Justice You Shall Pursue
Jews have a particular responsibility to ensure proper use of presidential power.
Every spring, my family reads from our Haggadah about four children: one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is apathetic, and one who is silent, because s/he does not know enough to ask.
I’ve been thinking about the four children and their questions recently as the word “unprecedented” is applied to the Trump presidency. I think that’s happening because we, collectively, do not know enough to ask.
When Reagan won the presidency in 1980, people in my parents’ liberal, Jewish corner of the universe thought the world as they knew it might end (to the point that activists at my dad’s school successfully agitated for cyanide pills in the infirmaries just in case there was a nuclear attack). During a dinner discussion following the 2016 election, my dad recalled something that his father had said in 1980: “Don’t worry, I didn’t think we could survive Nixon, and we did. After him, we can survive anything.”
Richard M. Nixon is, of course, synonymous with Watergate, the most infamous obstruction of justice in modern history. According to my grandfather, after that unprecedented event, we, as a nation, can survive anything.
I believe that statement to be true. My generation is so temporally removed from the events of the 1970s that it’s an event in our history books, a TV broadcast that my grandfather made my dad watch in the middle of summer vacation, saying “This is history. It’s never happened before, and it’ll probably never happen again in your lifetimes.”
Now that story is coming around again — different era, different players, but the same story nonetheless (and yes, it has happened again in my dad’s lifetime). Given the constant deluge of shocking headlines and intrigue to come out of the current White House, maintaining the vigilance to hold the administration accountable is a challenge. It’s disturbingly hard not to be the wicked child, asking, “What did God do for YOU? He didn’t bring YOU out of bondage in Egypt. Why should I care? What will God do for ME?”
Policy decisions with which we disagree are inevitable — that’s what happens when the party you don’t like, or even when the party that you do like, is in power — but the frightening part is Trump’s blatant disregard for the Constitution. But this disrespect for the foundational document of our country and the processes it outlines is not unprecedented. Trump is following the same patterns that Nixon did forty years ago.
Simply deeming Trump a political anomaly or a freak of identity politics takes away our responsibility to get our country out of the mess that he’s making — one in which we have all participated, knowingly or otherwise. It seems that the thinking is, if we don’t know how to handle him, then what could we possibly do about the hash he’s making of the presidency and the national reputation?
While Trump is certainly adding a great deal of new and horrific material to the history of the presidency, the most consequential (and terrifying) actions of this administration are not unprecedented. The palace intrigue and apocalyptic headlines add up to an obstruction of justice, and that is something we’ve seen before.
In forty years, I may be telling my kids about my parents’ conclusions on this administration, most of which run along the lines of “just another selfish politician disadvantaging the poor.” From loosening libel laws to offering up a budget that drastically cuts wealthier citizens’ taxes, Trump is clearly acting in his own interests, and in the interests of those like him. He just happens to be doing so from a platform built on hyperbole, shock value, and spectacular excess — the peculiarities that also distinguish him as a chief executive. He feels new but history teaches us that we have seen this story, in some iteration, time and time again.
As a Jewish feminist who did not vote for this President, I could just deem voters who elected him children who don’t know enough to ask, but that feels demeaning and devalues my fellow citizens’ very real and saddening experiences of being left behind in our country. I would call people who voted for Trump out of frustration wicked children — but not in the spiteful, malicious way that we normally think of that word. Once again, it comes back to “What did God do for YOU? What will God do for ME?” As we’ve reveled in the technological and ideological progress of the United States, we’ve neglected to look after others ’experiences and livelihoods. In other words, it’s entirely possible that the wise children got a little too know-it-all.
Given our imperative, as Jews, to pursue justice and to place value on mutual responsibility, we have a special imperative to assist in this process. Whether “the right thing” as dictated by the Constitution is to throw Trump out of office or to be as vocal as possible in our outrage over his decisions remains to be seen. At Passover, we recite: “It is because of this that the Lord brought me from Egypt.” Passover and countless Midrash teach us the importance of “empathic justice.” Just because I personally am not a victim of the White House’s attacks on the American reputation and potential doesn’t mean that I’m absolved from fighting against them. At some point in history, all of us have needed support in a system that worked against us. Today, that support comes in the form of bias training for law enforcement, or affirmative action, or education on different gender identities and sexual orientations. In this administration, Trump’s sights are trained on the people who do not fit his narrow, outdated picture of America: people of color, low-income citizens, undocumented immigrants, and a myriad other labels all serve to make one a target in Trump’s attacks.
Just as the story of Passover is told cyclically, time and again, Pharaohs, or Richard Nixons, or Donald Trumps appear and attempt to obscure what we know is right, and in their own self-interests, attempt to dismantle and ignore the structures that guard our democracy’s well-being. This is not unprecedented. We have read this story before, and we know the role that Jews are meant to play. And it’s our job to draw every parallel we can.
How to cite this page
Kubzansky, Caroline. "Justice You Shall Pursue." 6 June 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 26, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/justice-you-shall-pursue>.