Thoughts on Trump, Rabin and democracy

It’s difficult to even describe how it felt to be sitting in our apartment in Haifa, watching Donald Trump be elected President of the United States. We all woke up at 5 am this past Wednesday to watch the results come in – I had gone to bed the night before sure that Hillary would win, but still deeply anxious. As more and more states began to turn red and the newscasters began to act more and more panicked, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. We all looked at each other and we knew – Trump had won. It felt like a nightmare, like a twisted joke, but it was too real.

The days since then have been difficult and strange. For me, they’ve been days of little sleep, of unexpected tears. My strongest initial feeling was some combination of pain, loss and grief. Many people have been writing that Trump winning this election has felt like losing a loved one. For me, it felt like losing some of the basic belief I had that America was a good place, or had potential to be one. It felt a screen of naivety over my eyes had been yanked away, that all of my worst anxieties about America were simply true and out there for all to see. Our systems of racism, our hate for women, our cruel striving for money and wealth, everything. All of the hopes I’d had that America could be better, because it was a democracy, because it was founded on ideals of human freedom, seemed ridiculous. How could we call ourselves a democracy when we democratically elected a demagogue to lead us? In many ways, it felt like just another instance of a loud, bullying, stupid man being chosen to lead over a competent, resilient, strong woman. I cried for Hillary, just as I’ve cried for myself and so many other women in my life who have experienced this patriarchal phenomenon. The thing that I kept coming back to was the real impact this election will have on people – on children, on families. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the people who could easily be deported, and all of the people who would lose their healthcare if Obamacare was repealed.

I felt that all of tentative progress we were making as a country – the fight for $15, trans and queer rights, the movement for racial justice, much of Obama’s leadership – was shattered.  And more than anything else, I felt small and powerless. I felt that if so many people I knew believed in justice, and fought and organized and poured themselves into these causes, and this still happened, then maybe it was all for nothing. If this could happen, if America could really elect such a person to lead us, then how could the social movements that I believe in ever succeed? How could Habonim Dror, already so small, ever hope to transform the powerful forces of American Judaism that backed Trump despite his clear anti-Semitism? And how could I, an American in Israel, do anything at all? I felt so out of place here walking around Haifa. Everyone here was talking with shock and laughter about Trump, as if it was some massive joke, and I was feeling that the world had just ended. What was I doing in Israel? What fight here could be more important than the imminent battle back home? How could I sit here, in my privilege as a Ashkenazi Jewish olah, and not be at home, fighting side by side with so many radical and committed friends and partners?

My lowest moment came the night after the election. I was sitting in my room and I looked at my chultza tnua, my movement shirt, and just thought, “Why even put it on? It’s hopeless. It doesn’t matter. The forces of oppression are just too strong.”

It doesn’t feel good to admit that, but important for me to write about these things, because I think we need to process the grief and the pain and the anger. Simply pushing it down and reaffirming that we need to continue our fight, or pushing it away for the sake of national “unity,” will not help us. We must do a serious cheshbon nefesh, or accounting of our souls. The pro-Trump forces was and is a social movement – one that we have to look in the face, even if it disgusts and shames us. Much of the anger I feel, layered on top of the grief, is actually directed at the American left. How could we not see this coming? How could we be so blind, seal ourselves off in our elite, college-educated, East Coast bubbles, and not realize the potency of this lashing out against the establishment? And I truly mean WE, myself included. Because it’s true – I chose not to read or hear about Trump, I chose not to engage in this election as much as I could have, because I didn’t want to believe that this would ever happen. And it did, and it is partially my fault. What happened this week is historic and we must take responsibility for it – because if we don’t, then Trump and his supporters will. We must understand where this came from, so we can never let it happen again.

And now, post-election, many of my friends are out in the streets in New York and LA and Boston, chanting “Fuck Trump” and “not my president” – some (a minority) are even burning flags and destroying property. The anger is palpable, it’s just and it’s justified. But these same tactics, when practiced on the “other side” can feel like hate crimes, terrifying violence. Is our anger the same as their anger? Are we entering a political dialogue founded on hate from both sides? More than that, I wonder where these huge crowds in the street before Trump was elected – why weren’t they raising their voices against fascism then? Because it’s always easier to protest what you don’t want than to build what you do. And it makes me think – how do we get what we want, which is justice and liberation for all peoples in America? What does it take to actually transform a society? How can such fundamentally different worldviews meet each other? Will it inevitably be a constant battle between two sides who both see each themselves as inherently right and the other is inherently wrong?

