Earl Schorris wrote a wonderful book a few decades ago called Jews Without Mercy. It was a savage, incantatory attack in the era of Reagan on the Jews who first advanced neoconservatism and brought it to a wider audience. I thought of his evocative title when conceiving this blog post about the response of some Jews both in America and Israel to the moral, societal and political challenges of our age.
There has always been a tension between universalism and particularity in our tradition going back to the prophets, if not earlier. One pole in Jewish thought reaches out to the world and seeks to engage with it, influence it, make it better. The opposite pole closes in on itself, cares only for the fate and welfare of Jews, argues that turning outward has only brought Jews suffering. That pole says that Jews can only depend on themselves; and that we may only look outward for the aid of a non-Jew to the extent he can advance our own particular Jewish interests.
Jewish neo-conservatives both in Israel and the U.S. embraced the latter position. You’ll remember that Irving Kristol, one of the fathers of neoconservatism, memorably said that “a neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality.” Meir Kahane was an extreme version of this position. He was a neocon with guns.
Today, with the ascension of Donald Trump, a certain class of Jews advances the same set of cruel, insular values. Just as the GOP and its media darlings at FoxNews have transformed immigrants into the whipping boy to advance their agenda; just as they’ve churned up a hysterical fear of refugees and foreigners, these same forces have set upon the homeless as another scourge supposedly threatening our cities and our American Way of Life.
In Seattle, we’ve seen that with the anti-homeless movement organized around the group, Safe Seattle. It played a key role in the infamous TV documentary, Seattle is Dying? produced for the local Sinclair affiliate, KOMO. Safe Seattle and its leaders were prominently featured in it and they painted a similar apocalyptic vision to the one portrayed by Trump in his Inaugural Address. Remember “American Carnage?”
…The crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
The TV documentary painted a dark foreboding picture of Seattle as urban wasteland. A city taken over by thugs bent on violence. A city trashed and abandoned to its own fate. This is, of course, a false portrait. Seattle is nowhere near dying. While there is a major problem of homelessness, the homeless are not our enemies. They are victims abandoned by society. They require services, housing and treatment rather than harsh justice.
In truth, if anything is killing Seattle it is the runaway growth promoted by Bezos and other corporate titans expanding their businesses here. Tens of thousands of jobs beckon to young people fresh out of college seeking to join the tech March of Progress. There is not enough housing, not enough infrastructure, not enough mass transit, not enough schools to support this massive surge. As a result, the quality of life here suffers. New York City: be glad you stood up to Amazon. Beware of mega-corporations bearing “gifts.”
Much like Trump wants to rid America of immigrants, and the Euro-right wants to rid its lands of Muslim refugees, and Israel wants to rid itself of both African refugees and Palestinians, Seattle anti-homeless movement wants to rid the city of the homeless. Rather, it wants to make the city safe for Big Business, the techies drawn here for Amazon and Microsoft jobs, and the rest of us white folk.
Ari Hoffman: Seattle City Council Candidate and a Jew Without Mercy
One of the leaders of this local initiative is Ari Hoffman, who’s running for a City Council seat in District 2 (Seward Park and South Seattle). Hoffman is an Orthodox Jew and militantly pro-Israel. He is a real estate developer, whose father-in-law, another wealthy developer, Larry Russak, is rumored to have bought his business for him. Russak is the president of the main Orthodox Ashkenazi synagogue in Seward Park, Bikur Cholim. Russak was responsible for ousting the synagogue’s distinguished Rabbi Moshe Kletenik just as he began a term as president of the national Orthodox rabbinical association. A synagogue member wrote that the rabbi had penalized him for violating Jewish law and refused him the honor of blowing the shofar on the High Holidays. A slight Russak supposedly never forgave.
Among the frauds Hoffman has perpetrated is to invent a homeless murder that never happened. He also made a 911 call falsely accusing a potential constituent of stealing yard signs.
This is Safe Seattle’s city council candidate, Ari Hoffman, trying to bolster his campaign by spreading a completely false story about a homeless, drug addicted, axe murderer cutting off people’s heads. This is disqualifying, and Hoffman should end his campaign immediately. pic.twitter.com/6vylPgK63M
— Spek (@spekulation) March 11, 2019
In addition to his anti-homeless activism, he runs the local Orthodox Jewish youth group, NCSY. The organization runs more than 100 such clubs at public high schools throughout the country, including five in Seattle. These after-school organizations draw non-Orthodox Jewish youth, who are fed a diet of pro-Israel propaganda sponsored by organizations like StandWithUs. Hoffman is fond of Praeger University videos, which portray Israel as beset by menacing Arabs seeking its destruction. Hoffman offers students free Orthodox-sponsored trips to Israel and also recruits them to study Torah with him. These are all known missionary strategies (known as kiruv in Hebrew) used by Orthodox Jews to convert secular and non-Orthodox Jews to Orthodoxy. When I criticized Hoffman for these practices directed at my son, he responded with insults and invective. Later, he tweeted that I was depriving Jewish youth of doughnuts!
