupid and not just used as a distraction or smart base politics. He barely won the electoral college in 2016, winning three key states by less than 1%, lost the popular vote by a considerable margin and in 2018 blew it. Singlehandedly, Trump doused the fire and divide between the radicals and the traditionalists in the Democratic Party. The issue, for me, is not whether Trump will lose – he will unless the Democrats self-destruct – but whether he will take the supine Republicans down with him.

Will they too depersonalize the four congresswomen? They joined in the attack against Hilary Clinton as a purported criminal, personally targeted Professor Christine Blasey Ford, who accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of assault, and belittled Diane Feinstein. However, the generic attack against the four members of The Squad seems to combine misogyny, racism and ideological distortion in a generic mold aimed at making all women of colour vulnerable as pronouns are used as placers for names. Send “her” back rather than Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn). The result: even a pregnant black Georgia state lawmaker was yelled at and told to “go back where I came from.”

Vice-President Mike Pence was not happy about Donald Trump’s choice of phrase and suggested Trump might intervene in a rally if it was used again.“Might,” not “would.” That is not Trump’s pattern. While he initially disavows, then denies endorsing the slogan, expresses disagreement with it and strives to separate himself from the phrase, he soon embraces and then makes it a centrepiece of his rallies.

Democrats should respond. “Send him back” to his golden tower or to a dungeon, whatever the law decides.

The Resurrection of Racism and the Erection of a Wall Part III: Three Strikes and You’re Out – The Trump Trap

There has been a great deal of gnashing of teeth and scratching of hair over worry that Donald Trump is using his racist attacks on the four female congresswomen to distract the Democratic Party from its winning issues and to shift the grounds of the coming presidential election to identity politics that will rally his base and bring them out to vote in impressive numbers. In this blog, I want to try to assuage those fears. Obviously, the Democratic Party can stumble, can trip over its own feet, and can even fall and fail to win the next presidential election. But it will be a self-inflicted failure and not a result of Donald Trump’s superior political skill or acumen. The Trump Trap is one he built for himself.

I offer the following arguments:

  1. The biblical meaning of the parable of Balaam in last week’s Torah portion;
  2. An analysis of Donald Trump’s base of support in the Republican Party;
  3. Given Trump’s insistence on continuing and drumming down on a losing strategy in the 2018 election, if swing voters are increased in numbers and if they are not alienated from voting for Democrats, Trump will lose and will lose decisively.

The Parable

The initial presentation of Balaam is that he is a winner, one whose prophetic powers are all-powerful and that if he curses someone, that person will be cursed, and that if he blesses someone, that person will be blessed. In the second part of the portion of the Torah text, Balaam is revealed to be dumber and more obtuse than his own ass. He cannot see an angel threatening his forward movement. He is intemperate and beats his own ass instead of trying to understand why his donkey refuses to move forward. Balaam is determined to follow a fixed path rather than attending to the reality facing him and adapting to the situation. He has moved from being a celebrity prophet to a disreputable stranded loser, a noisy and intemperate one at that.

However, in the third part of the tale, Balaam wakes up to his limitations. Instead of robotically simply following God’s will, he comes to recognize his real limitations and his virtually total dependence on powers outside himself. He surrenders being a narcissist and attends to the reality of real power and higher values. Balaam redeems himself. What he was driven to curse, he now blesses. What he thought he was supposed to bless, he now curses. On the third pitch, Balaam does not strike out but hits a homer. Trump, on the other hand, refuses to budge, continues in his obstreperous ways and will strike out.

Donald Trump has thus far revealed that he cannot change course from his original racist and nativist project that has always existed but has come into stark relief this last week. He twitters and tweets like the frustrated, self-indulgent, uncontrolled and unrestrained, immoderate and unbalanced irrational man he is. So instead of redeeming himself after his setback in the midterm elections, he is headed for a strike out and a determination to bring the Republican Party down with him, a party that has now been almost totally re-formed in his own image. A total catastrophe awaits both Donald Trump and the Republican Party in the next election. It will be three strikes and you are out – unless, of course, the Democratic Party loses faith in itself, loses faith in its core values and loses its way.

Donald Trump’s Base

Trump’s base of support consists of five segments:

  1. A racist, xenophobic and nativist core of white supporters which Trump used to win the Republican primary in a crowded field; that core may constitute as much as 15% of the American electorate;
  2. A larger group of in-group whites who are proud of their heritage and feel threatened by both the shifting demographic mix brought about by immigration and the larger child birth rates of non-whites, but who do not express or identify with those who espouse white superiority;
  3. A small group of virtue conservatives in the tradition of Edmund Burke (cf. A Vindication of Natural Society) who despise xenophobia and insist that the stability of society depends on traditional groupings, starting with the family and extending to organized religion; these communities provide the structural underpinning of civility, manners and civic virtues that gives character and solidity to a polity; Donald Trump lost much of their support by the means he used to win the Republican nomination;
  4. A small group of economic conservatives who are wary of increased government debt and who are globalists in economic terms; they have already been turned off by Trump’s flaky brinkmanship in renegotiating trade deals combined with his willingness to incur an enormous increase in future debt to power the present economy, but at great risk to future economic stability – the problem of this group is that they do not see where else to go other than the Republican Party;
  5. A small group of ardent libertarians opposed to the increased power of the state.

