For most American Jews, dogs offer unconditional love and loyal companionship. They seem endlessly optimistic, especially in the kitchen, and boundlessly enthusiastic for most anything, including gefilte fish. They come in an endless variety of shapes, sizes, colors and breeds, but don’t really seem to care about their own differences. Nor are they picky about human friendships. They are a terrific source of comfort. Indeed, dogs are truly egalitarian, treating us all more or less the same, regardless of your race, religion and heritage. They are the perfect pet for the melting pot, ethnic smorgasbord or any other culinary metaphor you prefer for ethnic diversity today.
But solace, equality and diversity were not what President Trump had in mind when he threatened a few days ago to unleash “vicious dogs” on protesters. He conjured four-legged thugs, the kind that Jews once feared, dogs trained to repress their inner nature and distinguish with bared teeth one group of people from another.
As people of color, rightly outraged at yet another needless black death from unjust policing and policies, gathered to protest centuries of racism, the president responded with neither empathy nor understanding. Rather, he threatened the same animalistic tactics that terrorized so many civil rights activists in the southern states not long ago who, of course, often marched with Jewish allies. The parallels were uncanny, deeply troubling and frankly more frightening than the civic unrest that caused Trump to scamper into the White House bunker. No moral American Jew today can look at those infamous news photos from Birmingham, Alabama, and not shudder.
Indeed, Jews know “vicious dogs” only too horrifyingly well. And that’s why we should be so appalled at President Trump’s response to Black Lives Matter. The despicable eras of Jim Crown and slavery recall our own torments in so many countries over the centuries. Dogs were widely used by the Nazis against Jews and other “vermin,” of course. At the Flossenburg camp in Bavaria, for a notorious example, kommandant Egon Zill was notorious for sadistically strapping live prisoners to trees, then allowing his trained attack dogs to feast on their genitals.
In the Caribbean, Europeans once trained hounds to torment black people. So-called “slave dogs” were used for, as one newspaper advertisement in the West Tennessee Democrat from the 1840s declared, “catching negroes.” We should think about those dogs when we recall our own long-ago enslavement each year during the Passover seder.
The British, Columbus and the conquistadors all used fierce mastiffs to terrorize indigenous peoples. Something of that very same intent—using canines to savage dark-skinned people—was in no uncertain terms evoked by President Trump. His “vicious dogs” are not about protecting the democratic liberties constitutionally entrusted to the White House and which protect Jewish freedoms, too. They are about chewing up those same ideals. We’ve seen those dogs before. We don’t need them unleashed again.
In rhetoric, too, dogs were often used to demean the colonized and other undesirables, ourselves included. In one infamous instance from the first genocide of the 20th century that inspired Nazism, dozens of Herero men, women and children in Namibia were torched alive. The German colonizers said, “We should burn all these dogs and baboons in this fashion.” In now calling Black Lives Matter “terrorists,” Trump and his dogs evoke the very same brutality.
In fact, the colonized and their dogs were everywhere referred to as filthy, unruly, mongrel curs in contrast to the well-mannered, obedient and stately dogs pampered by European colonizers. This was especially true in southern and eastern Africa. In colonial India, moreover, signs often declared, “No dogs or Indians allowed.” I think Trump had something just like this in mind when he made his unpresidential threat against people different from him. When any leader threatens to set loose “vicious dogs” in the streets, we Jews have a moral obligation to stand up for tikkun olam, to heal, not harm, the world.
Religious Jews have long looked with fear and unease at dogs. They can site any number of rabbinic sources to sustain this unfortunate view. But I prefer one Talmudic passage that advises specifically against owning angry dogs (B. Baba kama 7:7). I take this statement metaphorically to compel Jews to stand up to those oppressors and tyrants who, to invoke Shakespeare, “let slip the dogs of war” against those who march and sit for freedom. It’s a compelling message today.
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