These questions are eerily relevant in Israel today, the memorial day commemorating 21 years since Itzchak Rabin’s assassination. That day in Israeli history feels a bit like what November 9, 2016 will be in American history – a tzomet, or junction. Rabin’s work toward peace via the Oslo Accords was controversial in a divided Israeli society. In the weeks leading up to the final negotiations, violence was increasing on all sides – between Palestinians and Israelis, and in hateful incitement rallies where right-wing religious groups chanted, “in blood and fire, we will expel Rabin.” And then it actually happened – Rabin was shot in the middle of Tel Aviv, immediately following the largest peace rally Israel has ever seen, by another Jew. At the time, it must have felt like the death of democracy. In what kind of democracy do people murder people whom they disagree with politically? And in many ways, it certainly was the death of hopefulness, the death of a dream for peace from a large united sector of Israeli and Palestinian society. The end of any real faith that the situation in Israel-Palestine could fundamentally change, for the better. It’s crazy that just one person could hold so much hope. And yet, it seems nearly impossible to achieve another moment like that. Israeli society is more divided and violent than ever, the illegal occupation of the West Bank is turning 50 years old, and the same leaders who stood on the balconies at the incitement rallies, under signs reading “Death to Rabin, death to Arafat” continue to hold power.

So now, the American left must ask itself some of the same questions that the Israeli left must have been asking themselves after Rabin’s murder, questions that I know that HaNoar HaOved v’HaLomed has been struggling through for the past 20 years. How do we recover resilience and determination from this? How do maintain our inner vision, our core of faith that that society can change, and recommit ourselves to the work we are doing? I’m coming to think that massive crises, like Trump’s election and Rabin’s assassination, are necessary for us to understand the true length and difficulty of the road we are on. It forces us toward cheshbon nefesh. Perhaps feeling so small and hopeless is the only thing that will help us learn the scale and size of what we’re up against. And this knowledge, of who we are and where will going, will enable us to keep planting seeds and laying cornerstones for a more just society.

Tonight, I attended an event which gave me hope that despite the odds, despite 20 years of fracture and terror and right-wing rule in Israel, things can change. It was called the Asefa Israelit, or the Israeli Assembly, and it was put on by a coalition, called “Remembering the Murder, Fighting for Democracy” which includes my movement, Dror Israel. Every year for the past 20 years since the assassination, the movement has collaborated on a massive Rabin rally in Rabin Square. This year, they decided to change direction, toward something that more intentionally and democratically would bring together different sectors of Israeli society. In particular, tonight brought together youth movements of vastly different visions, religious and secular, left wing and right wing, ideological and not. We were split up into small discussion groups, with all different sorts of people, and asked to decide which value Israeli society should be based on. From talking to friends split across groups, most groups picked “shivyon erech ha’adam,” the equality of human value.

The fact that a couple thousand Israelis, Jewish, Ethiopian, Arab, Druze, religious, young and old, could even come together in this way, could all choose together that the equality of humans is the underlying value of democracy, seemed like an incredible, if small breakthrough. Young people from B’nei Akiva, the religious right-wing youth movement that took part in the incitement against Rabin, stood on stage with members of HaNoar HaOved, Rabin’s own youth movement. They addressed racism, sexism and ongoing cycles of violence and spoke movingly about the need for a vibrant, diverse, strong and resilient democracy. They spoke Hebrew and they spoke Arabic, proudly and for all to hear.  It felt like a true meeting of different parts of society, complete with debate over common understandings and real differences. And as I sat there, listening to the stories and the songs, I thought that this is just the start of new partnerships, of wider-reaching dialogues – this is what building looks like.