If this analysis is anywhere near accurate, a number of conclusions follow with respect to dealing with each of the above groups. I consider them in reverse order.

  1. The Democratic Party can do little to attract libertarian voters and need not try, but it should act to encourage libertarians to park their votes somewhere other than the Trump Party by demonstrating that it is clearly not a party dedicated to minimizing the power of the state or avoiding engaging in foreign adventurism;
  2. The Democratic Party should not follow the lead of Bernie Sanders in demonizing the rich while still insisting that the rich pay a much larger portion of the costs of a society dedicated to the well-being of all and that measures have to be taken to make sure that the contributions of the wealthy do not distort the democratic foundations of society in favour of a plutocracy;
  3. The goal should be to demonstrate that the serial liar and womanizer and corrupt character of Donald Trump is not the proper choice for people of virtue;
  4. The in-group white pride Republicans offer the biggest opportunity for the Democrats in two senses, weakening their rage and determination to vote for anyone but the Democrats, and, second, turning their wrath against the nativists and xenophobes who give people who care about their own communities a bad reputation; the message has to be that supporting Trump is supporting racism and not just pride and preservation of one’s own community so that this significant group of voters should not be identified or equated with racists, xenophobes and nativists;
  5. As for the racists, Trump is one; he belongs to them and they belong to him, but, while it is very important to point this out, it is not necessary to alienate this group further, reinforcing their hatred and racism, and allowing in-group white pride Republicans to identify with them.

If the goal is to unite all people, painting some people as beyond the pale suggests such a goal is a fraud. Those masses who live in the shadows of irrationality, in a night of the world based on inherent and unredeemable opposition, must not be looked down upon with scorn. If the unenlightened are to be redeemed, they cannot be regarded as blind trembling people in the presence of wise men and priests. They too must be respected and recognized as fully human even if their actions and words are declared to be irrational, unacceptable and inhumane.  

The Bankruptcy of Trump’s Racist Strategy

Donald Trump has now made his racist credentials unequivocal and clear. No amount of backpedalling, obscurantism and distraction should prevent pinning the tail on the donkey. Further, racism now emerges in the context of bluster and signifying an increasing fear that, at the same time as he buckles down to embrace the tactic more fully, he is revealing his desperation and deep need to hold onto a losing tactic that he dares not abandon.

In portraying four non-white very popularly elected congresswomen as un-American, he is repeating the mistakes of bigots from the past history of the United States. In identifying non-white ethnicity with ideology, he alienates not only the overwhelming majority of all ethnic and coloured minority groups, but even many of the majority of his white supporters who are not racists. Defining a real American in terms of ethnicity and colour is repugnant to the majority of Americans and raises in their minds the question of whether the benefits of a good economy and the appointment of conservative supreme court judges is a worthy trade off.  

Given rallies with the slogan, “Send her back,” there is a general consensus that Trump has committed his campaign for re-election to be based on explicit racism. This is not the same as the rallying cry, “Lock her up.” There was an irrational, visceral hatred of Hilary Clinton on the right. The animus towards Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan is more abstract, far less personal, more ideological than visceral. Rather than an intention to drive a wedge in the Democratic Party deeper, the objective seems to be to drive the Democratic Party further to the left where it will pose less danger to the Republicans, though it is possible that the two goals are complementary.

What about a campaign based on a record of economic growth and improvement? The Democrats may want to argue that with the soaring stock market there has certainly been growth but no improvement – no reduction in the growing gap between the rich and the poor, no reduction in the economic security facing the middle class, no impact on the huge debt overhang of youth who pursued postsecondary education, no assistance for child care and a decline in support for health care. Undoubtedly, Democrats will do so, but that will only reinforce the image of them being a lend and spend political party when they ought to tout a record of balanced budgets while increasing benefits for those in need. Further, I suspect the Republicans will put the low unemployment rate on the back burner lest it provide a rationale for the need for a greater number of migrants.

But it is a fool’s game. In this fight over identity politics – the left portrayed as coddling foreigners and hence murderers and rapists, a contest over economics will fade into insignificance. Does the Democratic Party support open borders? Does the Republican Party using much harsher methods – including separating parents and children at the border – deter a larger influx of migrants and refugee claimants? Over 70% of Americans may be supportive of immigrants, but a clear majority of Americans want less immigration and, more importantly, managed immigration.

