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6 Jewish Historians Tell Us What To Expect in 2017 — and Beyond

As a group, historians have not stayed silent during the rise of Donald Trump. In 2016, a group calling itself Historians Against Trump launched a website and released a statement (excerpt: “The lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump”) that, by early November, had been co-signed by over 950 people. Meanwhile, documentarian Ken Burns and author David McCullough launched the Facebook page “Historians on Trump” — now with over 65,000 “likes” — for the dissemination of videotaped statements from notable professors and writers like Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro and the Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff.

In mid-December 2016, 1,200 historians co-signed a statement that described the country’s present moment as “doubly dangerous.” It isn’t just that Trump’s election brings the United States to the “cusp of what may be a massive rollback of civil rights and liberties,” the authors wrote, “but our culture is also mired in confusion about facts vs. misinformation and a rebellion against knowledge and critical thinking.” And then there are the scholars of Jewish history.

Shortly after Election Day, David Biale, a professor at University of California, Davis, drafted a statement discussing Trump’s rise through the lens of American Jewish history. He then worked with colleagues from around the country to prepare the mini-essay for publication. The resulting statement, published in the Los Angeles-area newspaper Jewish Journal in mid-November, has been shared over 20,000 times on Facebook and co-signed by hundreds of historians. “As an immigrant people, Jews have experienced the pain of discrimination and exclusion,” one section reads. “Our reading of the past impels us to resist any attempts to place a vulnerable group in the crosshairs of nativist racism…. We stand ready to wage a struggle to defend the constitutional rights and liberties of all Americans.”

Biale was one of six professors the Forward contacted to offer thoughts on how to address and understand the Trump presidency. Some scholars spoke with us via phone; others emailed their thoughts. In all cases, the aim was simple: to try to answer the question “What will this moment mean for American Jews?”

David Myers

Professor of Jewish History at UCLA

Author of “Jewish History: A Very Short Introduction”

I feel as if I’m in the beginning of Philip Roth’s counterfactual novel “The Plot Against America,” in which Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR for the presidency in 1940 under the banner “America First” and decides to send East Coast Jews to the Midwest for re-education, which is really a form of forced assimilation.

The premise of Roth’s novel is that the institutions of American democracy are fragile, far more fragile than we think. And I’m afraid I’m feeling much the same with the election of Trump, who has already done massive damage to the institutions of American democracy — for example, by questioning whether he would accept the results of the election before (and, counterintuitively, even after) the vote took place.

David Myers Image by Courtesy of David Myers

From the perspective of American Jewish history, his election evokes for me some of its darkest chapters — [like] the 1930s and 1940s, when race-baiting and xenophobia were at a high point, when loyal Japanese Americans were interned in camps, and when virulent anti-Semites like Father Charles Coughlin railed against Jews to millions of radio listeners. I hope against hope that my fear is exaggerated, that Trump’s flirtations with the “alt-right” will cease and his opportunistic bigotry will be quelled. Alas, his appointments to date offer no solace in this direction.

In light of all of this, the first thing I’d recommend to fellow Jews is vigilance. Let us not miss warning signs about the erosion of democratic principles and practices. Let us pay heed to history and remain vigilant about the present. And let us form alliances with others who may be vulnerable, such as Muslim Americans. Indeed, if and when a registry of Muslim Americans is mandated, let millions of American Jews, as [the Anti-Defamation League CEO and national director] Jonathan Greenblatt bravely suggested, be the first to sign up.

In a strange and ironic way, Trump’s election has made me more of an American patriot than I can remember. He makes clear to me that America, on its best days, stands for the nobility of democracy and equality. We Jews, with our memory of oppression, have a moral obligation to stand on the front lines of defense of that noble legacy.

