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“The First Man” and “America First” / Uncovering Jewish Meanings In a Time of Plague

Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton)

Emeritus Professor of International Law

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“The dust of the first man was gathered from all parts of the earth.” (Talmud)

More than anything else, the Talmudic ” First Man” signifies human unity and relatedness. “America First,” on the other hand,  identifies the anarchic rallying cry of  belligerent nationalism; reactionary, retrograde, the diametric opposite of the “First Man.” It follows, here from an expressly Jewish perspective, that this stark contrast is darkly worrisome and deeply ironic. In part, at least, this is because the “First Man” concept has recognizable Jewish origins and because the suffocating banalities of “America First” sometimes resonate (or are sometimes even celebrated) among American Jews.

There is more here than meets the eye. Jewish acceptance or celebration of “America First” does not take into account the modern historical roots of Trump’s PR-directed nomenclature, a naming-scheme drawn inexcusably but purposefully from the Third Reich. In an irrefutable clarification, “America First” represents a deliberate play on “Germany First.” Accordingly, we must inquire: Is an updated  variant of Deutschland uber alles really the slogan with which present-day Jews should wish to align themselves?


Employing this same interrogative genre, it is worth recalling that Donald Trump’s 2016 oft-repeated campaign mantra (“I love the poorly educated”) was a conscious and conspicuous adaptation of Joseph Goebbels’ 1934 Nuremberg rallying cry: “Intellect rots the brain.” There was nothing coincidental or gratuitous about Trump selecting this ominous and echoing phrase.

Is this a public posture or position with which American Jews should ever feel comfortable? The answer is plain: Yes, but only if we were to first assume that the pertinent adherents or supporters of any such deformed opinion were ignorant of Jewish culture and traditions. Wholly ignorant.

Still more should now be made generally known. To begin, Donald Trump’s ideology of  “America First” has always been both greedily self-serving and willfully dangerous. The inherently corrosive notion that any such exploitative and self-centered American philosophy could or should propel the United States in certain tangibly gainful directions remains prima facie incorrect. It is also morally reprehensible.

This second (but by no means secondary) assessment is particularly revealing in light of timeless Jewish principles concerning human cooperation, human “oneness,” and human community.[1]

There is still more for us to consider. What was once just “merely” wrong and injurious has now become openly murderous and potentially genocidal. This is because the Covid-19 pandemic now mandates a fully far-reaching pattern of global cooperation, a template on numerous intersecting matters and one operating on several multiple levels. Inter alia, for the United States to continue blithely with Donald Trump’s rabidly visceral policies against “mind” and education could represent a dire prescription for further national declension and for eventual international collapse.

Significantly, no such prescription founded upon a contrived and cynical worldwide rancor has ever succeeded long-term.[2]

Though it may first sound a bit like conspicuous exaggeration or hyperbole, Donald Trump’s  catastrophically existential expectations are no longer just idle rhetoric or casual expressions of a benign politics. Instead, they now reflect a plausible or even probable outcome in an increasingly interdependent and indecently asymmetrical (very rich/very poor bifurcation) world. More specifically, the abundantly shallow and flagrantly irrational vision of “America First” could only lead the United States in various grievously mistaken directions; in essence, toward endlessly Darwinian global struggles for survival.

Here, amid crudely fierce competitions between states that must soon prove injurious to all of them, we would expect only more and more stubbornly recalcitrant global conflicts. Derivatively, in such barbarously difficult circumstances, the  futile  standard  of “everyone for himself” could only produce more and more expansive human suffering. Quo Vadis?

Where should we go from this inauspicious Trump policy precipice? For now, trapped in this war-weary and disease-ravaged world, only a suitable expansion of human empathy could realistically save us. This suggests, among other things, that any such expansion by the United States would represent not some inherently unworthy or unreciprocated act of charity – that is, some mistakenly one-sided species of characteristic American benevolence –  but rather a properly self-serving expression of a coherent national policy.