What seems clear is that Donald Trump will follow his gut instinct and focus on cultural, ethnic and racial politics to raise fears, not only among his xenophobic base, but among the larger group of white Republicans uneasy and even fearful about the looming demographic changes perceived as direct threats to their power and status. Will that, however, provide a winning coalition? Very unlikely. Further, if the Democrats can drive a deeper wedge into the Republican Party, primarily between the xenophobes and the whites who have in-group pride and loyalty but do not see themselves nor identify with racists, they will also destroy the Republican stranglehold on the Senate as well as enhance their majority in the House.  And his justification

Balak, Balaam and the Israelites– Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Moab is the mountainous tract of land on the east side of the Dead Sea currently in Jordan. In the Torah, Moab was the product of incest of Lot with his oldest daughter. (Ammon was the product of incest of Lot with his youngest daughter.) (Genesis 19:37-38) King Sihon, the ruler of the warlike Amorites, drove the Moabites south of the river Arnon. It is there that God renewed his covenant with the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land and it is there that Moses died.

Before the Israelites took on the Canaanites, they made sure their rearguard was protected and, without entering Moab, “they traveled through the wilderness, skirted the land of Edom and Moab, passed along the eastern side of the country of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon.” (Judges 11:18) The Israelites conquered Sihon’s Amorite kingdom.

It is no wonder that the Moabite king was wary of the Israelites even though they were distant cousins and spoke a variation of the same Semitic language. Further, not many years earlier, the Egyptians conquered Moab (the huge statue at Luxor erected by Rameses II lists Moab as a conquest in the 13th century BC). It is possible that the Moabites regarded the Israelites as an advance guard for the Egyptians. “Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt; behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me.” (Numbers 22:5) However, the Israelite God had forbidden an Israelite conquest of Moab. The Israelites merely wanted safe passage across the Moabite territory.  

Balak was the king of the Moabites. He feared for his own kingdom given that the Israelites had defeated a much more powerful enemy. In fear and dread, he called together the elders of Midian. Needing divine help, Balak summoned the prophet Balaam telling him that the Israelites were arrayed against him. He asked Balaam to curse the Israelites who were too mighty for Balak, for whomever Balaam blessed is blessed and whomever Balaam cursed is cursed.

Balaam asked God’s counsel. “God said unto Balaam: ‘Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed.’” (Numbers 22:12) When Balaam refused Balak’s request, the latter sent his envoys a second time promising Balaam great honours. This time, without even consulting God, Balaam outright rejected the entreaties of the plenipotentiaries of Balak. The latter upped his game and for a third time sent a request carried by the most honourable members of his kingdom promising great rewards and requesting that he curse the Israelites. Once again, and without consulting God, Balaam not only rejected the request but clearly stated that he could not and would not accede to the request for ALL the gold and silver in the kingdom. However, he did agree to seek instructions from God and invited his guests to stay overnight. Thus, he revealed his weakness. He had already been given clear instructions by God.

“And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him: ‘If the men are come to call thee, rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do.’” (Numbers 22:20) Balaam did as he was told and mounted his ass in the morning to travel to see Balak. The three incidents with the ass followed. Except, something came in between. God had initially given his conditional permission. But then, “God’s anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of the LORD placed himself in the way for an adversary against him…”(22:22) If God permitted Balaam to go in the first place, why did He get angry when He did. Why did His angel get in the way of the ass?

23 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.

24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a hollow way between the vineyards, a fence being on this side, and a fence on that side.

25 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall; and he smote her again.

26 And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.

27 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff.

Three times the ass refused to go forward, first going sideways into the field, then crushing Balaam’s leg against a wall when the ass tried to squeeze forward and a third time the ass simply squatted on his haunches. Each time Balaam beat his ass, but to no avail.

30. And the ass said unto Balaam: ‘Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden all thy life long unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto?’ And he [Balaam] said: ‘Nay.’

The ass said that she did not deserve a beating. Balaam contended that she did because he had been humiliated, so much so that if he had had a sword, he would not just have beaten the ass; he would have killed her.

31. Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face.

32. And the angel of the LORD said unto him: ‘Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? Behold, I am come forth for an adversary, because thy way is contrary unto me;

33. and the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times; unless she had turned aside from me, surely now I had even slain thee, and saved her alive.’

The ass had turned away from the angel with the sword and saved Balaam’s life.

34. And Balaam said unto the angel of the LORD: ‘I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me; now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back.’

35. And the angel of the LORD said unto Balaam, ‘Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak.’ So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.

Balak now felt humbled rather than humiliated. If you want me to, he said to God, I will return and abandon my mission. N0, God, said, go forth and repeat only the words I tell you to say.

