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If Not Now, When? A Recent History of Hillel’s Misattributed Maxim, From Ivanka Trump to Ronald Reagan

Trump’s daughter wrongly sourced one of the most famous quotes in rabbinic literature. She was not the first to do so.

Yair Rosenberg
September 12, 2016

On Friday, Ivanka Trump posted the following on her Instagram account:

Of course, it is the rabbinic sage Hillel the Elder who famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

Trump’s misattribution of the line to the Harry Potter actress quickly provoked some lighthearted online jabs:

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow, that is the whole Torah.” -Albus Dumbledore

— (((Yair Rosenberg))) (@Yair_Rosenberg) September 9, 2016

And every passover, we eat the Emma Watson sandwich

— Kiera Feldman (@kierafeldman) September 9, 2016

In reality, Watson did use the line in a 2014 speech at the United Nations, though she obviously did not originate it. And while Ivanka herself is an Orthodox Jewish convert who might know better, it’s doubtful the interns who run her Instagram feed do.

In fact, Trump is but the latest in a long line of illustrious misattributors of a Hillel’s maxim:

 In 2012, the Republican National Convention party platform preamble declared, “We must answer Ronald Reagan’s question: If not us, who? And if not now, when?” Reagan did indeed deploy the phrase in an appeal to his cabinet. Its attribution to Reagan was read aloud at the 2012 convention by then-Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, but was eliminated from the final version of the platform after the error was pointed out.

 In 2010, a Saturday Night Live sketch attributed the line to Robert F. Kennedy. Journalist Richard Wolffe did likewise in his book Revival, an account of Barack Obama’s first term. (Obama had used the phrase campaigning in Pennsylvania for the Affordable Care Act—perhaps picked up from one of his Jewish speechwriters or rabbinic friends—prompting Wolffe’s mistaken attempt to identify its origins.) The Kennedy association has proved so persistent that the Hillel quote has migrated to John F. Kennedy’s Goodreads page.

Others have echoed Hillel’s aphorism, perhaps unaware of its provenance:

 In 1963, Michigan governor George Romney stumped for his tax reform plan across the state with the impassioned plea, “If not now, when? If not us, who?”

 Addressing the United Nations in 2012, then-Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu proclaimed, “If not now, when are we supposed to act in unity? And if it is not the United Nations, who is to lead? If it is not us, then who will shoulder the responsibility to protect the innocent civilians?”

The irony of all this confusion is that “If not now, when?” is arguably not even Hillel’s best quotation. The Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 53a) records how different rabbis used to celebrate the annual water festival at the Temple in Jerusalem. Among them was Hillel the Elder. The Talmud recounts:

They said about Hillel the Elder that when he used to rejoice at the Simchat Bet Hashoevah, he used to say: ‘If I am here, everyone is here; but if I am not here, who is here?’

In laymen’s terms, this is rabbinic for “I am the life of the party.” Put that on a t-shirt.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.