Like so many, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around Donald Trump’s victory.
And like so many, I thought Hillary Clinton was a horribly flawed candidate. She was running in an election where “populism,” as exemplified by Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, was the name of the game.
And while we can debate the merits of whether Trump’s comments make him a racist, sexist or anti-Semite, there’s no question people are scared. Had Mitt Romney won in 2012, I doubt we’d have seen protests in the streets. There is a legitimate fear among millions not just of President-elect Trump or his cabinet, but that 60 million of their fellow Americans could support someone they view as a threat to their freedom.
It got me thinking of my time as president of the Jewish Student Union at the University of Maryland, because at one point we also considered supporting someone whom many viewed as a racist.
Despite the fact that some 25 percent of the undergraduate population were Jews, our campus played host to a Who’s Who of Jew-haters during my time there.
From the Nation of Islam, we hosted Louis Farrakhan and Abdul Alim Muhammad. From the “Jewish doctors invented AIDS” club, we hosted Steve Cokely. From “the best Zionist is a dead Zionist” crowd, we hosted Kwame Toure, and other noted Jew-haters, Professor Griff of Public Enemy, Leonard Jeffries and more. Most of these speakers were brought by the Black Student Union with support from the usual far-left contingency of Arab, socialist and Lyndon LaRouche groups.
Things were so bad that at one point the Organization of Arab Students and Black Student Union co-sponsored an anti-Israel speech. The speaker, William Baker, was head of the Populist Party, the same party for which David Duke ran for president. The Black Student Union brought in a literal white supremacist on their dime, solely because his message was going to attack Israel.
On top of all that, the first Gulf War brought about some good old fashioned anti-Semitism, as flyers sprouted campus-wide warning American soldiers not to end up like Jesus Christ, i.e. “dying for the sins of the Israeli butchers.”
Into that void stepped Rabbi Meir Kahane.
The Israeli author and political firebrand was a lot like a Jewish version of Farrakhan. Farrakhan, to many in the black community, isn’t about the anti-Semitism, the anti-white racism or anti-gay bigotry for which he is often criticized. Instead, they focus on the 95 percent of his three-hour long speeches that espouse black empowerment and self-sufficiency, and raising a generation of proud black youth. He takes black leaders to task and calls out the sellouts he thinks have failed his community. How you view Farrakhan — an empowering black leader or a racist anti-Semite — depends in large part on how desperate you are to cling to his solutions. For some in the black community, Farrakhan offers a glass of water to a community dying of thirst. In that glass of water is a drop of poison, but for many, the risk of that one drop of poison is more than offset by the risk of dying of thirst.
Kahane authored books with titles like “Never Again,” “Why be Jewish?” and “Uncomfortable Questions for Comfortable Jews.” He called out the Jewish establishment in the United States and in Israel. He spoke about Jewish strength and pride, railed against the risks of intermarriage and assimilation, and challenged Jews to support our ancestral homeland of Israel.
Here was a man who did not care how many toes he stepped on. Here was a man who challenged us and called us out for our missteps and our failures in a way that no other Jewish leader ever had.
Here was a man who took on the Soviet Union and its refusal to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate. He was arrested dozens of times protesting outside Soviet embassies and consulates and was involved in bombing attacks against them when his warnings went unheeded. He did things at a time when the Jewish establishment merely talked about doing things.
Here was a man who was the very antithesis of the wimpy, nerdy, nebbishy Jew. He founded the Jewish Defense League, and said that if anti-Semites attacked Jews physically, Jews should attack right back.
That message was empowering for a group of students who for years had to listen to speakers talk about our people in the same language the Nazis once used.
But there was another side to Kahane, just as there is another side to Farrakhan. Because mixed in with that message of Jewish pride and self-determination was a message of bigotry against the Arabs living in Israel.
He called for them to either accept Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza, or accept financial compensation to leave. Those who did neither would face forced expulsion to another country. He called Arabs “dogs” and any time there was an attack against Israelis by Arabs, you could count on Kahane and his followers to march through the Arab villages, shouting anti-Arab slogans and calling for the villagers to be expelled.
His message was empowering to enough Israelis tired of living with the constant fear of Arab wars and terror that Kahane won a seat in the Israeli parliament in 1984. (In 1988 Israel passed a law banning racist parties from running, effectively ending his political career.)
How you viewed Kahane back in 1990 — an empowering Jewish leader trying to wake up a slumbering people, or an anti-Arab racist — depended in large part on how desperate you were to cling to his solutions. How badly you wanted to sip from that glass of water, even knowing full well it might have one drop of poison in it.
To dozens of Maryland students, we were desperate enough, tired enough and sick of living as victims that we decided to invite Kahane to campus.
We told him to focus on Jewish pride, how to stand up to the constant anti-Semites visiting our campus, and taking on the Jewish leaders who didn’t support our student activism.
What did he talk about and how did it affect us?
We will never know. A few weeks before he was to speak at Maryland, he was assassinated by a man later involved as a co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings.
We were spared the very difficult challenge of hoping he would stick to his Jewish empowerment message and not veer off into anti-Arab language.
We were spared the challenge of fighting fire with fire. We were spared having to face accusations that we were no better than the students who helped bring the anti-Semites to campus by bringing our own bigot to school.
But that experience has helped me, in some small way, to understand the anger of so many Americans who voted for Trump. I can understand, as much as I was a proud #NeverTrump voter, how people who do not view themselves as remotely racist or sexist or xenophobic, could feel so attacked merely for existing, that they would reach out and support Trump.
And I understand what it’s like to hold that glass of water as you are dying of thirst, and weigh the benefits of drinking from it, no matter how harmless you’ve been promised that one drop of poison within it may be.
Jason Hoffman is former president of the University of Maryland Jewish Student Union as well as a former regional coordinator of the World Zionist Organization’s student department. He lives in Orlando, Fla.