Why did the ass see the angel but Balaam did not? How could an ass speak and Balaam not be taken aback? And why three incidents in which the opportunities for the ass to move grew narrower and then impossible to traverse? Why did Balaam finally see the angel after he struck the ass three times? What is the meaning of the ass’s reprimand of Balaam? Why, when God instructed Balaam to only say what God told him, did the instruction have to be repeated at least three times?

Assuming that critical theory is correct and that the story of Balaam and his ass is an insertion into an older story, the questions still remain. It is not as if the contradiction between the two tales did not stand out.

One explanation is that the second story of Balaam and his ass was needed to cut Balaam down to size, to expose him, not as a trusted prophet of God who happened not to be a Hebrew, but an individual not able to see an angel that his ass could see. Balaam, the famous foreign prophet, was totally incapable of understanding God’s intent, only his words. Hence, he was cruel to that ass and needed the message to be reinforced a second time.

But why? One further explanation: the two stories belong to two different periods of the history of Israel, as attested by the linguistic differences, the first to a confident, imperial, universalist and humanist period of David and Solomon and the second to a xenophobic inward gazing Israel of the Second Temple Period.

I suggest that there is more to the juxtaposition of the two tales. The first is a tale in the old manner of a prophet who hears and is instructed by God and is willing, even in the face of a royal command, to do God’s bidding. The second is a satire of the first tale, akin to the Jonah story, in which Balaam, the interpreter of dreams who can hear oracles and prophesy, cannot even see what an ass can see. He who would disobey his king cannot now even get his ass to obey him. How would or could he ever have the strength of character to curse a nation that had just defeated the most powerful king in the region or, in turn, be worthy of blessing that nation?

There was a dynamic change; Balaam learned that he was ignorant, that he was human-all-too-human and could finally understand why he had to obey God’s orders. This issue is not simply the different cultures that may have been the source of the two stories or the contradictory intentions of the two stories when they are parsed apart, but the meaning when the two are conjoined. Balaam learns his lesson from his own ass which he was ready to kill.

Three times Balaam is asked to go on a mission for the king. Three times Balaam urges his ass to go forth and beats the ass when she does not. Now, three times will Balaam be asked by the king to curse the Israelites as the two stood together on the height overlooking the Israelite encampment. Three times did Balaam offer a sacrifice, even though Balaam clearly told the king that he could only speak the words God put into his mouth. Three times in three different locations Balaam blessed them instead.

“How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? And how shall I execrate, whom the Lord hath not execrated.” (23:8) The second time, “Behold, I am bidden to bless; and when he hath blessed, I cannot call it back.” (23:20) But the third time, the spirit of God came upon him, Balaam’s eyes were opened and instead of being a ventriloquist’s puppet, he said, “How goodly are they tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel.” (24:5) “God who brought him forth out of Egypt is for him like the lofty horns of the wild-ox; he shall eat up the nations that are his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces, and pierce them through with his arrows.” (23:8) Further, Balaam reversed the target and said that anyone who cursed the Israelites would themselves be cursed. Even when that enemy was his own king.

Balaam thus was transformed from a reputed prophet, but one who could not see God’s messenger nor refrain from beating his ass out of frustration, and became a true prophet who cursed the enemies of Israel. Further, he could now truly prophecy.

“I watch him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh; there shall step forth a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite through the corners of Moab, and break down all the sons of Seth.” (24:17)

But there was a cost to the Israelites as well. They intermarried with the Moabite women and began to worship Baal as well. Thus, what turned around and cursed Balak when he wanted the other cursed, now turned around and cursed the Israelites who had been blessed by an Other.

The Israelites had still not learned to take responsibility for themselves even though they had travelled in the wilderness for forty years – even as a foreigner had moved from celebrity but not divinely inspired prophet to one humiliated and proven an ass by his own donkey and then into a redeemed prophet who was inspired by the spirit of the Lord and could engage in true prophesy.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Resurrection of Racism and the Erection of a Wall Part I: Donald Trump’s Racist Tweet

I have tried to put Donald Trump back in the closet where he belongs by focusing on other issues, mostly historical and theoretical. The main topic had to do with various views of Jews beginning in the sixteenth century. Why, then, should I think of Trump when, just moments ago, looking over the Georgia Strait from the front deck, I was watching a very young deer traipse over the rocks and plunge into the cove for a swim. Donald Trump won’t stay in the closet. If even someone as inconsequential to his role as myself dares to ignore him, he seems to up his game. But nothing he has said thus far, including such obscene beliefs as grabbing women by their pussies, has outraged me more than his recent tweet on four Democratic congresswomen.

By now, I am sure that everyone in the world is aware of what he said, but I reprint his tweet here as a reference.