There is a conceptual bottom line. US national interests can no longer be served in any serious measure at the deliberate expense of other states and nations. Always, instead, these American interests must be served together with those of other states and nations, sometimes even where international relations have already become more-or-less adversarial.

Truth is exculpatory. At every crucial level, military, economic and biological, American security is integrally linked with the wider “human condition.” Inextricably. Accordingly, for the United States, any persistently boundless confidence in openly vacant presidential witticisms could fatally undermine this country’s overall national security. Though, until now, any such open reference to a US national morbidity would have seemed a gross exaggeration, this is no longer the case. Instead, what we are witnessing today, hour by hour, minute by minute, is the incremental dismantling of once enviable, capable, and respectfully preeminent world power.

In candor, during our incessant and relentless Trump-era decline, we Americans can hardly cling convincingly to any residual political promises of “greatness.” At best, the Trump-inscribed red hats represent a hideous self-parody. At worst, they point approvingly toward a glaringly obvious and unobstructed path to oblivion. For the foreseeable future, and in consequence of ongoing Trump-government derelictions, our national policy expectations will need to be very modest.

For this future, we will need to settle, at best, for elementary physical survival.

All this candor is hardly reassuring or comforting. Nonetheless, truth is always the final arbiter, not just in pertinent matters of law, but also in judgments of ethics. Today’s core American national and geopolitical truth is grim and horrifying. Patently so. Sadder still, there are no credible correctives to be found anywhere on this defaulting administration’s still-legible or decipherable policy horizon.[3]

There is more. Especially injurious and ominous about Donald Trump’s indifference to primal human interconnections and codified human rights is his willful destruction of empathy. For Americans, the palpably dreadful consequences of such relentless destruction ought by now to have become perfectly obvious. To be sure, the unmistakably monstrous global consequences of “Germany First” – a very conspicuous ideological antecedent of “America First” – should exhibit a painfully stinging historical resonance.

Still, for any necessary expansions of empathy to become sufficiently serious would require a president and citizenry at least minimally versed in pertinent world history.[4]

It goes without saying that today we have neither.

There exist other even deeper roots to the fundamental problems of empathy and cooperation. Divided into thousands of hostile tribes, almost two hundred of which are called “nation-states,” too many human beings still find it easy or even pleasing to slay certain “others.” As for any remediating considerations of compassionate human feeling, that commendable sentiment is typically reserved only for those who would live within one’s own delineated “tribe.” But any expansion of empathy to include  “outsiders” remains an utterly basic condition of authentic peace and global union. Indeed, without such an expansion, our entire species would remain inconveniently dedicated to its own continuous debasement and even (however unwittingly) to its own eventual or sudden disappearance.

Understanding this particular bit of geopolitical wisdom ought already have become a helpful corrective to the sorely debilitating nonsense of “America First.” Among other things, this shamefully resurrected Nazi-era political mantra has been eerily reminiscent of America’s sordid “Know Nothing” history. “I love the poorly educated,” said candidate Donald Trump proudly in 2016. “Intellect rots the brain,” advised Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, at the Nuremberg rallies of 1934 ad 1935.

These were not altogether separate or separable sentiments. Rather, these two seemingly discrete assertions are actually the product of indissolubly soiled and still kindred spirits. In essence, even if well-intentioned and unintended, “America First” represents Donald Trump’s cynically Americanized version of “Deutschland uber alles.” Like Goebbels, as we have assuredly seen by now, Trump takes very great pleasure from hideously dissembling “rallies.”[5] The more visceral or incoherent the rally, the more pleasing it is to this president.

Naturally, we do need viable remedies to this contemptible history and kinship. But what fixes, if any, are still plausibly available? What must Americans actually do in order to encourage a wider pattern of empathy, thereby fostering certain deeply caring feelings between as well as within “tribes”? Now, how can a U.S. president work to seriously improve the state of our crumbling world to best ensure a viable and dignified future for us all?

These are not easy questions, but they do still need to be asked. Incontestably, they comprise the same precise queries that will finally need to be addressed openly by Donald Trump or his successor. So what next?

