I’m an opinion writer. But I can be wrong. Sometimes. I like to think not too often, but, as I’ve written before, “I also like to think that I don’t look a day older than 50 and don’t need to lose any weight. So much for what I like to think.” And that’s one reason why I love receiving comments and reactions to my columns, including those that disagree with the point I worked hard to make and support. (I almost said “especially” rather than “including,” but I’m human after all, and thus still give top billing to those whose incisive opinions somehow just happen to jibe with mine.) The disagreements, though, make me rethink and, perhaps only rarely, revise my opinion.
But there’s another reason as well. I understand that on most issues, even when I strongly believe that one side — my side — is right, I also recognize that there is another side that intelligent and thoughtful people support. So even when they don’t convince me of the correctness of their position and the incorrectness of mine, knowing what and why they think and believe as they do helps me appreciate the issue, and often the world, better.
And here’s the important “but” that’s the crux of this column. Not always. There are some issues and some opinions about which, in the words of Tevye, “there is no ‘other hand.’”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, both with respect to Israel as well as issues even closer to home, at least geographically. Concerning Israel, there are many complexities, with a long and disputed history, relating to the relationship among it, its Arab citizens and neighbors, and those who live in the West Bank and Gaza. The opposing, often quite moving, narratives, the facts the parties accept, and the conclusions they reach frequently are polar opposites. And yet, there are many serious people on all sides of these disputes, people who have important things to say that all should listen to, even if in powerful disagreement.
Note, I’m not saying that both sides are equally valid. I believe, for example, that the history written about Israel’s creation by writers like my brother-in-law, Dr. Monty N. Penkower, a leading Zionist and Holocaust historian, and the narratives Zionists tell each other and teach our children have tremendous validity, far exceeding those of the other side. But if we think all truth and justice are on our side and none on theirs, then we’re fooling ourselves like we did when, for example, we thought Leon Uris’s “Exodus,” a book I loved as a youngster, was history rather than simply an engrossing novel.
Quick aside about “Exodus.” I still remember the day when my beloved seventh-grade Hebrew teacher, Rabbi Avraham Gross, put his Chumash aside one morning in the middle of class, took out the recently published “Exodus” (not the one by Moses), and began reading out loud the chapter about the hunger strike at sea. Whatever his reasoning was, it was clearly wise, because it’s one of the very few things I vividly remember from seventh grade. The bell rang before he finished and no student budged. Punchball would have to wait — we had to know what happened. So we sat, missing most of recess, hanging on every word, until he finished the chapter. Engrossing, certainly; history, not quite.
And the same is true about the current situation in Gaza. There are many difficulties involved, and it’s wrong to think that every Israeli decision is right. But some things are clear; there are some facts reasonable people cannot disagree about; some issues do not have two valid sides. And one of those is that Israel is not committing acts of genocide in its war against Hamas, a truly genocidal enemy, as exemplified by its actions on October 7. To argue, as South Africa has done before the International Court of Justice, that Israel is guilty of this bogus claim is a farce that is so wrong, so devoid of supporting evidence, so ahistorical, so frivolous, indeed so demonic, that it does not merit a hearing. Rather, it deserves derision, disdain, disparagement, and dismissal.
I watched some — only some, even with my legal training and experience I couldn’t stomach all — of South Africa’s arguments on YouTube. And I then needed to watch part of Israel’s arguments the next day to regain a sense of reality. But as I witnessed eloquent, bewigged South African advocates spin arguments based on a pile of lies, as I observed lawyers representing a country whose leadership hobnobbed with murderous Hamas terrorist leaders in December 2023 as if they were meeting with legitimate diplomats, I realized that claiming that Israel was guilty of genocide while ignoring the true attempted genocide that occurred just outside Gaza on October 7 was the epitome of hypocrisy.