On Sunday morning, Trump tweeted,

“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.”

Unlike Lindsay Graham, Trump did not call them communists. Further, as even a few Republicans embarrassingly noted, the first proposition is an outright lie. However, even the vociferous Trump critic, former Ohio Republican governor John Kasich, simply called the comments “deplorable and beneath the dignity of the office” but did not brand them as lies and racist.

Three of the four women, of course, were born in the U.S.A.: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) was born in New York – her parents are from Puerto Rico, part of the United States; Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) was born in Detroit of Palestinian-American parents; Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), an African-American, was born in Cincinnati. Ilhan Omar (Minn.) is the only one who was born abroad, in Somalia. She came to the United States as a young child and was made a citizen as a teenager. The parents of two of the four were born in America. All four are members of the Democratic Socialists of America and together are referred to as “The Squad”.

Once upon a time in America there was a widespread belief that it did not matter where you or your parents came from. If you were a citizen, you were entitled to all rights as a citizen. You were entitled to criticize the government, to put forth different ideas and to engage in debate about the future of the country. Once upon a time in America, and continuing into the present, it does matter if you are black or Latino. Despite progress, discrimination based on race remains widespread. Only racists say, “Go back to where you came from.” “Making America Great Again” means getting rid of browns and blacks, or, at the very least, denying their rights and returning the United States to its deeply racist past.

Trump does not, however, seem to be offended by Asians. After all, as Marc Short, Vice-President Mike Pence’s Chief of Staff, said on “Mornings with Maria” on Fox News in response to a question about Trump’s offensive tweet, “Trump can’t have “racist motives” because he appointed Elaine Chao as Secretary of Transportation.” Chao is a naturalized American from Taiwan who arrived in the United States at 8 years of age. The fact that she served as Secretary of Labor in Bush’s cabinet, the fact that she has had a distinguished career in government – she previously served as Deputy Secretary of Transportation under Ronald Reagan – as well as the private sector, the fact that she is married to Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, since 1993, may have nothing to do with her appointment. What counts for Marc Short is that she is a non-white in a cabinet consisting mainly of white old men.

Responding to the storm Trump had produced by his remarks, at least among Democrats and Independents, on Monday Trump did what he usually does, project his worst failings on others. On Monday morning, he tweeted, “When will the Radical Left Congresswomen apologize to our Country, the people of Israel and even to the Office of the President, for the foul language they have used, and the terrible things they have said. If Democrats want to unite around the foul language & racist hatred spewed from the mouths and actions of these very unpopular & unrepresentative Congresswomen, it will be interesting to see how it plays out.” He spews racism and accuses those whose criticisms he would stifle as racists.

Further, Trump justified his racism by his support for Israel and to deflect critics. Not only has he achieved a new level of explicit racism, but he also raised the politicization of Israel to a dangerous height. By using support for Israel as an excuse for racist comments and to deflect criticism from his vile tweets, he set a new marker for the politicization of Israel in American politics. Israel was turned into a code word for evoking criticism of the other from his supporters. As disagreeable as I found the comments of a member of “The Squad” on Israel – for example, Tlaib supports BDS and unfairly criticized Senators Marco Rubio and Jim Risch for their anti-BDS legislation telling Rubio and Risch that they “forgot what country they represent” – the comments were not antisemitic. However ill-informed, they were well within the bounds of civil discourse and disagreement. Trump’s comments were not.

Trump portrayed the Congresswomen as “unpopular and unrepresentative.” The truth is that all four are very popular and very representative of their districts. They are unpopular and unrepresentative of the Republican Party. These were the results for each of the Congresswomen in the midterm elections:

Congresswoman % of vote Firsts re Congress
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez         78.2 youngest woman ever elected
Ilhan Omar 78%  first Muslim, along with Tlaib
Ayanna Pressley 98.3% first black elected in Mass.
Rashida Tlaib 84% first Palestinian-American

In the Democratic primaries, both Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley defeated long-serving progressive male Democratic members of Congress, Joseph Crowley and Michael Capuano respectively.

Pressley called Donald Trump “a racist, misogynistic, truly empathy-bankrupt man.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “It is unfortunate that he feels the way he feels about people of colour in this country, about immigrants in this country, naturalised citizens or not, and it’s time to move on from him and his conception of an America that we have tried to move past for a long time.” Rashida Tlaib’s uncle, Bassam Tlaib, who lives in the West Bank, called the president’s comments “a racist statement meant to target Rashida because she has Palestinian roots.”