Tonight, despite the hopelessness that I still feel about America’s next chapter, despite the constant setbacks and frustrations in moving toward a more just Israeli society, I felt good in my chultzah. I felt like I had power as a person, as a madricha to chanichim, as a partner to Israelis and Americans alike, as a member of a youth movement. I almost felt like I was there in the audience of blue shirts when Rabin told the NOAL Veida that that the youth movements were and always had been the builders of the Israeli future. I am in the midst of a personal and collective cheshbon nefesh, and part of two pivotal moments – one in which America must face its truths, and another in which my movement is recommitting itself to its path, toward hope and democracy in Israel. As an olah, it’s easy to feel lost here, that this movement isn’t mine and neither is Israeli society. After all, what direct connection do I have to Rabin? But tonight, despite not understanding much of the Hebrew, despite feeling on the outskirts, I honestly felt that none of that mattered – because I am needed here to do this work. There is so much work to be done, both here and in America, but I’ve already chosen my fight – the fight for Israel’s soul and future, its democracy. And I know I have partners in that fight, and an entire youth movement behind me. The chultzah is a work shirt, so let’s get to work!!

The road toward justice is long and it stretches out both behind and before us, but as the Talmud says, we are not responsible to finish the work but neither are we free to desist from it. I send strength, love, vulnerability and resilience to all my partners in America and in Israel – we will all need it for the work ahead. 

Aleh v’hagshem,



3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Trump, Rabin and democracy

  1. Lily: I don’t know you, but Gabe is my nephew…and he knows that I (generally) vote Republican, tho I do back Democrats who are supporters of Israel.

    I know you’re upset; I’ve been in your shoes because I’ve been involved in political campaigns since I stuffed envelopes for Dante Fascell, a good and decent Democrat whose daughter and I went to high school together in Miami.

    The only time I ever cried was when Bobby Kennedy was shot in June of 1968. I gave myself a week, then started working on Gene McCarthy’s campaign (who turned out to be a poseur) and then Hubert Humphrey (another good decent man who was tarred by Lyndon Johnson’s brush), who lost to Richard Nixon. Nixon, a republican hated by the Dems, actually ended the war in Vietnam. He opened the door to China. And was then forced to resign, on the eve of impeachment, by his fellow Republicans who were disgusted by the Watergate scandal (Take note Dems and Hillary, Inc.)

    As a Democrat, I lost a lot of battles. And then as a Republican, I lost more. All part of life.
    The world doesn’t end, and if you’re smart, you’ll learn from your failures waaaay more than from your successes.

    So here’s my advice (take it or leave it; I won’t be insulted) — you win some, you lose some, and you keep going. Good advice for love, jobs, life, too.

    You have a roof over your head, what to eat and a job. You have people who love you, and obviously you’re passionate about your causes. You’re better off than the vast majority in this world, who struggle daily just to survive.
    Channel that passion into concrete work (2020 will be here before you know it and you can work on a presidential campaign even in Israel). You’ve already noted your strength and commitment to Habonim Dror…good for you for picking yourself up so quickly!!

    You made a radical change in your life by moving to Israel, so obviously you are a person of courage. And you obviously have confidence in meeting new people, evidenced by the blog about the gigantic rally, and talking with them about their lives. Use that courage and confidence. Look at this election as an opportunity for change. And continue to talk with people who have different backgrounds and opinions.

    We’re all in for a wild ride. Hang on and don’t let go!!


  2. Lily – This is a beautifully written post. I take issue with just one sentence – where you refer to “the powerful forces of American Judaism that backed Trump despite his clear anti-Semitism.” Be assured that almost no one in American Judaism backed Trump. There are a few exceptions (like Sheldon Adelson) – but they’re exceptions who prove the rule (because they’re so far out of the mainstream of American Jewish life). I read that 80% of American Jews voted for Clinton — the highest percentage of any ethnic or religious group (higher even than Hispanics! how is that possible??!!). So hopefully that’s one more tiny thing not to worry about. And Gabe’s description of the Rabin Day asefa leumit gives me great optimism about Israeli society. DLS.


  3. FYI:
    About 70% of American Jewry, according to exit polls, backed Hillary.
    The rest of us backed Trump, Johnson or Stein.
    That stat has been pretty static for decades, tho Bush 43 was able to get slightly more of the Jewish vote.


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