In these hyper-partisan times, many Israelis and Americans scoff at those of us who demand moral leadership – and consistency – from political leaders. Supporters of Donald Trump and Bibi Netanyahu justify their respective hero’s divisive demagoguery, “because he gets the job done.” Meanwhile, partisans on all sides excuse their allies’ excesses because they consider their rivals mortal enemies. As America stumbles toward Election Day, and Israel continues skidding amid its drawn-out leadership crisis, it’s helpful to remember Franklin Roosevelt’s enduring democratic leadership lesson: “Judge me by the enemies I have made.”
Words matter, especially when nurturing democracy. They can silence evildoers – or rile them up. Note the notoriety the “Proud Boys” enjoyed after Trump awkwardly told them “stand back,” the Likudnik thuggery against anti-Bibi protesters Netanyahu fails to repudiate unambiguously, and America’s “largely peaceful protests” last spring. They might have been truly peaceful if anti-racist liberals and the mass media had harshly condemned the first bursts of rioting.
Especially in America, a country built around ideas not some fabled ancient past, ringing phrases and principled gestures have been essential building-blocks, leveraging great moments to expand democracy. Most recently, Donald Trump’s instinctive reluctance to condemn “White supremacist[s] and right-wing militia” during the first president debate again defied America’s best presidential traditions. Even though Trump usually readjusts days later with forceful attacks, the stench of immediate moral failure lingers. Voters should judge Trump — and Joe (“Antifa is just an idea”) Biden — by the enemies they make – and refuse to make.
Americans have long celebrated individuals who stood up and did the right thing at the right place at the right time – no matter what the consequences. These moral swashbucklers include Patrick Henry proclaiming “Give me liberty or give me death,” before the American Revolution, and Abraham Lincoln warning that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” before the Civil War. They include Joseph P. Welch in 1954 standing up to Senator Joseph P. McCarthy’s anti-Communist demagoguery asking “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last… Have you left no sense of decency,” and Rosa Parks standing up a year later by refusing to stand up for a white bus passenger.
Later, refuting claims that she was old and tired, Parks emphasized, “I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
In a healthy democracy, such heroism is contagious. Those famous incidents often encouraged the unfamous to confront the infamous too.
A decade after Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Jonathan Daniels , an Episcopal seminarian, came from New Hampshire to Parks’ home state of Alabama to march from Selma to Montgomery. Most Northern clerics went home after those game-changing civil rights demonstrations in the Spring of 1965. Daniels stayed, realizing, “I could not stand by in benevolent dispassion any longer without compromising everything I know and love and value. The imperative was too clear, the stakes too high, my own identity was called too nakedly into question.” Daniels concluded that our crazy world “needs the life and witness of militant Saints.” By August, he was dead, gunned down while buying a Coca-Cola with a white Roman Catholic priest and two African-American teenagers.
Jonathan Daniels was 26.
In 1970, the Harvard professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan advised President Richard Nixon that “the pragmatic mind in politics tends to underestimate, even to be unaware of, the importance of moral authority. In a nation such as ours … moral authority is a form of political power.”
That moral authority has inspired freedom-lovers worldwide. In the nineteenth-century, the Hungarian nationalist, Lajos Kossuth, called America’s Declaration of Independence “the noblest, happiest page in mankind’s history.” And in the Soviet Union, even though the Communist media howled about American imperialism and racism, most dissidents could hear the sounds of the Liberty Bell pealing through the din. America’s moral heroes from Patrick Henry to Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired them to risk everything for a taste of freedom.
That’s the delightfully-infectious power of America’s venerable tradition of militant democratic sainthood. And while Israel tends to emphasize the Joseph Trumpeldors and Hannah Seneshes who died defending our homeland and our people, we need to start celebrating the Menachem Begins and Shulamit Alonis who fought to expand Israeli democracy too.
Given how inspiring America’s politics of patriotic indignation has been for so many, dissidents report that seeing a president instead practice a politics of partisan indulgence regarding evil is devastating. In that first debate, President Trump essentially wrote his administration’s epitaph by admitting that when it came to street violence – and much more — “almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing. ”
That admission of partisan myopia sums up Trump’s small-minded, big-mouthed, soulless presidency. Alas, when reversed, it captures the distortions of the moment more broadly. Many Democrats have also mastered the dark art of denouncing violence or bigotry from opponents they hate while rationalizing such unacceptable outbursts among allies they love – or merely tolerate. Neither side realizes how much they undermine their own credibility when turning high ideals and defining principles into partisan hatchets.
As democracies, both America and Israel united disparate people in common cause through shared interests, but also shared values. Responsible leaders see themselves as custodians of those values. That’s why we need leaders and citizens – on both sides of the Atlantic — who don’t just see left versus right but stand up for right against wrong.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.