If you’re Jewish and confused by other Jews’ response to Trump, whether the support he has from the religious and particularly the religious Israeli Jews or the powerful, loud opposition he faced from the non-religious American Jewish community, it will pay to remember The Pianist.
The story: A talented Jewish pianist from Warsaw is saved from certain death by his beautiful performance of Chopin. The Nazi officer who discovers him does not have the heart to destroy the artist and works to rescue him from the destruction of the holocaust.
The question is why. What happened in the mind and heart of an officer otherwise more-or-less committed to the Nazi endeavor that allowed him to make an exception for the pianist? The question is not so much on the true story behind the novel; in the real world it is always dangerous to assume the motions of the heart follow the dictates of logic; the pianist was saved because Hosenfeld the German officer was a Catholic, or because he was a schoolteacher, or because he felt guilt for the occupied Polish. It doesn’t matter; the question is how we read that unbearable moment in the shelled-out building when Szpilman is revealed to be an artist. If we want to understand what happened in those precious seconds of mortal and moral peril, what story could we tell?
The answers to this question, it must be pointed out, are the very answers that frame the Jewish response to the holocaust and perforce the Jewish response to all new external threats. To understand why a Nazi might not have killed a Jew is to understand why the Nazis killed so many Jews and how we might prevent any similar thing from occurring in the future.
So, here’s one answer:
The Nazi doesn’t kill the pianist because in that moment he realizes that Nazism is a lie, or at least a lie relative to the deep truth of shared humanity. The Jew and the German both participate in a shared appreciation of capital-A Art, highest of human endeavors, a mating of beauty and truth that demolished all the contrived boundaries that separate us. Hitler may say that a Jew is not a person, but in that sublime moment when a Jew’s will and a Jew’s hands transform wood and wire into undying eternity, even the Nazis do not believe him. Hitler forgot that we are all human, that we are united by far more than divides us. His and the Germans’ fear of the “other” and desire for power drove out the innate love of man that otherwise beats in every human breast.
The Nazis’ defeat, the unmaking of their plan, though obviously requiring military force in the short-term, comes ultimately and permanently from our refusal to separate from the “other,” from our acknowledgement of our shared humanity, from art, beauty, and love.
If Hosenfeld’s actions are to effect us, they must not be allowed to translate as a mere personal tolerance or forbearance. We must see them as a victory of our best self, the self we all share, over the fractious tendencies of tribalism and nationalism that threaten to swallow the subterranean truth that is human unity. It cannot be, “A certain nazi found it within his heart to save a Jew.” It must be, “We all find it in our own hearts to save one another, deep down in the place that makes us people.” This is how we learn.
Here’s another answer:
The Nazi doesn’t kill the Jew because, at the moment Szpilman plays the piano, he is a perfect German. Indeed, Nazism at its root is not proven a lie by the incident but rather proven true. Given enough training in culture and artistic talent, the Jewish untermensch can approach being human. The Nazis may have believed in a brutish philosophy but the majority of them were, at the end of the day, standard bearers of Western Civilization in general and German culture in particular, lovers of Wagner, Mozart, and Goethe, who saw the arts as yet another area where the Aryans were superior. And if a dirty Jew should succeed at the highest level of artistry, if he could demonstrate that he, too, was German, he may not deserve death. Not that this was of any benefit whatsoever to the millions who were killed, children and all. No, the opportunity to prove the quality of Jewish genetics was not extended to them; they were still Jews, after all. The progress of humanism, the arts, and love of all men was a casualty of the war; Chopin was just another heuristic for determining whether a Jew was fit or deserved the gas chamber; the survival of the pianist is in consonance with the death of six million Jews, most of whom could not find middle C.
Thus, the unmaking of the Nazis’ plan can come only through the application of force or authority, whether through military opposition to fascism or appeals to moral or religious principles to curb the will to power of the murderous art lovers. They must be taught, as Merlyn tries to impart to Arthur, that might does not make right. When art is a cudgel rather than the key to enlightened universalism, when Beethoven does not necessitate the brotherhood of man, all that’s left is morality and the Sherman tank enforcing it.
Hosenfeld’s actions are thus extraordinarily virtuous but do not directly present a lesson for us to learn; the good deed of one Nazi, if it ought to be seen in a broader context at all, is the exception that proves the rule of an evil in man’s soul that no amount of art or culture can fix. There may be no solution to the problem of tribalism, except education to choose the right over the easy and using all the tools of politics and intellect to systemically prevent the seizure of power by the power-hungry and imperious. To stop evil, those who are not evil must be confident and strong and must spread their influence as far as possible; it is only the binding principles of good and right that can truly civilize, if anything can.
The first of these answers was largely adopted by American Jews, whereas Israelis and the religious Jews found the latter narrative more compelling. Naturally, the average American Jew sees the crimes of the Nazis as a violation of universal humanity, as a perversion of the good man would do unto his fellow if society only allowed it. Many religious Jews, on the other hand, feel the Nazis’ crimes are evil like those of any murderer or tyrant, but special insomuch as they signal the failure of enlightened universal humanism buttressed by culture and the arts to withstand hijacking by the same old and brutal forces that once hijacked religion, monarchy, and everything else.
It is thus no surprise that, thinking narratively, the average American Jew sees an orange barbarian whose signature trick more than any President since the war is “othering” vast swathes of people, who expresses no overt devotion to the project of enlightened humanism, the arts, or erasing the boundaries society places between men, and that Jew concludes that Hitler or something like him has come once more.
On the other hand, many a religious Jew sees a barbarian with few morals, a narcissist who is successful in business but lives a life of debauched excess, and that Jew says that as the law governs and the society believes in a traditional rules-based morality, there is no reason to suspect a Hitler will be elected to the White House in January, nor could he carry out Hitlerian plans if he wanted to.
The average American Jew is especially despondent, because the project of universal human brotherhood based on what we all have in common has been meeting stiff resistance of late and (for various reasons not worth arguing here) President Obama was seen as the new hope and is now seen as the last hope with the electorate’s reversal.
But many religious Jews and Israelis are cautiously optimistic. Even if the man is G-dless and immoral, his total destruction of the status quo may be an opportunity to fix the long-eroding roles of the rule or law and traditional morality in our society, especially as they relate to the death struggle of Israel (and now, large portions of Europe) with totalitarian Islamism, a system which gives room to many of the worst domineering impulses of the human spirit. They feel this is a threat that can only be beaten back with military power and allies willing to accept that their way is, at the very least, the far lesser of the two evils. In short, they seek leadership willing to say that the enemy is evil and that we would be evil not to name them so, a president willing to use war correctly rather than write it off as a violation of the deepest ideals of humanity, a bit of the old-time “us and them.” And they think Trump may be the answer.
In the end, I think the divide in the Jewish community over President-elect Trump is far less an issue of ignorance, “fake news,” or deception than a pure “fact-based” analysis might let on. It’s instead a fundamental divergence in worldview that traces back to at least World War II, when our community chose two different paths in trying to ensure that calamity would never again strike our people or the world.