Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Titan on Values and the 2020 Election Risks
A personal perspective from an American Jew at a truly momentous time in U.S. history.
September 20, 2020
I learned of the death of Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg from my Rabbi.
It was in the middle of Friday night’s “virtual – live-streaming” service to celebrate the Jewish New Year that the Rabbi announced the passing of the most celebrated member of our Adas Israel, Washington, D.C., congregation.
A deeply emotional event
It is rare that one experiences a deeply emotional and spiritual event. Learning the news of “RBG’s” passing in the midst of celebrating the New Year was just such a moment for me.
I was not alone. Late on Friday night, many people spontaneously gathered in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to console each other and to reflect on the meaning of her death just a few weeks before a most consequential U.S. presidential election.
An eloquent spokeswoman for equality
In recent decades, no single Jew in the United States spoke so eloquently and, more importantly, did so much as “RBG” to promote equality for all Americans.
She was forever sensitive that the U.S. Constitution, which the Supreme Court is called upon to interpret, did not consider the rights of women when it was drafted, while declaring that people of black color were considered as three-fifths citizens.
Ginsburg’s Jewish roots were a major influence in her life. She once said that “My heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together symmetrically. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition.”
Anti-Semitism in America
Her values, I hope, will be an inspiration to all American voters. In this personal column, let me add that I hope her values will convince many Jews in the United States to set aside partisan matters of daily public policies and to vote in November to secure this fragile U.S. democracy at a time when racial hatred stalks the land.
Back in August 2017, neo-Nazis — screaming “Jews will not replace us! You will not replace us!” — marched through the town of Charlottesville, Virginia. They were opposed by peaceful, decent people.
President Trump’s first reaction to the situation was to declare that there were “very fine people on both sides.” After a public uproar, he issued a White House statement condemning anti-Semitism and the thugs in Charlottesville.
However, his initial statement and his constant unwillingness to condemn far-right militant groups across the country have had major consequences. Trump’s sentiments reverberate among his followers
In October 2018, a man called Robert Bowers, who claimed to be an ardent follower of President Trump, entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. He screamed, “All Jews must die!” Then he killed 11 people.
In its 2019 annual report, the Anti-Defamation League reported: “The American Jewish community experienced the highest level of anti-Semitic incidents last year since tracking began in 1979, with more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism and harassment reported across the United States.”
Calling out a racist
The many statements and actions made and taken by Trump convinced the late Congressman John Lewis to call Trump a racist. As the nation mourned Lewis and as leading Democrats and Republicans sang his praises, Trump had nothing good to say about this legendary civil rights leader.
Trump has shown a similar lack of sympathy and empathy for black Americans who have been killed by the police in recent times.
I have recently been reading an extraordinary book about the rise of Hitler, “The Unfathomable Ascent: How Hitler Came to Power.” Author Peter Ross-Range describes Hitler as a man solely driven by the quest for power and as a ceaseless campaigner. He could have been describing Trump.
Time and again, the book provides descriptions of Hitler’s extraordinary ego, vanity and ruthlessness in the years before he took power, descriptions that mirror those of today’s United States President.
1930’s Jews discounted the danger
There is a more profound parallel. Almost exactly 90 years ago, on September 14, 1930, when the Nazis secured a huge vote in elections that provided them with a powerful presence in the Reichstag, there were many Jews in Germany who were quick to discount the dangers.
Many of them, as Ross-Range notes, had fought for Germany in World War I and rightfully regarded themselves as patriots. They believed they would be respected for their service.
I have a photograph of one of my relatives wearing a helmet with the Kaiser’s signatory spike, sitting on a white horse in World War I as part of the German cavalry.
Many of the friends and relatives of my parents left Germany too late to escape. I have a letter from my mother, written to her friends back in Germany in February 1939, just after she had arrived safely in the UK.
It is a letter of joy at having found an escape route so late, and a letter of sadness that so many others were not so lucky.
Leading to tragic outcomes
I turn the pages of my late cousin Zuzana Ruzickova’s memoir — “One Hundred Miracles” — to read of how her father could never believe that any harm could come to him and his family as he was such a fervent Czechoslovak patriot. He died in the Terezin concentration camp.
Zuzana describes her teenage years in that camp, in Auschwitz, in slave labor in Hamburg and, worst of all, in Bergen-Belsen. She describes her survival together with her mother and how almost all the members of her large family were assassinated by the Nazis.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, and my learning of it during the New Years’ service, lead me to suggest that this coming election is, above all, a decision about human rights.
It is a contest of democracy against authoritarianism. Americans are choosing between a United States government that guarantees equal protection for all citizens under the law, irrespective of their color or religion, versus a United States government that promotes the opposite policies.
As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said: “Donald Trump wants to make America white again.”
Threatened reversal of social justice and civil rights
Many people may disagree with the parallel that I have drawn. However, I am convinced that as Jews in America today, as we prepare to vote, so we dare not forget that millions of Jews in Europe underestimated the threat in the 1930s.
Let me be blunt: If Trump wins this election, then so much that John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg achieved for civil rights and social justice will be reversed swiftly.
After all, the U.S. Justice Department is headed by an Attorney General who believes that the President should be above the law. Plus, we already have the most right-wing dominated U.S. Supreme Court in generations.
I fear that the United States is in danger of ignoring the lessons of a dark past. I trust many Americans will be inspired as they now go to vote by “RBG’s” values and her leadership.
In 2004, on Holocaust Memorial Day, Justice Ginsburg spoke at the U.S. Holocaust Museum and noted:
I was fortunate to be a child, a Jewish child, safely in America during the Holocaust. Our nation learned from Hitler’s racism and, in time, embarked on a mission to end law-sanctioned discrimination in our own country. In the aftermath of World War II, in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in the burgeoning Women’s Rights movement of the 1970s, “We the People” expanded to include all of humankind, to embrace all the people of this great nation. Our motto, E Pluribus Unum, of many one, signals our appreciation that we are the richer for the religious, ethnic, and racial diversity of our citizens.
Said Ginsburg: “My heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together symmetrically. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition.”
No single Jew in the US in recent decades spoke so eloquently and did so much to promote equality for all Americans as Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
As Jews in America today, as we prepare to vote in November, we dare not forget that millions of Jews in Europe underestimated the threat in the 1930s.
The United States already has the most right-wing dominated Supreme Court in generations.
Hitler’s extraordinary ego, vanity and ruthlessness in the years before he took power, mirror those of today’s US President.
This November 2020 US presidential election is, above all, a decision about human rights. It is a contest of democracy against authoritarianism.