Do you remember Donald J. Trump's bible photo op? The one where police used smoke and stun grenades to disperse peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters near Lafayette Park, so the president could stand in front of St. John's Church, preaching for law and order? Yes, that one, which The Washington Post described as an episode that "stands as the precipitating moment at which some of the darkest and most seminal truths about the Trump presidency emerged." The one that produced this photograph of the triumphant commander:
Former rabbi and scholar Irvin Ungar is a good friend of mine. Ungar is also past president of the Arthur Szyk Society, which is devoted to reviving interest in the eponymous Polish-American-Jewish illustrator and political satirist (among the most prolific anti-fascists of World War II), and he juxtaposed the photo above with Szyk's illustration below. This raised some hackles, which prompted Ungar to write an explanation. I publish it as an example of the power images play in our lives and the various meanings attached to their relationships to all points of view.
Dear Readers and Friends, I have heard from many of my friends, from academia and religious circles, about my juxtaposition of a portrait of Hitler by Arthur Szyk and the recent photo opportunity created by President Trump at the expense of peaceful protestors. Thus, I am responding with this email to clarify my intentions. Let me say at the outset, the Bible is not the equivalent of Mein Kampf. Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler, there is no comparison. That would be a simple equation and wrong on both counts. None of this is simple—though for me, I feel a sense of absolute clarity. It derives, to a great degree, from my living, first and foremost, with Arthur Szyk every day of my life for the past thirty years. It is influenced by my teaching about the Holocaust since the early 1970s in synagogues and on college campuses. It is dominated by my appreciation of democracy and Szyk’s love of America as an immigrant in the wake of the Shoah. And finally, my sense of what I think and feel is also fueled by the civil rights movement and the fear I felt in my teenage bones as I witnessed the 1960s race riots in my hometown of Trenton, NJ. To be clear, Szyk’s artwork of Hitler with the devil by his side, “He Who Rules by the Sword,” appeared on the front cover of Collier’s, one of the largest circulating American magazines (not on the cover of a Jewish-focused journal). It was seen by as many people as viewed Norman Rockwell’s covers of the Saturday Evening Post. It was another example of Szyk’s many stirring, powerful and disturbing images of the reality facing the American people, reinforcing the deadly enemy’s assault and war on the values of Western civilization—and the artist’s call to respond accordingly. I find myself in the unusual position of not having to explain Szyk’s deliberately provocative art within the context of its time, but my personal political use of it in the present (something I have never done in a public fashion nor forum before). Szyk, himself, in the thousands of pieces he drew, never once wrote a full explication or explanation of any artwork, with one exception. His artwork spoke for itself. I, on the other hand, who do not pretend to be an Arthur Szyk, nor speak for him, speak only of my own visceral response to the moment at hand. I do consider myself his disciple and do not believe my friend would be offended by the manner in which I present his art today, rather than confining it to the dustbin of history. Szyk said: “I create my art for permanence.” Concurrently with the establishment of Dachau concentration camp on March 22, 1933, and before the 1935 racist Nuremberg Laws, and well before the formalization of the Final Solution intended for Europe’s Jews (and others), Szyk attacked Hitler as the new Pharaoh who had come to annihilate his people, and warned them and the world of what must be done. As early as 1934, in his Haggadah, he drew the Wicked Son (one of four Jews portrayed), with a Hitleresque mustache (previously Szyk painted him with a swastika), doing so as a result of his condemnation of early Jews who supported the National Socialist economic policies of the Nazis, and its leader. Likewise, Szyk with Ben Hecht, in a 1943 pamphlet entitled “How Well are You Sleeping?” strongly criticized specifically the Jews of Chicago for not doing enough to rescue European Jewry, their message also appeared as a newspaper advertisement addressed to the American people. Of course, Donald Trump has not built concentration camps, he has not killed any Jews. On the contrary, as a U.S. president, he has been the most supportive friend that the State of Israel has enjoyed in the White House—for now. And to be clear, I support Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people, as Szyk did in both the first and last pages of his Haggadah, from beginning to end, where he calligraphed the words of the ancient psalmist, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right-hand wither.” But Donald Trump presides as president of the United States during the most heightened period of anti-Semitism in the world and in the United States since the end of World War II. He is not responsible for this, and I don’t accuse him of anti-Semitism. He is not the cause of American racism, but an enabler of racism. Mr. Trump and his leadership and his rhetoric and voice of hate speech and/or silence when hatred is being perpetuated, whereby equating victims with their perpetrators, underwrites an atmosphere, which gives rise to anti-Semitism and racist behavior. His words are heard on the far right as an endorsement and support for radical fringe groups, those on the far left are a problem of another kind. As an American citizen and, as a Jew, I am offended by Trump’s raising of the Bible in his hand. Though Mein Kampf was Hitler’s bible, the Bible I embrace and cherish (even with its flaws) is not the bible held high by Donald Trump. My understanding of love and kindness and advocacy for human decency and the building of bridges between peoples and among nations is not his Bible. On the contrary, his bible is one of anger, sowing the seeds of discord, of hatred, of deh
umanization, with the lack of respect for our democratic tradition and its process for a just and civil society. A higher code of ethics has been replaced by his personal code of ethics that violates every sense of human decency and behavior everywhere. I write this letter with regret, regret of the world which we share. And if you have taken it as provocative and disturbing it may be because I have internalized Szyk’s commitment to be both provocative and disturbing to defend American values, democracy and freedom, and protect his people, my people, the Jewish people, and the American people. Irvin Ungar
June 5, 2020