By Senior Reform Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner
Fear is the strongest force on a person. The success of Donald Trump in last night’s US Presidential election played out in a country and a world where fear is increasingly prevalent – the fear of the “other”, whether that “other” is defined by nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality or political affiliation.
It is troubling that Trump calculated a path to victory dependent on amplifying people’s fear of one another. Elections and political discourse are set up to be our highest form of debate – we aspire to be like Hillel and Shammai and for our disagreements to be “for the sake of heaven”. This campaign, infused with misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and religious intolerance, stands alongside the followers of Korach as an example of the antithesis of holy debate.
It is vital to recognise, though, that whilst the campaign’s manipulation of fear has been grotesque, it doesn’t invalidate that people were fearful in the first place. For many Trump supporters, they feel part of a ‘silent majority’. Outside of a small hardcore, these are people who are just scared of a world changing around them – scared for their security, for their livelihoods and for their families. In short, they are humans with the same insecurities and weaknesses we all share and they feel their fear is dismissed, not heard by those with power.
Fear can lead to decisions that are clearly illogical with the benefit of a more objective perspective and we should know this better than anyone. Our tradition is littered with such examples, from the building of the Golden Calf to the disastrous report of the spies sent to explore the Promised Land.
To invalidate these people’s fears out of hand is to keep our world divided.
The talking point of the moment is that it is time to unite, to heal. Everyone will say it. Vanishingly few will genuinely attempt to do it. The level of polarisation we are experiencing, not just in the US, but here in the UK and worldwide, makes it so difficult to genuinely understand those with opposing views to us. But we have no choice. Without turning this sentiment into reality we only ensure we will repeat the pain of last night and the pain of Brexit over and over again.
The beauty of democracy is that political leaders, even after victory, are not given total power. The election is only one mechanism for people to express their desires and effect change. Today is not the day to retreat, to hide, to surrender. It is the day to turn to one another, and to all individuals and groups frightened by last night’s events, and declare that we will not stand idly by.
In one of the iconic movements for change in US history, the Civil Rights movement, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described marching for change as “praying with my feet”. Now it’s our turn to pray with our feet and our hands, our actions and our words, with those on both sides of the political divide. Never has the common US political refrain seemed more appropriate – May God bless America.