By: Shaul Elson  | 

Silence is Not Neutral

Though my light-grey yarmulka was perched atop my head that night, I didn’t give it much thought. I had come to protest at Trump Tower as an American: the flag pin fastened to the lapel of my pea coat felt relevant ; what I wore on my head seemed beside the point.  

But then a man pulled up in front of our picket line in his black Hyundai. My eyes lingered over his kippah, and I could feel his gaze trained on mine. I smiled and nodded. He rolled down his window and shouted, right into my face, “Hillary for Prison!”

He sounded gleeful. There were about twenty of us demonstrating there on 5th Avenue, between 56th and 57th, but our protest amused him; our earnest signage (“Say ‘No’ to Hate”; “R.E.S.P.E.C.T”) seemed silly. By the time the fourth Orthodox driver (and then the fifth) rolled down their windows to boo or shout (“Stop Whining!”; “We LOVE Trump!”), my sign hung limp by my knees. “All these Jews, man,” I heard a fellow protester say nearby.  “What’s their deal?”


On November 17, former Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn was tapped as Trump’s national security advisor. A few days later, CNN uncovered a video of a speech Flynn gave back in August, 2016, at Congregation Ahavath Torah, a synagogue in Stoughton, Mass. Standing in front of the Torah ark, Flynn said this: “Islamism is a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people on this planet, and it has to be excised.” Trump’s elevation of Flynn to the highest levels of the executive government is damning—of Trump’s judgment, his campaign, and his fledgling administration. Flynn’s casual aligning of an entire religious group with vicious hazard and invasive cancer chills my blood. We’ve heard it before. In a famous radiotherapy lecture held in Frankfurt in 1936, X-Ray specialist and SS officer Dr. Hans Holfeder showed his professional and academic audience slides that depicted cancer cells as Jews and the healing rays as stormtroopers.

And it’s not like this vagrant Islamophobia is unique to Flynn. At a Newtown, Iowa campaign event on November 20, 2015, an NBC reporter asked Trump if his White House would work to implement  “a database system that tracks the Muslims in this country.” Trump was unequivocal—breathtakingly so: “I would certainly implement it,” he said. “Absolutely.” Would a Trump administration force Muslims to be “legally” in the database? “They have to be,” Trump answered, “they have to be.”

While the imagery here should terrify all thinking people of good will, it should particularly raise alarm-bells among American Jews, who have been inculcated from a young age to acknowledge, and fear, the discriminatory policies that led to abject horror in Nazi Germany.


5th Avenue was not the first street on which someone shouted at me from a car.  When I was eleven, my friend Yoni I were taking our usual route home from our Jewish day school, when a passing car slowed down in the middle of Brook Avenue. The windows were down, and someone shouted, “Filthy kikes!” There was whooping , and then the car drove off—just as the passengers in the back seat let loose a ringing “%#$^ the Jews!” I can still feel my insides unraveling and dissolving in my stomach. It wasn’t really fear for safety—fight-or-flight!—that pulled it all loose (though Yoni and I, sure as hell, ran pell-mell for our homes); no, it was being cast as a hated “Other,” as a loathsome alien, that rattled me to my core, that left me feeling as if I had been drained or thawed out.

I know: this juxtaposition is crude. A heckle directed at a protest, after all, is very different from shouting explicit, grotesque hate-speech at a pair of children. So why, as the black Hyundai drove off, did I want to toss my sign aside and sprint for home? Passers-by had been directing abuse at our small, peaceful protest all night (“Trump That B*$^#!”), but none had fazed me like this man. In response to these other (mostly white, middle aged) jeerers, I had simply gripped my sign harder and chanted louder. But when that someone who looked like me also wore a yarmulke—well, resistance suddenly seemed more futile.


In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that his civil rights movement was not political. Sure, activists like him were targeting political, economical, and sociological realities; but first and foremost, he insisted, segregation was “morally wrong and sinful,” and as such, the fight to challenge that discriminatory policy, as well as other manifestations of racism, was primarily an ethical one. I don’t mean to liken the anti-Trump protest I joined that night (nor the several others I have participated in since then) to the arduous, centuries-in-the-making Civil Rights struggle; that would be needlessly disrespectful and entirely beside the point. I invoke MLK simply to underscore, far more eloquently than I can, this simple point: that when I squeezed between the metal crowd-control barriers that lined 5th Avenue that night (and several times thereafter), I did not do so as a political protester, not really. Because though I disagree with nearly everything Trump has said, policy wise—on everything from international affairs to  education reform—I did not demonstrate in support of a particular brand of politics or policy. I wasn’t there as a Hillary supporter, nor as a card-carrying liberal Democrat, at least not primarily. The protest was about something far more basic than politics. First and foremost, I stood there, sign held aloft, as a human being—a human being unsettled by the rise of a political ideology that depends so much on dehumanization.

I began this opinion piece during Trump’s transition period, when members of his fledgling administration reignited talks of a Muslim registry. Then, on January 27, Trump signed his executive order. Potential, theoretical discrimination suddenly became law. Because make no mistake: this order is a Muslim ban.  Sure, the order itself doesn’t use the word Muslim, but coming from the man who, in December 2015, called for the “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and who has said that “Islam hates us,” the real targets of his policy is clear. By indefinitely barring entry for Syrian refugees, undoubtedly some of the most vulnerable people in the world—by abandoning families who, like Jewish refugees in the 1940’s, desperately wish to flee unimaginable horror and utter destruction—Trump has shown his hand. And it is not a helpful hand; it is cruelly indifferent, entirely uninterested in lifting up the Other from the rubble-strewn floor.