Ilhan Omar explained Trump’s bigoted rhetoric as an effort at distraction from much larger issues, like “the constant human rights violations and the policies that are detrimental to our existence in this country and the harm that he is causing on a daily basis to our constitution.” Others suggest that the monsoon of tweets on the subject was designed to shift eyeballs away from the Jeffrey Epstein investigation and prosecution. Katie Johnson accused Donald Trump and Jeffrey Epstein of having solicited sex acts in 1994 from her at sex parties held at the Manhattan homes of Epstein and Trump back when Johnson was just 13 years old. There are rumours that in the raids on the Jeffrey Epstein estates, the photographs and videos obtained implicate Trump in child sex activity. Tiffany Doe evidently corroborated Jane’s allegations. She has allegedly given sworn testimony that she met Epstein at Port Authority; she was hired to recruit other young girls for his parties. Trump, who in 1994 had known Epstein for seven years, attended those parties. Trump knew that Doe was only thirteen. 

Others assert that the US president believes that divisive and nativist rhetoric is his best chance of clinging on to the White House. Ben Rhodes, a former national security adviser to Barack Obama, tweeted, “Trump launched his political brand 8 years ago saying the first African American President was born in Africa. It has always been about racism, and the fact that this has ever been a controversial thing to say is part of the problem.” Trump launched his presidential ambitions on the birther allegations by questioning Obama’s birthplace.  

Eugene Scott of The Washington Post opined yesterday morning that, “his campaign will feature the same explosive mix of white grievance and anti-immigrant nativism that helped elect him. Trump’s combustible formula of white identity politics already has reshaped the Republican Party, sidelining, silencing or converting nearly anyone who dares to challenge the racial insensitivity of his utterances. It also has pushed Democratic presidential candidates sharply to the left on issues such as immigration and civil rights, as they respond to the liberal backlash against him… At the core of the strategy is Trump’s consistent drumbeat of equating the white European immigrant experience with the American ideal, setting those on his side of the divide against the politically correct elites, outsiders, immigrants or non-whites who he implies are unfairly threatening what is good about the country.”

David Brooks of The New York Times gave the latter theme priority of place. The target was not consolidation in the Republican Party – already achieved – but defining the Democratic Party as radical. “Trump has a vested interest in keeping the progressives atop the Democratic Party, and he powerfully influences that party. When Pelosi tried to marginalize the squad, Trump issued a racist tweet against the squad’s members. Democrats responded predictably, and the squad was back as the party’s defining element.”

Whatever the explanation for the vile and reprehensible torrent of tweets, at the core, telling a fellow American to go back to her own country is overt, conscious and deliberate racism and not simply subtle and unconscious conditioned behaviour. It does appeal to his racist base – mainly white, male, ageing, and generally lacking any post-secondary education. Trump is simply an educated and rich racist.

The House of Representatives Tuesday evening properly condemned Trump for his racist tweets. By a 240-187 vote, split largely along party lines, the House “strongly condemns President Donald Trump’s racist comments that have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.” The outrage and the vote evidently had NO impact of Trump’s overall approval rating according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll.

To Be Continued – Part II: Trump’s Historical Record on Racism

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Yoke of Sacrifice: Parashah Chukkat Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

Why did the Israelites have to spend 40 years in the wilderness? I was brought up to believe that the reason was that they still were drenched in the slave mentality that they had when they were in Egypt. It took two generations to wash out the residue of a sense of submission and dependency and thus enable them to take on the tribes of the Promised Land and defeat them.

This macho explanation seems on the surface to make psychological and sociological sense. Further, such an interpretation is consistent in many ways with this week’s parashah. After all, God instructs Moses and Aaron to obtain a red unblemished cow “upon which no yoke was laid.” Those who must offer their bodies and blood in the war that is inevitably coming must not have experienced the yoke of slavery. Instead of a golden calf to be worshipped by the mentally enslaved, this rare and perfect specimen must be burned and sacrificed and its ashes kept as “a keepsake for the congregation of the children of Israel for sprinkling water used for cleansing.”

Why do the Israelites have to cleanse themselves this way? Why does contact with a corpse make them unclean, whether it be the corpse of someone who died a natural death, died of a disease or whether the individual was slain in battle? “If a person becomes unclean and does not cleanse himself, that soul shall be cut off from the congregation, for he has defiled the Sanctuary of the Lord; the sprinkling waters were not sprinkled upon him. He is unclean.” (Numbers 19:20) So instead of the golden calf being an idol of worship, the ashes of a red heifer “shall be for the Israelites a perpetual statue.” 

Why have ashes of a pure red heifer that has never been yoked to a plough serve as a statue rather than a golden calf? Precisely to get men to face their humility rather than their pride. For from ashes dost thou come and to ashes wilt thou return.