Ironically, we must initially acknowledge, the essential expansion of empathy for the many could very quickly become “dreadful,” possibly improving human community, but only at the intolerable cost of private sanity. This prospectively insufferable consequence is rooted in the way we humans were originally “designed,” that is, as more-or-less “hard wired” beings, persons with distinctly recognizable and largely “impermeable” boundaries of feeling. Were it otherwise, an extended range of compassion toward too many others could inevitably bring about our own emotional collapse.

This should be easy to recognize and understand. As a ready example, consider how difficult it would be if all of us were to suddenly feel the same compelling pangs of sympathy and compassion for certain others outside our primary spheres of attachment as for those  family and friends we have preferentially located “inside” this sphere?

Intellectually, this presents a markedly challenging paradox. It was examined long ago in the ancient Jewish legend of the Lamed-Vov, a Talmudic tradition that certain scholars trace back to Isaiah. Here, the whole world is said to rest upon thirty-six Just Men, the Lamed-Vov. These suffering figures are otherwise indistinguishable from other ordinary mortals. Still, if just one of their number were ever absent, the resultant tribulations of humankind would be staggering, poisoning the souls of even the newly-born.[6]

Such a Talmud-elucidated paradox has potentially useful contemporary meaning for the United States. This modernized signification reveals that a widening circle of human compassion is both indispensable to civilizational survival and represents also a lamentable Jewish source of unimaginable private anguish.

           Still more questions arise. How shall President Trump or his successor begin to deal capably with a core requirement for global civilization that is both essential and unbearable? Newly informed that empathy for the many is a literal precondition of a decent and functioning world society, what can create such caring without simultaneously producing intolerable emotional pain? Recalling Ralph Waldo Emerson and the American Transcendentalists, “high-thinkers” must duly inquire: How can we be released from the misconceived ideology of “America First,” a zero-sum posture that has been increasing the prospects not only of war, terrorism and genocide, but also of uncontrolled and uncontrollable pandemics?

The whole world is a system. Very plainly. “The existence of system in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature,” says  the Jesuit philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “no matter whom….Each element of the Cosmos is positively woven from all the others….”

Above all, this president or his successor must finally understand that the state of America’s national union can never be any better than the state of the wider and deeply intersecting world. This key truth obtains not “only” in reference to the more usual issues of war, peace and human rights, but also to conspicuously critical matters of disease avoidance.

For the painfully imperiled United States, the overarching presidential objective must always be to best protect the sacred dignity of each and every individual human being.  This is exactly this high-minded and ancient Jewish goal that should now give specific policy direction to a bewildered and intentionally-bewildering American President.[7] Such indisputably good counsel could represent a starkly welcome corrective to Trump’s continuously misleading endorsements of “America First.”

Naturally, it will be easy to dismiss any such seemingly lofty recommendations for  human dignity as silly, ethereal or “academic,”  but, in reality, there could never be any greater American presidential naiveté than to champion the patently false extremity of “everyone for himself.”

Among his other very serious misunderstandings and falsifications, “America First” represents a particularly  blemished presidential mantra or objective. Devoid of empathy, intellect, and absolutely all principal obligations of human cooperation, it can lead only toward distressingly new heights of strife, disharmony and despair. Left intact and unrevised, “America First” would point us all directly to a potentially irreversible vita minima, that is, toward badly corrupted personal lives, ones emptied of themselves;  meaningless, shattered, rancorous, unfeeling and radically unstable. Here, located among so many other corollary misfortunes, we would find it impossible to battle not only the usual and better-known social/political adversaries, but also the increasingly fearful (and plainly merciless) biological ones.

Is this in any way a properly Jewish orientation to public policy, one in some conceivable accord with Talmudic notions of “The First Man?”

In essence, without a suitable expansion of empathy, we will remain at the mercy not just of other predatory human beings, but also of certain exceedingly virulent pathogens. In short order, the harmful synergies created by such markedly unwelcome combinations would (incrementally or suddenly) become much too much to bear. What then?