I did have a fantasy, though, while watching South Africa’s arguments; one that I knew, having appeared before hundreds of judges in dozens of courtrooms over my legal career, was not an actual possibility. I nonetheless imagined seeing one judge, with a moral spirit overwhelming her legal decorum, standing up in the midst of this shameful argument and, like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” declaring: “Enough! Enough of this calumny. Enough of your lies. Enough of bogus claims that make a mockery of the word justice; enough of the falsification of history and distortion of what’s happening on the field of battle. Enough! Case dismissed.” I knew it was a fantasy, but sometimes fantasy can express truth in a way that reality cannot.
We look at the world so very differently than do those South African barristers, their clients, and their all too numerous supporters worldwide. We wonder how they can possibly see what they claim to see; we’re at a loss over how they can possibly believe what they say they believe.
I likewise feel that way about a significant part of American politics today. I am, as my regular readers know, a liberal Democrat, words I say with pride. But I understand that my views on policy matters are not the last word; that reasonable people can disagree about how to best deal with taxes, immigration, social security, the environment, crime, foreign policy, and the myriad of other issues that we grapple with. I don’t regret my votes for the Democratic presidential candidates over the years, but I respect the fact that others had different opinions, and I understand that elections decide who governs our nation. My Republican friends and I disagreed, sometimes strongly, often with passion, but hopefully always with respect.
Yet in at least two important ways, I don’t feel that anymore. There are no two sides to the fact that Joe Biden won the 2020 election and that Donald Trump lost. I don’t respect election deniers; I don’t consider their conspiracy theories valid alternate views. Rather, they’re a plague on, and a real danger to, the democratic values that have endured in our country for almost 250 years. I’ll listen to what conservatives say about the numerous issues that confront our society, but I despise and utterly reject the lies the deniers continue to spread that weaken America’s faith in elections.
And I believe the same about their leader. I didn’t hate any previous Republican president or candidate. I strongly, and often, disagreed with them, but I believed that they were committed to democracy and doing what they thought was best for our country.
But not Donald Trump. I believe that he is a terrible person, concerned only with what is best for himself; that he has no commitment to our democratic (small “d”) way of life; that he lies because he has no understanding of or devotion to truth; that he admires and seeks to emulate demagogues and dictators, not patriots and presidents like Washington and Lincoln; that he is mean, nasty, vulgar, petulant, vengeful, misogynistic, cruel, angry, and selfish; that he is a braggart, a rapist, and a bully; that he is the opposite of what we want as a role model for our children and grandchildren; that he demeaned and diminished the high office he held, to our embarrassment, for four years.
And I believe, with deep sadness and trepidation, that if he is elected for another term of office rather than committed to the jail cell that he justly deserves, our nation might not be able to survive. Just like with Israel being innocent of genocide, there is no “other hand” to the need to rid our body politic of Donald Trump.
I know there are people, seemingly good people, people I might otherwise like to share a Shabbat meal with, people I wish I could admire and respect, who see things differently. But I don’t understand how they can be so blind to the evidence blazoned on the front page of our newspapers daily and blaring from our television sets and social media feeds. It’s so clear with every word he utters, every childish and hateful insult he hurls, every lie he spreads, every grievance he uses to bilk his supporters again and again. Res ipsa loquitor, as I was taught as a One L in law school in Torts 101 — the thing speaks for itself.
I write this column with a bitter taste in my mouth and tears in my eyes. I grieve that a people that fought and sacrificed to lift the yoke of oppression from their necks can be so blind to the real lovers of freedom and the real perpetrators of genocide in the Middle East; that people who have benefitted from the material and spiritual abundance that America has bestowed on them can look at a budding dictator and see a savior.
I am dejected and discouraged that some see the world so very differently than I do; who view it in ways that are false and unacceptable. But while I usually admire disagreement, look with favor upon differences, revel in a good argument, and rejoice over the diversity of ideas and viewpoints, I must draw a line that cannot be crossed with respect to charges of genocide against Israel and support of Donald Trump. Neither are acceptable in a civilized world built upon truth and decency. And both must be discarded in the dust heap of history where they belong.
Joseph C. Kaplan, a retired lawyer, longtime Teaneck resident, and regular columnist for the Jewish Standard and the New Jersey Jewish News, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck’s Judaica House). He and his wife, Sharon, have been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.