Recently, Hoffman promoted the claim that neo-Nazis on 8chan had threatened his life because he flew an Israeli flag in front of his house. Though I don’t know whether the claim is true or not, the origin of the report was the Islamophobic media NGO, MEMRI. The organization is not known for veracity or credibility of its claims. The Stranger reports that the FBI said it was aware of reports about the threats, but it did not pass judgment on their credibility.
The current Seattle City Council election is being fought between pro-business and progressive candidates. The corporate candidates are funded by a $1-million campaign orchestrated by the Chamber of Commerce. $200,000 of that million comes from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. The billionaire has little interest in making the city a better place for the poor or the downtrodden. His company raised a fit when the Council unanimously passed a $250 corporate “head tax” that would have raised $75-million to fund homeless programs including housing.
When Bezos and the mayor warned the council they would fight them tooth and nail in coming elections, seven of the council member backtracked and rescinded the tax. Since then, Amazon has done nothing to support homelessness, while Microsoft, by contrast, announced a major $500-million housing initiative. It also did not fight the head tax (though it did not support it either).
Curiously, the Chamber is not giving any of its war-chest to Ari Hoffman. Instead, it is giving $80,000 to another candidate, Mark Solomon. To give you an idea of how significant such a gift is: the leading progressive candidate in District 2, Tammy Morales, has raised a total of $80,000 from small donors giving under $250. Morales is not taking corporate gifts.
District 3 features avowed socialist incumbent, Kshama Sawant, who is fighting for a second term. The Chamber views her as its bete noir. She is Public Enemy Number 1. Ousting her is Priority Number One. It is giving $110,000 to opponent, Egon Orion, the leader of PrideFest. Interestingly, last May Orion told The Stranger newspaper that he would refuse any endorsement from the Chamber. Something must have changed in the meantime, and Orion doesn’t seem eager to explain his change of heart.
The Holocaust, the Homeless and Refugees
Recently, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez has likened the immigration detention facilities on the Mexican border to concentration camps. The GOP was in high dudgeon and accused her of misusing the Holocaust. The U.S. Holocaust Museum released an unfortunate statement rejecting “any analogies between the Holocaust and other events.” Thankfully, a group of 600 Holocaust scholars took the Museum to task and rejected its statement.
To view the Holocaust as a unique historical event that happened to Jews and is thereby “owned” by Jews alone, is a falsification of history and reality. In truth, human beings have engaged in genocide since the species began. The main difference is that the Nazis turned genocide into industrial production, a mass-killing machine.
We must not permit the creation of Holocaust exceptionalism. If we do, then Jews and their suffering will be cut-off from the rest of the human race. We will claim a distinction no one else can claim. We will be outside humanity instead of within it.
Of course, Trump’s detention camps, with their wretched conditions, and with children torn from their parents, are appropriate for such comparisons. If you examine the political rhetoric used by Trump and his allies to portray immigrants, it mirrors precisely the language used by the Nazis to describe Jews in the 1930s and later.
We are not yet to the point where we are willing to kill immigrants as the Nazis eventually systematically killed Jews. But without intense, outspoken opposition, such things could happen in future. We are not immune.
Similarly, the language used by Hoffman and his allies in Safe Seattle echoes the rhetoric used by Trump to describe immigrants: they are dirty, violent, criminal, rapists, etc. They are subhuman. They are alien. They don’t belong here among a civilized community. For both Hoffman and Trump, the vulnerable are a suitable political punching bag they can use for their own gain. Neither wants to address the problem in any substantive way except to banish them completely from their respective environs. Neither offers plans or programs to ameliorate suffering.
Finally, Trump’s July 4th Lincoln Memorial speech was eminently forgettable. But the greatest irony was that Abraham Lincoln, before whose statue he spoke, presided over largest expansion of American democracy in our history. He emancipated the slaves, then enfranchised them. This was the largest influx of new voters the country had ever seen since the country was founded. Though the death of Reconstruction denied these newly freed individuals their vote, eventually the country restored it in the 20th century.
It is criminal that Trump’s Republicans, the party of Lincoln, seek to deny African-American progeny of these slaves their right to vote. They can’t return to Jim Crow because the country would rise up in revolt. But voter suppression and gerrymandering can diminish the voting power of American minorities, thereby subtly denying them the power of their votes.
As Jews, we have seen the erosion of democratic rights in Germany, gradually leading to the Holocaust. We cannot let such things happen again. That’s why we must resist the Ari Hoffmans and Donald Trumps of the world.