Fear and Loathing on the (Jewish) Campaign Trail
(JTA) — Some of us are voting for Trump. Most of us are voting for Clinton. But we Jews are all afraid.
There are the scandals, yes. There are emails and sexual assault allegations and emails and fraud and racism and anti-Semitism and emails. There are issues like refugees and settlements and Iran and not destroying the country.
But mostly there is fear. It’s the fear you feel when you know that so many people disagree with you, even though, or perhaps because, Facebook makes it easy to filter out the people who disagree with you.
It’s the fear you feel when you see the polls and know that you have friends and family among the millions of voices that together comprise the opposing statistic you don’t like.
The others, they’re with you at Shabbat dinner. They sit behind you in synagogue and eat at tables in your favorite restaurants and enjoy the same culturally Jewish TV shows as you and root for your sports teams. When you see them you wonder whom they support and ask yourself how they or any Jew could vote the way they will.
“What perplexes me more than anything is how any portion of Jews can vote for Hillary.”
“I can’t understand how anybody, especially a Jew, could support Trump.”
Jewish voters said both sentences to me in the past two weeks.
At the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, delegates wore anti-Clinton pins that were both sexist and demeaning, pins that told me she would hurt Israel if elected. One week later, Democratic delegates at their convention in Philadelphia wasted no time rehashing Trump’s string of associations with anti-Semites.
Three months later, battle lines have only hardened. Whenever I interview Jewish voters, it’s the same story: One or two sentences about how good their candidate is, then one or two paragraphs about how bad the other is. When they describe the campaign to me, Jewish Democrats and Republicans use words like “wearying,” “terrifying” or “resigned.”
The most common lament, across parties and denominations, is the lack of choices. How did we get to these two candidates? people ask. A few people said they avoid discussing politics in Jewish circles because they don’t want to lose friends.
There used to be a story we told ourselves about Jewish consensus, about shared issues and bipartisan support. Hundreds of thousands poured into the streets to protest for Soviet Jewry and for Israel. Sixty years ago President Eisenhower asked us to create an umbrella body because there was too much redundancy in the Jewish organizational alphabet soup. Imagine: Too many people asking for the very same thing!
Is there consensus now? Eighty percent of us may vote for Clinton. Maybe 90, maybe 70. Beyond whatever effect it might have in Florida and Ohio, it doesn’t really matter. Because whether you’re part of the 80 or the 20, the other side is there. And a deep chasm divides us.
Our communal conversation is no longer about which candidate is more pro-Israel. Instead it’s about which one is and which one is not the “Nazi.” Don’t believe me? Google “[name of candidate] Nazi” and watch the Jewish names pop up, as authors or sharers, with the accusation in the headline.
On Facebook and Twitter, when we dare to escape our “filter bubbles” and engage with the other side, it’s never “let’s agree to disagree.” You’re not just wrong or misinformed — instead you’re immoral and unprincipled. A “kapo” and a “fascist.” A “liar” and a “pawn.”
At a debate between two Jewish campaign surrogates this week in a quiet New Jersey suburb, partisans heckled the speakers and the audience booed the hecklers. Before the High Holidays, rabbis told me they were afraid to address politics from the pulpit, not because of tax laws limiting politicking by houses of worship, but because they feared backlash from their congregants.
This is not to say that both candidates are equally to blame. It isn’t about the candidates. It’s about us and what happened to us even before this nastiest of nasty elections. When we — or the cliche “crazy uncle in Florida” — began emailing around conspiracy theories about the Democratic candidate with that Muslim middle name. When every synagogue discussion about Israel had to come with a warning about maintaining civility. When the slightest deviations from the mythical community consensus got a pundit or politician labeled anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.
Yes, Donald Trump is a different candidate and this is a different election. He’s brought the brawling rhetoric and snarky prose style of social media to the political stump. He’s had no problem insulting individuals and whole groups without apology. Even when told that he was passing on tweets and slogans that were emboldening an anti-Semitic far right, he doubled down. His complaints about “political correctness” gave people the license to defend slurs as free speech.
But if anything, the bitterness of his campaign could have inspired a counter-reaction among the Jews. We who love to argue, who have written thousands of books that argue with each other, who argue at the dinner table and the Jerusalem shuk and in the pages of The New York Times, could have set the example. We could have gone high.
Instead, we went low. We joined the fray, using the same loaded language and sharing the same noxious memes.
Next week, next month and next year, we’ll still be able to greet each other on the street. But the Jewish people have never been one to get over its crises or let memories fade into the past. Will we get over this?