The Orthodox, as Steven M. Cohen demonstrates, are growing in importance in the American Jewish community. Growing demographic power brings them increasing clout in terms of setting the broader communal agenda, but also attaches higher stakes. There will be difficult choices between legitimate internal needs and responsibility to the broader civic order, one that the incoming Trump administration will be severely testing as it implements its own policy agenda.
In particular, the Orthodox establishment has largely applauded Donald Trump’s promised $20 billion national school voucher program. School vouchers have long been on the Orthodox agenda as a key remedy to alleviate the “tuition crisis.” The fast-rising expense of yeshiva day school education is often described as the number-one challenge facing the Orthodox community, if not a matter of its survival as we know it. Trump’s education policy, though, especially in the context of his other proposals, is rooted in competition between ethnicities and communities in a way that should be especially disquieting for the Jewish community.
In his groundbreaking work on the Holocaust, “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning,” Yale’s Timothy Snyder describes Hitler’s belief that human civilization, in its purest state, is a perpetual race war. Set in a brutal world unrestrained by politics or laws, this war is eternally waged between different races for Lebensraum, “living space.” That word, so critical in Hitler’s speeches and writings, literally means “habitat” but also retained, Synder argued, its original connotation of “living room” or “parlor.”
In other words, Hitler equated an animal’s natural struggle for survival and the bourgeois desire for a more comfortable life. As Goebbels once put it, a war of extermination may legitimately be waged for “a big breakfast, a big lunch, and a big dinner,” or, as Snyder himself observed, “Tens of millions of people would have to starve so that Germans could strive for a standard of living second to none.”
With this in mind, it is disturbing to note the extent to which the 2016 electorate was racially and ethnically polarized. Non-urban white men overwhelmingly, and even non-urban white women, voted for Trump as other minority groups voted overwhelmingly for Clinton. Americans overall tended to vote their ethnic identity, which they increasingly see in terms of conflict with other groups.
At the same time, the social contract that once unified disparate parts of the American polity is changing dramatically. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s long-standing efforts to privatize Medicare and block-grant Medicaid at the literal expense of the indigent and senior citizens may now find success. Tom Price, Trump’s choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services, has a plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act that would leave over twenty million people without health insurance.
These dramatic steps are framed as being critical to America’s fiscal survival. Yet many Americans who directly benefit from these programs voted for candidates who promised to repeal them largely because they felt they were not receiving enough, and that others, less deserving, were getting more. In fact, though, their repeal will fund significant tax cuts benefiting the richest Americans. Millions will suffer and many will likely die as the relatively comfortable try to improve their own standard of living. In other words, the policy implications of Trump’s election reflect both sides of “Lebensraum” as Snyder explained them.
The social upheaval and tension likely to result is a feature, not a bug, for Steve Bannon, Trump’s senior advisor, who describes himself not as a “populist” or “nationalist,” but as a “Leninist.” “Lenin,” he said, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
But, as Snyder documents, it was the destruction of political and social institutions in lands conquered by the Nazis that, more than anything else, created the vacuum that was filled by the ethnic, tribal violence that followed. It is no coincidence that the increasing unreliability of America’s social contract and instability of its economic safety net correlates with political polarization, ethnic identification, and a significant increase in hate crimes — including incidents of anti-Semitism.
Many families within the Orthodox community would certainly benefit profoundly from a national school voucher program. However, Trump’s education platform represents a critical step away from America’s generations-old commitment to public education. For its role as a source of shared American values and civic pride, and, especially, as quality education is increasingly the key to the American Dream for lower-income families, public education has long been a critical part of our social contract. Likewise, school boards, PTAs, and teachers unions are often influential and accessible local-level political institutions around which communities coalesce and flourish.
Voucher advocates may be right when they claim it is not “fair” to compel parents to pay into an education system that they do not use. However, encouraging the de facto defunding of an already strapped public education system is dangerously short-sighted. It is destructive, both for ourselves and for America generally, to pit the Jewish community against others in a zero-sum battle for resources.
Snyder posits that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was rooted in his identification of Jews as bulwarks upholding the social and political institutions that prevent humanity from slipping into his dystopian nightmare. That is a role our communal agenda should embrace, especially now, and even at the cost of pressing internal concerns. History may never repeat but it often rhymes, and we should not want any part of the paradigm that Trump echoes. We typically do not come out of it well.
Rabbi Avraham Bronstein has served at The Hampton Synagogue and Great Neck Synagogue and is a frequent writer and speaker on contemporary issues in Jewish thought. He lives with his family in Scranton, Pennsylvania.