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Can we talk about the pandemic without blaming its victims?

Trump is fair game for criticism, but not about his illness. The same is true for other groups who may be violating COVID prevention rules and are also suffering.

U.S. President Donald Trump at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., October 2020. Credit: Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour.
U.S. President Donald Trump at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., October 2020. Credit: Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

This past weekend, a lot of us received a test in our commitment to our values about how to behave towards those who are ill and who might be our political opponents. Some of us did better than others.

I refer, of course, to the news that President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, tested positive for COVID-19 with the president being hospitalized. After three nights at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the president has returned to the White House, and it appears that the nation has been spared a possible crisis in which the commander-in-chief was incapacitated. Reactions to the announcement, however, have been something like a national ethics test where we were asked to put aside our political opinions and exhibit what in the Jewish world we commonly call menschlichkeit or a sense of humanity.

The good news is that most people in public life passed the test. That was true of former Vice President Joe Biden, who, along with his wife, issued a gracious statement saying that they were “praying for the health and safety of the president and his family.” Just as important, he reminded his followers that “this is not about politics.”

The Bidens weren’t alone in saying that. Many people in public life—left, right and in the middle—did the same, giving us a heartening lesson that disagreeing with someone, even vehement disagreement, shouldn’t cause us to lose our own humanity in wishing them ill, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

Not everyone, however, met that same high standard. While Trump was in the hospital, social media was a cesspool of vile invective and hateful rhetoric illustrating the anger of many of the president’s detractors in language that was inappropriate and gave the lie to their claim to the moral high ground.

In their defense, many on the left pointed out that the president is himself notoriously insensitive to the feelings of his opponents and engages in cruel ridicule every chance he gets. They’re right that Trump often behaves very badly. But there is a difference between nasty political rhetoric and gloating about someone suffering from a serious illness.

It’s also true that Trump’s illness was connected to what has proved to be the issue most on the minds of Americans: the coronavirus pandemic. For his opponents, it is an article of faith that Trump badly bungled his handling of the crisis—with some going so far as to blame him for every death as if he personally commissioned the Chinese to produce it. On the other hand, his supporters praise his conduct while saying that it is unlikely that anyone else, including Biden, would have or could have done much better.

Objective observers may eventually conclude that Trump made many mistakes while also conceding that his opponents were no more prescient about the danger than he had been. Opinions about COVID have been as relentlessly partisan as everything else that happens in a presidential election year.

Nevertheless, it’s not out of bounds to question whether Trump’s attitude towards various aspects of the crisis—like downplaying of wearing masks or holding public events without social distancing, which has now been linked to multiple cases of infection in Congress—were unwise and very likely connected to the outbreak in the White House.

But the problem with blaming those who suffer from an illness for being responsible for their fate is that it’s a standard that one would never extend to oneself or those we support or care about.

This applies to more than just the question of Trump’s predicament.

Throughout the course of COVID-19, an inordinate amount of attention has been focused on Chassidic or ultra-Orthodox Jews, especially in insular communities in Brooklyn and Israel, and whether they are observing rules aimed at preventing the spread of the disease. They aren’t the only ones who have acted in this manner. Unfortunately, though, there have been many instances in which these communities have blithely ignored common-sense precautions about masks and gathering in large numbers for weddings, funerals, indoor activities in synagogues and schools, and of late, for festivities related to the Jewish holidays.

A lot of the same people who are the first to blame the Orthodox think there’s nothing wrong with large numbers of people gathering in just as dangerous a manner to take part in protests. In the United States, the voices that blamed Trump’s alleged downplaying of the virus and mocking of mask-wearing cheered “mostly peaceful” mass Black Lives Matter protests that often turned into violent riots that were hardly models of social distancing. In Israel, those most antagonistic towards the ultra-Orthodox and their behavior were also often vehement supporters of the demonstrations against the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that flagrantly flouted pandemic restrictions.

When it comes to something as all-encompassing as a virus, hypocrisy is both bipartisan and nondenominational.

Having convinced ourselves that our political opponents are not just wrong but evil, it’s of little surprise that so many of us struggled to respond appropriately to Trump’s illness. Compassion, humility and grace are qualities that are called for when we hear about people with whom we disagree or even blame for our problem being felled by illness. Such traits are in short display at the best of times, but are even rarer in the middle of political disputes that have taken on the aspect of a tribal civil war rather than a normal election season.

Rather than an invitation to more venting of our spleen, the latest pandemic news should have been a reminder that we all need to ratchet down our rhetoric and stop treating disputes over politics or the religious/secular divide as a war to the death. In the end, the grim reaper calls for all of us. The coronavirus pandemic doesn’t discriminate between Republicans and Democrats or between secular and religious Jews. If we can remember these basic truths, it will make us all better people, regardless of the outcomes of elections or any other disputes.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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