This is the backdrop of the portion which continues in chapter 20 on a seemingly very different subject – the complaints of the Israelites to their leader Moses about the scarcity of water. We read the same refrain – why did you bring us here into this wilderness without water so that we and our cattle may die? The wilderness is an evil place without seeds, fig trees grapevines or pomegranate trees. Then we read of the famous scene where Moses takes his staff, hits a rock and from it water gushes forth. And the equally famous rejoinder of God to Moses, “Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.” (20:12) Moses will not be allowed to lead his people into the Promised Land. What was Moses error? He asked the congregation, not whether God would let water flow from the rock but whether we (Moses and Aaron) can draw water from the rock.

One additional issue became clear; the Israelites were not a strong enough and disciplined military force to take on the Edomites who refused to allow Israel to cross through their territory. The evidence piles up that time was needed in the wilderness to turn them from slaves into a fighting force.

Further, Aaron too will die in the desert because he did not acknowledge God as providing the water. Moses stripped Aaron of his priestly garments and gave them to his son, Eleazar; Aaron died on Mount Hor. Then the Canaanite king of Arad warred on the Israelites and took a captive. However, the Israelites prayed to their God and He destroyed the Canaanite cities and consecrated them for the Israelites.

As the Israelites march on and complain bitterly of their situation, God this time sent a plague of snakes, serpents to bite them and they died. But Moses made a rod with a snake wound around it that bore a striking resemblance to the rod of Asclepius which is used to cure a bitten Israelite from a bite.

Their wandering continued – from Oboth to the wasteland that faced the Moabites, to the stream of Zered and on the other side of the Arnon. Again, the Israelites sent a message to Sihon, king of the Amorites, asking for permission to pass through their lands. Again, they were turned down. But Sihon went a step further and attacked the Israelites. This time, the Israelites turned on the Amonites and slew them and captured their cities.

Does this not seem proof enough that the tour of duty in the wilderness was intended to turn the Israelites into a formidable fighting force? The Israelites went on from victory to victory.

The dilemma with this interpretation is that it leaves too many puzzles unexplained. First, why is the scene where Moses strikes the rock with his staff to bring forth water followed by the explanation that the Israelites were too weak as a military force to engage in a conflict with the Edomites who would not let the Israelites cross their territory? However, this was their 40th year of their sojourn in the wilderness. If not then, when? Further, immediately after they go on the war path, they beat one tribe after another.

There is an explanation. This story did not take place in the 40th year but in the first year when they began their sojourn in the desert. The story of Moses striking the stone with his staff to bring forth water was told before – in Exodus (17:1-7). Then, the people complained to Moses over escaping slavery only to bring them to a desert where they would die of thirst. If this were the fortieth year of their wandering, why would they still be complaining about being misled in their escape from slavery? The wilderness of Zin would appear to be the wilderness of Sin referred to in Exodus. Further, the place where the water gushed forth was named “Waters of Quarrel” (Mei Meribah) [or “Testing of Quarrel” in Exodus] symbolizing the Israelites quarrel with Moses.

Why tell the story again here? It is to make a different point. The issue is not simply that Moses and Aaron this time were punished for taking the credit for bringing forth the water. Moses and Aaron broke faith with God. (Deuteronomy 32:51) They took credit. They stood on their own feet instead of simply following orders. And they paid the ultimate sacrifice for their disobedience, but a sacrifice necessary if the Israelite army was to act independently, creatively and as a unified force. For the Israelites were now powered by a self-confidence and morale based on a unified polity.  

The story is about giving birth to a new kind of Israeli as symbolized by the breaking of a membrane and waters gushing forth as when a woman is ready to give birth. Miriam died at the beginning of the story with no comment on the significance of her life and death. Moses and Aaron were left to die in the wilderness without entering the Promised Land. This in itself suggests that the Israelites were about to embark on a new cultural order, not dependent as before on absolute rulers. The old order dies and gives way to the new. Did it mean that they were no longer dependent of an absolute patriarchal order?

Rashi explained the repetition of the event (and not just the story) as arising because Miriam had died and it was because of Miriam, the one who saved her brother by floating him on the water, that the Israelites had water. When she died, once again water became scarse. I do believe Miriam has a key role in interpreting the portion, but not as an explanation why water became scarce. She did die in the wilderness of Zin where the miracle of the water gushing from the rock took place.  

The overwhelming evidence suggests that this was the same story about the same event, but one given a very different twist when the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land. And it will be about a feminine principle and not about the need to socialize men to be macho rather than slavish. Further, they battle unlike any army I have read about. They politely ask for permission to pass through a territory and guarantee that they will not steal a single animal. They engage in war only when passage is denied. They not only surrender the greatest strategic benefit of all – surprise – but they clearly signal that they do not want war. Not very macho!

Further, this portion continues the pattern of the Torah of giving very short shift to the death of heroines and almost no attention to their burial in contrast to how the tales of the great men’s deaths and burials are recorded and, as well, in contrast to post-biblical accounts of women’s deaths, such as those told by Philo and Josephus.

