A flood of misinformation and disinformation has fostered a surge of uncritical, one-dimensional thinking that has compromised our ability to discuss and debate constructively.

Election season brings out the best and, in recent years, the worst in us. We are more politically active and passionate; we read and debate more — this is usually healthy for the Jews.

Lately, though, the flood of misinformation and disinformation has fostered a surge of uncritical, one-dimensional thinking that has compromised our ability to discuss and debate constructively.

Example: There’s a tendency to see all left-leaning politics as a gateway to Stalinism. This outlook seems most apparent among those with personal experience living in a Stalinist country, be it the former Soviet Union or Castro’s Cuba. Understandably, these emigres and refugees associate “the left” with oppression.

Howard Lupovitch
Howard Lupovitch

Yet Stalinism, in its Soviet or Cuban form, wasn’t a leftist ideology but a form of authoritarianism that subverted and betrayed the aims of social democracy, socialism and even Communism. 

Likewise, Nazism wasn’t conservative in the classic sense, but instead part of an authoritarian regime that betrayed the ideas and aims of conservatism. Stalin and Stalinist authoritarianism had more in common with Hitler and Nazism than with other forms of social democracy or conservatism, and vice versa.

Whether they adorn themselves with left-wing or right-wing rhetoric, authoritarians perpetrate a nearly identical set of crimes against their people, critics and supporters alike: undermining the rule of law, a free press and government institutions; refusing to accept culpability; replacing the shared truths that are the basis of democracy with shared lies that are the basis of autocracy; and preying on the struggles of ordinary people by peddling baseless conspiracy theories that encourage fear and outrage, especially toward outsiders and foreigners.

As such, it is no less absurd to presume that the politics of Elizabeth Warren or even Bernie Sanders will lead to Stalinism any more than the politics of Mitt Romney or Marco Rubio will lead to fascism.

The problem with the current president is that he is not a Republican but a wannabe authoritarian who is posing as a Republican, who understands and respects neither the values of the Republican Party nor the meaning of democracy.

The plethora of bona fide Republicans allied against him attests to this folly. He has only succeeded thus far because mainstream leaders of his adopted party have enabled him repeatedly.

Franz von Papen was not a Nazi but did enable Hitler, and history has judged him harshly. Hitler claimed that all Jews, including Jewish shopkeepers and industrialists, were Communists — and his followers believed him. Stalin claimed that working-class Jews, Bundists and even Trotsky himself were all capitalists — and no one objected to this obvious contradiction.

The Balfour Declaration

As another contentious election cycle nears its apogee, American Jews face the towering question as to whether the Trump administration has been beneficial to Israel. Thankfully, history provides some much-needed perspective.

The euphoric reactions to the Balfour Declaration a century ago have echoes in the recent euphoria among many Jews regarding the moving of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the official recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and the normalization agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain.

Rabbi Stephen Wise reacted to Balfour in an essay three weeks later as the lead article in the Nov. 23, 1917, issue of the Detroit Jewish Chronicle (the precursor to the Jewish News, which you can read online thanks to the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History). These words could have appeared in the JN a month ago:

“It has come to pass — the day long wished for in all its momentous and far-reaching consequences to Israel and the world. The declaration … has transferred Zionism from the field of political aspirations to the realm of political fact. Not in centuries has any word been spoken of equally vital consequence to the well-being of Israel. The British government, true to its policy of 200 years of friendship with and sympathy for the Jew, leads the way in indicating … that the day has come for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish People.”

In fact, the truth, past and present, is far more complicated and ambiguous.

The British did not issue the Balfour Declaration out of a love of Jews, Zionism or in support of a Jewish state, per se, but out of self-interest. It was largely a symbolic gesture, a rubberstamping of a situation that was already coming into being by 1917; and it was issued for reasons that had nothing to do with Jewish statehood. On the contrary, the British had already promised Palestine to Arab leaders two years earlier.

Rather, the Balfour Declaration was a way to win the support of the American Zionist Movement to help convince the United States to enter World War I on the side of the Allies. (A lesser known fact: The Kaiser made the same offer to American Jews for the same reasons of self-interest.)

Once the war was over, self-interest led to the abandonment of the Declaration. It was now more important for the British to be on favorable terms with Muslims in Palestine and the Middle East to enlist the support of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Muslims in India as a counterweight to Gandhi and the struggle he led for Indian home rule. This abrupt change included, most notoriously and tragically, severe quotas on Jewish immigration to Palestine at a time when tens of thousands of Jews wanted to go there to escape Nazi persecution.

Thirty years after Balfour, the British — far from supporting the creation of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel — were the principal impediment to the realization of this cherished aim.

Self-interest is fickle and not always reliable. Symbolic gestures fill us with a surge of hope, but what happens when a symbolic gesture devolves into an empty one?

We must ask ourselves: Is President Trump’s outspoken support for Israel motivated by a love of Jews, Zionism and the State of Israel or by a desperate need to hold onto the support of evangelicals and build a coalition against Iran?

Like Balfour, Trump’s gestures filled us with elation. But were these more than symbolic gestures, each a photo-op to rubberstamp an already existing situation? Jerusalem has been the de facto capital of Israel since its existence. There’s been no serious challenge to Israeli control of the Golan for decades. And Israel normalized relations with the UAE and Bahrain tacitly nearly two decades ago (Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggested that, sans Bibi, an open normalization agreement would’ve been signed in 2009).

The UAE’s New Fighter Jets

And what about the fickleness of self-interest, in this case, the U.S. giving state-of-the-art fighter planes to a Middle Eastern country other than Israel? Time will tell whether the ultimate disappointment of Balfour will repeat itself. For now, it’s essential that we take advantage of the perspective that our forebears a century ago did not have — that of Balfour and its rapid implosion.

An alternative approach to gauging the support of American leaders for Israel may be in recognizing that the way we use the term “true friend” with respect to Israel is different from how we use the term otherwise. My closest friends are not those who agree with and praise everything I say and do.

On the contrary: My closest friends are my staunchest supporters, but also my most strident critics when they think I’m acting foolishly or self-destructively. I rely on their criticism. I use the same standard when measuring who is a true friend of Israel — support coupled with necessary criticism. As with all things that are important, the truth is more complicated — and interesting.

Dr. Howard N. Lupovitch is director of Wayne State University’s Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies.