On the rare occasion that my spouse and I encounter someone who just doesn’t get it, whatever “it” is, we might say to each other, they’re in Mitzrayim, the biblical word for Egypt. We don’t even need to use the punchline, “on the banks of denial,” being punny for the similar sounding “the Nile.” I couldn’t help thinking about this after seeing the wonderful movie Denial, based on Deborah Lipstadt’s libel trial that ensued after the publication of her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust. It is based on her experience of being sued by David Irving for calling him a Holocaust denier in this book. His belief is that the Holocaust never happened, so how could he deny it. It was clear to us that he lives deep in Mitzrayim! I am old enough to remember the case and cheered when she was found to be exonerated of libel. As her character says in the movie, some things are just true: The earth is round. Elvis is not alive. The Holocaust happened.
When Lipstadt wrote the book, when she was sued in 1996, when they went to trial in 2000, and even when they began working on the movie which surely took a few years, she could not have envisioned how relevant its 2016 release would be to today’s election. She could not have envisioned a candidate, a person, like Donald Trump. David Irving and Donald Trump have much in common. They both seem to work in an alternate universe that could be Mitzrayim. They do not seem to accept universal truths. In the movie, David Irving’s character explains away aspects of Auschwitz as not characteristic of a death mill but a cleansing machine. He takes facts and says that the exact opposite is true. In this campaign, I have witnessed Donald Trump do the exact same thing. He will take an aspect of his campaign and say it’s really part of his opponent’s. He is not the hater, she is. He is not the racist, she is. He denies that he is a misogynist, homophobe, racist, etc. He lives in Mitzrayim. He is incapable, at least publicly, of recognizing universal truths of how one should act and speak.
What better day is there to think about truth than on Erev Yom Kippur, the eve of the Day of Atonement. In this week since Rosh HaShannah, the Jewish New Year, we are asked to confront the universal truths of our relationships. Are there wrongs to others that we need to repair? Are there last minute phone calls to make? Are there truths that we need to face, regardless of how uncomfortable or difficult they are? On Yom Kippur, we face God, we face ourselves, and deal with our universal truths as part of a society.
I always notice that as part of our list, we say, “we are xenophobic.” (I think it is that because the first time I noticed the word, I didn’t know what it meant and I had to look it up.) In the English, it is always at the end of this alphabetical list. This list of our collective sins. This list of our collective truths. We personally may not have been xenophobic, but as part of the collective, as part of the world, we have been. How? By not speaking out about xenophobia when we hear it, when we see it, being complicit by saying nothing. Yes, we are responsible for what this world has become and we are responsible for fixing it. Somehow, most of us understand this when it comes to environment or helping the poor. But when it comes to being responsible for the rise of public figures, this is a difficult leap. As one who is rarely at the front of protest lines, I too am complicit. (I am more likely to be angry on social media from the comfort of my home.) But I understand that I am complicit and in my small world I do what I can to change minds. As Hillel said, “If not now, when?”
As John Donne said, “No man is an island.” Let’s be sure that this year, we are not the ones in Mitzrayim. I’m not sure that we will enjoy the banks of denial.