Finally, it is questionable whether the Israelites had a slavish personality in the first place. In fact, I would claim that a major theme running from Exodus to Numbers about the Israelites’ forty years in the wilderness is about their grumbling and complaining, about their dissent and willingness to say it as it is rather than buckle under and simply obey the commands of their authoritarian leaders and God. The story of the snakes offers another example.

“YHWH sent saraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died.” (Numbers 21:6) The people surrender and express once again their regret. In criticizing Moses and God, they were out of line. Once again Moses is asked by his people to intercede with God. Once again, God relents. He tells Moses to make a sculpture of a serpent coiled around a rod. It can be used to heal people who are bitten. It is the same icon that the Israelites will have come to worship in the time of King Hezekiah (Kings 18:4) but one that Hezekiah would destroy. (But that is another story. How did a symbol of health and healing become an object of idol worship to which sacrifices were offered?)

In Egypt, serpents were symbols of life and healing, of monarchial rule and protection. In ancient Greece, Asclepius, the son of Apollo, was rescued by his father from the womb of his mother Coronis before she died. Asclepius was identified by the staff he held with the serpent wound around it that became the symbol of medicine. The story told in this week’s portion links the Garden of Eden story where the serpent of poisonous tongue is reduced to a slithering figure on the ground. Contrast this with the resurrection of the snake to a position among the gods and rulers to serve the most humanitarian of purposes, bringing life back to a person on the verge of death.

I suggest that this tale of fertility, of healing, of the resurrection of the snake from being regarded as a sinful danger, of sexual temptation, offers a critical element in interpreting the portion. Moses is transformed before he dies from a ruler who governs by division and divination to one who serves as a healer bringing the people he led together. This is what made the Israelite army powerful. It was unified and not divided by factions. It was not a murderous band, however much destruction it brought, but its goal was civility and peace. In sum, it was not a macho army.

Like Asclepius, Moses was a baby rescued from death. The Israelites were on the verge of entering the Promised Land. However, they were suffering from a serious problem of morale. The root of the problem – dissent was not tolerated. The leadership did not recognize others with a different voice and perspective as worthy of respect, as worthy of a hearing. How better to heal this deficiency than by telling the same story from a different perspective, but this time where the ultimate dissent and sacrifice was paid by the two highest leaders.

Eve recognized sex. Eve was not just a material projection of Adam’s body but an independent being. Adam had to learn that he was embodied, that he was not simply an instrument to continue God’s role in creation by naming and classifying things. Adam needed a heart. It is at the end of the wilderness tale that the Israelites finally come to recognize they have a heart, that their survival depends much more on their feelings towards one another than any military prowess. Further, it was Eve through procreation that ensured the continuity of human life. Yet that role in procreation was seen as punishment for she brought forth new life in pain.

Like Asclepius, Moses too would learn the art of healing, of bringing together by recognizing and listening to the other just as Asclepius acquired his medical knowledge and wisdom by observing the snake. Moses would give the Israelites his final lesson – the importance of willing sacrifice if a powerful and creative polity was to develop.

Attending to the inclusion of Marion as the foundation of the parashah, attending to the symbolic meaning of the twist of bringing water from a rock by striking it with one’s staff, allows the punishment of both Aaron and Moses for not recognizing God as the exclusive source of everything, to make real sense. Moses and Aaron effectively rebelled. They had to be punished. However, their sacrifice made all the difference in transforming the Israelites.

Hence the importance of the red unblemished cow “upon which no yoke was laid.” Its ashes must be kept as “a keepsake for the congregation of the children of Israel for sprinkling water used for cleansing,” as a perpetual statue. Dirty water as a perpetual statue!!! Further, how can dirty water be used to purify another? And why is that other made impure by contact with death and with dirty water?

Aaron and Moses lose their purity by getting their hands dirty. They take responsibility onto themselves and suffer the consequences. Just as the clothes in a washing machine are cleaned by making pure water dirty, so do Moses and Aaron become dirty in order to cleanse the Israelis and turn them into a unified polity. They remove dissension by becoming the dissidents themselves. Thus, they teach the Israelites what it really means to both recognize another as other yet deeply and truly invest in and sacrifice for that other.

This is what the process of expiation, cleansing and purification is about. That is how sins are really washed away. It is we who must sacrifice for the mess God left, for it is God, who is disembodied, who had not yet learned what it meant to be embodied and to love another, and how that reciprocal love was so very critical to creating an effective polity. Moses and Aaron serve as the scapegoats to pass along this lesson. After all, the red heifer is a female. No more blaming others. Recognize others and take responsibility for what you do. Water is the means to wash away our mindblindness even if it means that the water of purification becomes dirty in the process.

With the help of Alex Zisman