I don’t, therefore, think that my reaction to the man with the kippah (and the the Orthodox counter-protesters) was melodramatic, partly  because when real human rights are at stake, “overreaction” is obligatory. It’s possible that the Orthodox hecklers agree with Trump’s tax plans and wanted to let us protesters know. And that’s fine. But that doesn’t mean they are off the hook from being held accountable for their candidates morally repugnant rhetoric and policies. You don’t get to pick and choose issues, not when the systematic debasement of an entire minority population is at play. Our little protest was about prejudice and hate, and by jeering at and mocking us, these Orthodox men suggested prejudice and hate did not bother them.

Sure. They were only a few men. And sure, a small handful can hardly be representative of the way the wider Modern Orthodox communities feels and behave. It would be reckless to argue otherwise. But here’s the thing: these strangers’ behavior felt familiar. I had seen it before. Those particular heckles did not occur in a vacuum; they came embedded within a more pervasive discourse circulating within the Modern Orthodox communities I move through—a discourse I have personally encountered frequently, and that Orthodox communities must account for.

For months before that night, I had met, face-to-face, fervent support for Trump (and/or enthusiastic disdain for Hillary) on the Yeshiva University campus, that self-described “center” of the Modern Orthodox world.  At the Shabbat table, people I have called friends have told me—through smiling teeth— that they would be voting for Trump. They were prodding me. Not long ago, I bumped into into a young Orthodox man at the grocery store. He was in front of me at the register, and only when I finished placing my items on the conveyor belt did I notice the baseball cap he was wearing. “12 more Years” it read, just above Barack Obama’s curlicued signature. “Nice hat,” I said. He looked up and let out something between a laugh and a snort: “This? It’s for s*%&s and giggles,” he said. “I’m with Trump.”

There’s that flippancy again.  I don’t take issue with opposition to Hillary and Obama, or to “liberal” policies per se. Disagree with elements of Obamacare, or the specifics of foreign policy. Object to the approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No, it’s the concomitant cheek that gets me, the exuberant disdain—the mugs I see in the YU library labeled “Liberal Tears”: it betrays a fundamental lack of respect, a complete obliviousness to, genuine pathetic concerns, to existential fears—not just among Muslim Americans, but among immigrants and members of the LGBTQ community, as well. It trivializes the tears of huddled millions and the frightened, sideways glances of the masses. Shame fizzed to the surface when that man rolled down his window in front of our protest. I felt fundamentally ashamed to be a Jew, to count myself a member of an Orthodox community that has not done enough to distance itself from hate, a community that should know better.


In December 1986, during his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Elie Wiesel warned that silence can be dangerous. That’s why, he explained, “I swore never to be silent when and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.” He continued: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

But in the Orthodox Jewish communities I hear too much silence. Granted, after the executive order went public, the OU and the RCA did release a joint statement, affirming that “discrimination against any group based solely upon religion is wrong” And though their statement does not make the kind of poetic and emotional pleas of solidarity with Muslim communities that the ADL, JTS, and the URJ made with theirs, its timely objection is well taken. It’s a good first step—but it’s only that. A religious minority is being demonized, cast as a hated “Other,” and the world’s most vulnerable are being callously abandoned: among those institutions that stage annual public memorials on Yom Hashoah, spirited outrage is needed. Which is why I was deeply disheartened when President Joel published his (no doubt well-intentioned) statement on the crises. “Yeshiva University is unwavering in its support of religious rights and societal values,” he wrote, which sounds…stale, anemic and overly cautious. This is not a time for hedging; it is a time to mount a vigorous stand against apathy and hate.

In Yeshiva University’s “Pathways to our Future,” a forward-looking strategic plan published in 2016, YU imagines itself as a “global” force driven to “strengthen society through the continuous advancement of knowledge for the betterment of the Jewish people and humanity as a whole.” Accordingly, Yeshiva must champion “love for humankind” and strive to “Hold ourselves and each other to the highest ethical standards.” The document encourages members of the Yeshiva University community to help YU “secure our place as the intellectual and spiritual center of the Modern Orthodox community.” It argues that YU is a “platform” that must be utilized to bring “Yeshiva’s collective wisdom to the world,” to add its “ethical and moral values” to global conversations.

But amid a bona-fide ethical-moral crises, Yeshiva has not spoken enough. If Yeshiva University is truly interested in claiming an ethical leadership role in the Jewish community and beyond, it must publicly condemn this policy and other manifestations of Islamophobia with far more forceful and empathetic language. To do so would not be politicking; standing against Islamophobia is not about political positioning or the support of particular policy agendas; it’s about basic human decency, what’s just and what’s unjust. Wiesel argued that “Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.” For Wiesel, prioritizing the awareness and combating of persecution is, in some ways, the necessary Jewish response to the memory of the Holocaust. It is to say, loudly and into the night, We will never Forget. Which is not a political assertion; it is  an ethical-moral one.

When I first joined that Trump Tower protest, I did not have a sign with me. I hadn’t even thought of making one. A woman who looked about my age and who clutched tightly a neon-green poster—“All WE NEED IS LOVE (ba-ba-da-da-da)”— walked towards me. She wore a grapefruit-orange hijab, and she beamed at me and offered me her extra sign. I smiled and raised it over my head. “LOVE TRUMPS HATE,” it read.

I’ll be back soon for another protest, at Trump Tower and elsewhere, this time with my own sign in hand: “We are All Refugees, We are All Muslims,” it will say, in messy block letters.  I am hopeful that I will see many kippas in the crowds. I fear that I will not.