Writer’s note: This column was co-written with Kate York, a friend and former Virginia Democratic campaign coordinator.
The history of the Jewish people is an ongoing cycle of persecution and perseverance. Behind our busy calendar of holidays is a series of stories, often sharing a common theme. From biblical times through the present day, the Jewish people have repeatedly faced oppression but emerged in triumph.
The Book of Esther exemplifies this pattern. We retell and celebrate this tale on the holiday of Purim, which is observed this year on March 11 and 12. The story takes place in the ancient kingdom of Persia. A hateful political advisor, Haman, attempts to coerce the king, Ahasuerus, into exterminating the Jewish people. Meanwhile, King Ahasuerus has recently married a Jewish woman named Esther, making her queen. Esther has concealed her Jewish identity, leaving her in a precarious position when she hears of Haman’s plot. Esther’s wise cousin Mordechai encourages her to go forth and tell the king she is Jewish, risking her life but perhaps putting a stop to Haman’s initiative. The king is receptive of Esther’s identity and refuses to follow Haman’s direction. Haman is hanged on the gallows that he ordered to be constructed, and the Jewish people of Persia rejoice.
Today, we are commanded to hold extravagant festivities in celebration of Purim – to merrily dress in masquerade and retell the Book of Esther in good spirits, booing every utterance of Haman’s name. Yet, the celebrated outcome of Purim is only one of the Jewish people’s many victories against oppression throughout our history. This year, we are especially aware that while we are rid of Haman, we are not rid of his hatefulness. The recent rise in anti-Semitic vandalism and other hate crimes, including a series of instances on Stanford’s campus, and the normalization of white supremacy makes the story of Haman especially pertinent.
The makeup of the Trump administration is strikingly reminiscent of King Ahasuerus’ royal court. Steve Bannon, a known anti-Semite, is most obviously analogous to Haman. Although he has not been particularly vocal about the Jewish people since joining the administration, many fear that he acts as a pull towards injustice on a number of domestic and foreign policy issues. Embracing the wishes of Steve Bannon and his camp will indicate that Trump has caved to the nationalist prejudices of his base, which unabashedly denounces not only recent strides towards progress, but also many of the basic structures of national and international society that are generally accepted among the American mainstream on both sides of the aisle, such as participation in global alliances and institutions. Bannon has pushed Trump to faithfully follow through on his more extreme promises, which many reluctant supporters and opponents hoped that Trump would forego after his presidential campaign.
Although she is far from earning the title of heroine, there is one woman in the White House who is positioned to act as a force for tzedek – justice – from within. Much like Queen Esther, Ivanka Trump is a Jewish woman with sway over a non-Jewish family member in a position of power. Some of Ivanka’s positions come into conflict with those of others in her father’s inner circle. For example, Ivanka Trump and Steve Bannon are diametrically opposed on international climate negotiations such as the Paris Agreement, as a recent New York Times article explained. Ivanka has not explicitly spoken out in favor of climate action, but has been considered an ally to environmentalists, especially after sitting down with former Vice President Al Gore and arranging his meeting with President Trump. Opponents of the Paris Agreement, which hopes to keep global warming from rising two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, see Ivanka Trump – along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who believes that remaining part of the agreement is crucial to U.S. foreign policy interests – as a primary obstacle to pulling out of the deal. A recent Breitbart News article entitled “President Trump Must Not Wobble on Climate Change – Whatever Ivanka Says … ” clearly encapsulates that sentiment.
Ivanka Trump has championed other progressive causes that sharply contrast with the priorities of President Trump’s base. She has worked to mold aspects of a paid maternity leave plan and advocated for women in entrepreneurship and STEM fields. Some have speculated that Ivanka’s appeal drew in many of the middle and upper-class white women who voted for Trump, leading BuzzFeed to coin them as “Ivanka voters.” While Ivanka’s personal business savvy and progressive statements deserve praise, she has done little of note in her role as the first Jewish First Daughter. In fact, Ivanka’s advocacy for the Jewish community is conspicuous by its total absence.
From graffiti swastikas to cemetery vandalism to Jewish Community Center bomb scares all across the country, the concrete threats to American Jewish communities are undeniably alarming. Even when we seem to possess relative privilege, Jews must understand ourselves as a minority that are not immune to ethnic or religious discrimination, especially when people in power legitimize hateful rhetoric. The Trump administration’s response to anti-Semitic instances has been tepid and belated, especially in light of the president’s appalling failure to mention anti-Semitism in a Holocaust Remembrance Day speech. Meanwhile, Ivanka has offered nothing more than a generic tweet about religious tolerance.
Given the gravity of threats and the real fear among many American Jews, Ivanka should be leveraging her combination of influence and Jewish identity to make anti-Semitism visible and explain the exigency of addressing it. Drawing attention to the rise of hate crimes and urging more proactive responses from the administration is the least she can do. Just as Esther was uniquely positioned to stop Haman’s plot because the king had a stake in her well-being, Ivanka has the potential to make a poignant personal appeal. She should not be afraid to emphasize her own Jewish identity and evoke empathy in this time of uncertainty for those who share her faith. Ivanka’s positions on issues like climate change and maternity leave are promising in themselves, but in her capacity as first Jewish First Daughter, Ivanka has been a disappointment. The American Jewish community would certainly welcome a modern-day Esther – perhaps Ivanka will find some inspiration in the Purim story this weekend and muster the courage to embrace this role.
Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.