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Reflections on Tisha B'Av and American Democracy

Noah Arbit

Chair, Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus

Tisha B’Av is the darkest day in the Jewish calendar - the day in which Jews fast in mourning of the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, and several other calamities, which have befallen the Jewish people through the ages. For me, the most important lesson of Tisha B’Av is not the fact of the Temple’s destruction, but the way in which ancient Jews refused to allow its destruction to destroy them. Instead, Jews adapted their customs to ensure the core of Judaism survived for the ages. In political science terms, this evolution of Judaism in the post-Temple period is known as a regime change. Not the removal of one dictator for another as the term is popularly used, but the gradual or sudden replacement of norms, customs, and institutions that govern how a particular society functions. After the destruction of the Temple and Jews’ expulsion from Jerusalem, Jewish communities were forced to decide how their traditions, for so long a sacrificial cult overseen by an elite priesthood in the city of Jerusalem, could be adapted to life in the Levantine hinterlands and beyond. This regime change allowed Jewish civilization to flourish in all corners of the world - from Lithuania to Iraq and further afield. But not all regime changes are positive.

Today, in the United States, signs of creeping regime change are increasingly evident, a function of President Donald Trump and his administration’s cavalier disregard for the rule of law, and Republican officials’ inability to serve as any kind of check on the administration’s lawlessness. At its core, this is what “Never Trump” Republicans and Democrats mean when they refer to the unique threat posed by Donald Trump to the American Republic. It is not just the narrow problem of his personal indecency, but rather the prospect that left largely unchecked and unopposed, the Trump administration’s breathtaking contravention of democratic norms will harden into a new set of more permissive, illiberal norms, and eat away at the foundations of American democracy. This concern is hardly academic. Over the past four years, the Trump administration’s rampant abuses of power - any one of which would once have spelled the end of any other presidency - have become so routine as to be unremarkable. When rank corruption becomes unremarkable, greeted with outrage by the opposition party, but a shrug by everyday citizens, the survival of America’s democracy is in question.

Four of the Trump administration’s abuses of power stand out, in particular: the lack of separation between the president’s personal business interests and government policy; the conduct of U.S. foreign relations to serve the president’s personal or political interests rather than those of national security; the administration’s continued abuse of law enforcement and courts to serve the president’s political aims; and finally, the president’s delegitimization and demonization of his political opponents, including whole swaths of everyday American citizens. These behaviors and actions are not only antithetical to America’s system of democratic governance, but corrosive to the rule of law.

Those who remain undecided on their presidential ballot, or remain disengaged from politics altogether must understand that this election is hardly “politics as usual.” The decision Americans will make in November is far greater than the traditional debates over increasingly partisan issues, from tax brackets to gun laws. For Jews, it is not even about the future of the State of Israel. Instead, the 2020 election hinges on a simple but existential proposition: whether Americans wish to ratify the incumbent administration’s corruption, self-dealing, and authoritarianism, and allow those abnormal practices to become normalized until there is nothing left of our democracy but a star-spangled shell. If Donald Trump is re-elected this November, our country will be staring down the barrel of a regime change unlike any it has experienced before: the end of democracy, itself. It is the sheer stakes of this momentous decision that demands each of us as citizens to give more and do more than we ever thought possible - particularly those of us who are Republican or conservative.

If Tisha B’Av teaches us anything at all, it is the importance of resilience and adaptation. Unlike the ancient Jews of old who saw the smoldering ruins of their beloved Temple and had no choice but to flee for their survival, Americans still have the chance to save our democracy, and strengthen it for a new era. Otherwise, it is not just the destruction of the Temple that American Jews will come to mourn on Tisha B’Av next year, but the destruction of our democracy, too.

I hope you will join me in ensuring that never comes to pass.

Noah Arbit

Founder and Chair, Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus


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