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My Rabbi Grandfather Takes On Trump

My grandfather was right in the 1930s.

Jews in America who can’t bear to hear criticism of Donald Trump would do well to hear his story.

There’s no rule that say we Jews must be an ideological monolith… All progressive, liberal, Democrat. I’ve always had good Jewish pals in both the U.S. and the U.K. who are conservative. And I always defend their right to be wrong!

But getting into bed with Trump and his allies is not about conservatism. I’ve heard “he’s so good for Israel.” (As if the Clintons, Bush and Obama were Hamas sympathizers). I’ve heard “but my portfolio… the economy…” (Err… What was that little thing that Bill Clinton achieved? Oh yes… it was called a “budget surplus”) It’s fine that as a people we span a wide range of political beliefs. But whatever end of the left-right spectrum we embrace, ultimately we Jews do have in common a set of ethics. A moral code. An imperative to be mensches.

There’s a genetic incompatibility between menschism and Trumpism. My granddad will explain…

My grandfather on my mother’s side was a distinguished rabbi, theologian and writer. He was born in Lithuania in 1893. His family fled a pogrom and moved to Latvia when he was five.

Then his family escaped another pogrom — this time in Latvia.

Eventually the family settled in London where he was raised, studied and became a rabbi.

He served his first ministerial post in Merthyr Tydfil. (Wales was once a stronghold for Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe). And he then served 42 years as Rabbi in Bradford, Yorkshire — another thriving center for Jewish immigrants.

In World War II he was Senior Jewish Chaplain to the British Military Forces and he became widely respected as a Talmudic scholar for his translations and editing of new editions of Jewish prayer books.

I was not especially close to him. As a child I found him to be rather detached and lacking in warmth. He’d been an excellent leader of his congregation. Not quite so cuddly in his family life.

However a few years ago — 40 years after my Grandfather’s death — I discovered another side of him. And it’s this aspect that my friends who believe in Trump — “because of Israel/taxes/Ivanka converted!” [insert excuse here] — need to know about.

I found it in some pre-war press clips preserved by my mother. Through these yellowing newspaper cuttings I learned of his prescience and courage in the fight against fascism and Nazism in the 1930s.

The Very Reverend Jacob “Jack” Israelstam. Image by courtesy of martin lewis

Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933. And no, he didn’t lead a coup. He ascended through a series of ostensibly democratic elections. Replete with intimidation and voter suppression. It transpired that pandering to the base prejudices of restless masses and giving them scapegoats to blame for their miseries in life was a savvy path up the slippery pole to power. (Sound familiar?!)

The subsequent horrors of German, European and world history were a direct result of Hitler’s skill at manipulating the gullible, the desperate and the hard-of-thinking.

One would think that the ranting against the Jews of a German political leader in Berlin and Nuremberg would have been of little concern or consequence to a Rabbi in a town in the industrial north of England.

My grandfather had not been especially political in his early life. But he instinctively understood the danger to humankind caused by the whipping up of primeval resentments, hatred and fear of “the other.” He could see that Hitler was weaponizing despair, envy and fury to gain and maintain power. So my grandfather set about alerting his fellow citizens in the city of Bradford, the county of Yorkshire and eventually the whole of his adopted Great Britain. He started writing an increasingly strong series of warnings published in the great daily and weekly national and regional newspapers of the era: first the Bradford Argus & Telegraph, then the Yorkshire Post, after that, the Jewish Chronicle and eventually the distinguished British paper known as just The Times.

His admonitions were initially published as “Letters to the Editor” but he increasingly took to writing articles and op-ed pieces. This was the consistent tocsin he sounded. Hitler was absolutely dangerous to the World Order. Not just to German Jews. Not just to European Jews. Not just to world Jewry. But to Germany, Europe and the world itself. He saw it all.

How casting blame on a vulnerable minority to win power was just the thin end of a very fat wedge. He was one of the leading Jews in Britain sounding this alarm. Few listened.

He was considered an alarmist. This was a local German matter that didn’t concern anyone else. These were Winston Churchill’s wilderness years — when Churchill’s warnings about the dangers of appeasement were likewise ignored. Prophets in the wilderness take no pleasure or pride in having been subsequently proven right. If we wish to honor their prescience or courage we need to heed the present-day parallels to the perils they warned about.

My grandfather and Winston Churchill shared one distinctive honor as a result of their lonely campaigns against fascism. They both had their names entered into the notorious SS book “Sonderfahndungsliste G.B.” Literally “Special Search List Great Britain” and colloquially, “The Black Book,” it was the secret list of prominent British residents to be arrested by the Gestapo after the planned Nazi invasion of Britain. My grandfather was proud to be in Hitler’s little black book.

Today we all know what Hitler did to the world. And now you all know why I’m exceptionally proud of my grandfather, the Very Reverend Jacob “Jack” Israelstam. Thanks to Winston Churchill’s inspired leadership and the fortitude of the British nation, that Nazi invasion never took place. Have we learned any lessons in the 80 years since 1938?

In the incisive words of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the inspirational African-American recently describing his patently bigoted opponent in the Florida gubernatorial election : “I’m not calling him a racist. I’m simply saying that the RACISTS believe he’s a racist.”

So it is with the current president. I cannot know what is in his heart. So I cannot say with any certainty that he is a racist, a fascist, a white supremacist, an anti-Semite. But it’s clear that racists believe that he is a racist. Fascists believe that he is a fascist. White supremacists believe that he is a white supremacist. And anti-Semites believe that he is an anti-Semite.

I urge Jews who are still defending Donald Trump to join my Grandfather in saying:

“Enough is enough. Dayenu!”

Martin Lewis is… British-Yiddish. Hollywood-debased. A producer of, among other things, the “Secret Policeman’s Ball” series, “The Human Rights Concerts,” “Wham In China” and sequences for “Python Night: 30 Years of Monty Python.” He’s a humorist, a Beatles scholar and was a long-time Sirius/XM radio host.

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