Jonathan Sarna

Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University

Author of “American Judaism: A History”

Part of me worries that Americans generally, and American Jews in particular, don’t know their history very well. But everybody has been taught the Holocaust; if there’s one thing we’ve taught in the last generation, it’s the Holocaust. So naturally that’s the reference point, and when something happens, we say: “Aha! This is the Holocaust!” I don’t think that is really likely to be the case here. I think, first of all, that there’s a huge ideological difference between Mr. Trump and Adolf Hitler. And, even more important, the danger to the Jewish community in Germany was heavily economic. Stores were boycotted. They were destroyed. There was violence and so forth. We have not seen anything remotely like that here. I suggested that the appropriate comparison was 1920, when, after a long period of progressivism — Woodrow Wilson, liberalism and so forth — the country really turned under Warren G. Harding. There were many similarities in the sense of a fear that America, as we knew it, was changing. And, indeed, the immigration restriction legislation in 1924 [the Immigration Act] is a conscious attempt — astonishing! — to turn the clock back to 1890, to try and shape an immigration policy which would change the character of the country back to what it was. Of course, it failed, and the Catholics and the Jews who were stigmatized in that period later became, I think, widely accepted insiders in American life, although [there is] no question that, especially in terms of Jews, anti-Semitism did not disappear.

Jonathan Sarna Image by Courtesy of Jonathan Sarna

I think, as in 1920, so today in 2016, there will be a sense of turning back the clock on various progressive moves that were made over the last more than eight years. And I think there will also be an effort to slow down the changing America. Today it’s not Jews and Catholics; it’s Hispanics and Muslims. I suspect that that effort will be as unsuccessful as the effort in 1920.

Riv-Ellen Prell

Professor Emerita of American Studies at the University of Minnesota

Author of “Women Remaking American Judaism”

The presidency of Donald J. Trump will further polarize American Jews. Despite a relatively coherent voting pattern — 71% for Hillary R. Clinton in 2016 — that polarization is long-standing. The era that might resonate well to this one is the Cold War, when what appeared to be a highly coherent American Jewish community was in fact ripped apart by political differences.

At the height of what can only be understood as an anti-Communist hysteria, American Jews, particularly in the organized Jewish community, rushed to demonstrate their loyalty to the nation by expelling suspected Communists from their institutions, and recognized what they described as the great work of people who exposed Jews with purportedly Communist histories. A secular Jewish presence never wavered in its defense of civil liberties, while many Jewish leaders did everything they could to cast out the Jewish left as marginal and undesirable. American Jews were afraid of the rise of anti-Semitism during the Cold War and blamed other Jews rather than the right-wing politicians who lifted up demagoguery and tirelessly searched for enemies.

Riv-Ellen Prell Image by Riv-Ellen Prell

[Today,] American Jews who are speaking out against President-elect Trump — whether they occupy mainstream denominational, women’s, labor or Zionist organizations — are castigated again for lack of loyalty to the nation and to the president-elect, who is cast as Israel’s “champion.” Their concerns for civil liberties, an open public square and economic equality — each viewed as essential to a society that serves Jewish interests best — are dismissed as out of step with the voters (though not the majority of them) who elected the new president. These Jews’ range of attitudes toward Israel and peace has been dismissed in terms that are held solely by the extreme right-wing in Israel.

Jews continue to draw stark lines. This unprecedented election will bring in a new era whose contours we cannot fully grasp. Whether it will evoke the “tribal 1920s” and its heightened xenophobia, or the anti-Communist 1950s, which built government power by accusations of disloyalty and the need for surveillance, there will be no neutral place for American Jews to stand in a Trump presidency. In these previous eras they were not well served by playing it safe in the name of getting along or an exercise of narrow self-interest.

David Biale

Professor of Jewish History at University of California, Davis

Author of “Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought”

This election has been an incredibly rude awakening. Myself, I grew up in Los Angeles, and I never encountered anti-Semitism. I‘ve never had a personal experience of anti-Semitism. I mean, I’ve gotten into debates around Israel where the people on the other side were skating close to anti-Semitism — in that sense, maybe, yes. But not the kind of anti-Semitism we’ve seen emerging around this campaign. The old tropes — “The Jews control the world”; the use of Holocaust imagery, “Too bad Hitler didn’t kill you,” et cetera, et cetera — all of that stuff is, in my experience, entirely new.