          The cumulative lesson is abundantly clear, especially to those with some refined appreciation of Jewish heritage, tradition or education.  Only by placing “Humanity First” can an American president ever make “America First.” The latter, which now includes an utterly indispensable capacity to combat disease pandemics as well as war, terrorism and genocide, is not possible without the former. As we ought by now to have learned from Talmud and elsewhere in the most seminal Jewish sources: “The dust of the first man was gathered from all parts of the earth.”[8]

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D. Princeton 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with literature, art, philosophy, international relations, and international law. Emeritus Professor of International  Law at Purdue, he was born in Zürich, Switzerland at the end of World War II. Dr. Beres’ twelfth and latest book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

His popular writings can be found in The New York TimesThe Atlantic; The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The Hudson Review; The National Interest; JURISTModern DiplomacyDaily Princetonian; Yale Global Online; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Jewish Business News; International Security (Harvard); Oxford University Press; The War Room (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (West Point); Israel Defense; and more than fifty major national and international law journals.


[1]       Martin Buber identifies the essence of every living community as “meeting.” True community, says Buber, is an authentic “binding,” not merely a “bundling together.” Furthermore, in true community, each one commits his whole being in “God’s dialogue with the world,” and each stands firm and resolute throughout this dialogue.

[2] “What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another,” warns playwright Samuel Beckett in Endgame, “of seeking justification always on the same plane?”

[3] “Who is to decide which is the grimmer sight,” asks Honore de Balzac, “withered hearts, or empty skulls?”

4 In the 17th century, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarked prophetically, in his justly celebrated Pensées: “All our dignity consists in thought….It is upon this that we must depend…Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.” Similar reasoning characterizes the writings of Baruch Spinoza, Pascal’s 17th-century contemporary. In Book II of his Ethics Spinoza considers the human mind, or the intellectual attributes, and – drawing further from Descartes – strives to define an essential theory of learning and knowledge. Much of this effort was founded upon familiar ( to Spinoza) certain  Jewish sources.

[5] “The crowd,” foresaw the 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “is untruth.”

[6] Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung thought of “soul” (in German, Seele) as the very essence of a human being. Neither Freud nor Jung ever provides a precise definition of the term, but clearly it was not intended by either in any ordinary religious sense. For both, it was a still-recognizable and critical seat of both mind and passions in this life. Interesting, too, in the present context, is that Freud explained his already-predicted decline of America by various express references to “soul.” Freud was plainly disgusted by any civilization so apparently unmoved by considerations of true “consciousness” (e.g., awareness of intellect and literature), and even thought that the crude American commitment to perpetually shallow optimism and material accomplishment would occasion sweeping psychological misery.

[7] In Jewish tradition, empathy, justice and individual human dignity can together  bring forth a vast and indispensable healing. Such key traits, commented Rabbi Avraham Kook, a thinker who was not a part of the classical stream of Jewish philosophy, must “flow directly from the holy depth of the wisdom of the Divine soul.” Rabbi Kook’s thinking does not stand in any stark or self-conscious opposition to rational and scientific investigation, nor does it intend to oppose pure feelings to raw intellect. It identifies instead a potentially useful creative tension, one between a too-abstract and too-formal intellectualism and a promisingly practical form of reason. Influenced and informed by Buddhism, Rabbi Kook envisioned humankind as possessing a natural evolutionary inclination toward collective advancement and self-perfection. Moreover, he surmised, the course of this expansive human evolution must be directed toward a progressively increased spirituality. In the final analysis, he understood Torah as a tangible and utterly incontrovertible manifestation of the Divine Will here on earth.

[8] According to Rabbi Kook, a final Divine redemption must be undertaken by and through the Jewish People. A core part of any such redemption must be the palpably greater awareness of human unity, or human oneness. In turn, proceeds this dialectic, awareness will ultimately give rise to the spreading light of loving kindness and forgiveness, even amid the eternally bitter rancor of world politics. At first, a “lofty” soul will be needed to generate the indispensable awareness: “The loftier the soul,” concludes Kook,  “the more it feels the unity that there is in us all.”




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