I think that if you go back and you look at the polls over the last several decades, they show a decrease in anti-Semitism: Maybe 10%–15% of the population has anti-Semitic attitudes. We knew it was there, we knew that there were these sorts of fringe groups [and] fringe websites. But what we thought was: “Let the Southern Poverty Law Center take care of that. They’re not really a significant threat. They don’t really impinge on the national discourse, even though they’re there.”

David Biale Image by Courtesy of David Biale

But what happened in the campaign is that they were given legitimacy. They were given a soapbox. Trump retweeted them. He used the same kinds of tropes in a number of his speeches that they use. And these guys have now been empowered.

Does it mean that we’re going to have pogroms here? No, I don’t think so. But I think that the civic culture has been attacked in a way that is very, very damaging. It may never recover, or it may take a long time for it to recover.

Gary P. Zola

Professor of the American Jewish Experience and Reform Jewish History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Co-editor of “American Jewish History: A Primary Source Reader”

American Jews — as a community — are reacting to the election of Mr. Trump just like all other Americans. Many Jews (like many Americans) have been shocked and appalled by the nature of Mr. Trump’s campaign, his public policies and, of course, his unanticipated victory. Yet we also note that approximately one-quarter of the American Jewish electorate favored his candidacy, and perhaps as much as a third of the American Jewish electorate is greeting his election and inauguration with equanimity if not outright support. In other words, a sizable proportion of the American Jewish community are convinced that Mr. Trump’s policies and his leadership are best for America and for Jewish interests around the world.

Image by Gary Zola

In this way, unsurprisingly, American Jewry mirrors the general community’s reaction to Mr. Trump’s electoral victory. This is because of the axiomatic principle of the Jewish experience in America, which posits that Jewish interests and American interests are indistinguishable [from each other].

Having said all of this, it is equally important to note that as a conspicuous minority in American society throughout the history of the republic, Jews have always displayed a keen wariness of populist leaders who authoritatively insist that they are the true champions of the will of the majority. This is because wherever and whenever populism flourishes, Jewry — a distinct minority in American society — experience a heightened concern over what John Adams famously described as “the tyranny from the majority.” In the past, the rise of populism in America has been accompanied by an increase in xenophobia, intolerance and bigotry in American society. These conditions will spur many American Jews to become more actively involved in minority rights: They will pay more attention to the cause of “civil liberty.”

Deborah Dash Moore Professor of History and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan

Author of “Urban Origins of American Judaism”

The [2013] Pew [Research Center] survey asked, “What does it mean to be Jewish?” You live an ethical life. You are concerned for social justice. These are high-ranking [answers to the survey]. And being concerned for social justice doesn’t mean you attack Muslims, or you oppose immigration, or that you hate women. They don’t go together.

[So] I think there’s going to be a growing disjuncture [in the Trump era] between the positions taken on what is often called “the American Jewish establishment” — which is to say the major organizations — and the vast majority of American Jews, who don’t belong to these organizations, or even if they do, don’t subscribe to the leaders’ point of view. And I expect that most of those organizations are going to… go along to get along. And they’re going to rationalize that, because that’s what happened in the ’50s.

Deborah Dash Moore Image by Courtesy of Deborah Dash Moore

So I would encourage rank-and-file Jews to organize, and to pick one or two items to organize around that represent relatively achievable goals, and to work hard on a local level to change the character of government there. That is to say, ultimately, to work against what Washington will be pushing. Whether those goals are to make common cause with Muslims in favor of religious freedom and separation of church and state, or… to support immigration and help find specific ways to protect undocumented immigrants in a community, or… to expand educational opportunities (that was another thing Jews liked in the Pew survey; they were intellectually curious)… or to support efforts to reduce rates of incarceration of African Americans… [or] to help bring back unions… so that working-class people start to earn a living wage… there are some really specific kinds of things that Jews could be working toward on a local level.

We’re not — we’re not yet — on the front lines, and the more we do to help others, the more we ultimately do to help ourselves.

Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, R.I.


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