Last week, several CNN commentators, including Don Lemon and Alan Dershowitz, wondered aloud whether Donald Trump’s poorly executed executive order on immigration was caused because of Shabbat. Specifically, the panelists posited that Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew who observes Shabbat, might not have been able to properly vet the order before his father-in-law affixed his signature. Twitter became alight with questions: What is Shabbat? Why couldn’t Kushner answer the phone during it?
Why is it that so many thought it was the responsibility of Kushner (and his wife, Ivanka Trump) to restrain the president, and why might they blame the couple’s Jewish observance for their failure to do so? And it wasn’t just CNN panelists asking the question, but some fellow Jews as well.
To the horror of many liberal American Jews (who make up the majority of the American Jewish population), the first Jewish first family is not fitting the mold of where most align politically. While Kushner deserves some blame for the unconscionable presidential proclamation marking Holocaust Remembrance Day but neglecting to mention Jews, and then for not correcting the egregious error after it provoked a firestorm, many attacks on Kushner cross the line and betray ahavat yisrael, the principle of loving one’s fellow Jew, as well as lashon hara, the stricture against engaging in idle gossip.
Fellow Forward columnist Peter Beinart, for instance, declared Kushner’s “moral failures” a stain on all of Modern Orthodox Judaism.
Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan Sommer, meanwhile, criticized Ivanka for failing the Queen Esther test. Sommer explains the concept:
The Purim story tells of a vain and clueless king, Ahasuerus, who is manipulated by his evil racist henchman, Haman. Esther, a Jew who hides her identity, is the heroine who risks her husband’s wrath by speaking out for her people and saving them from Haman’s murderous wrath. In the happy but bloodthirsty ending, the Jews are saved. The argument made was that if push comes to shove, and the situation for Jews became dire under a Bannon-influenced Trump, the president’s beloved Ivanka — a convert to Judaism — would similarly step up, whisper in her father’s ear and save the day.
Both columnists primarily object to Trump’s controversial executive order about immigration, which, in fact, many Americans, including some Jews, view as a sensible step to protect the country from potential terror attacks.
In Orthodox-man-on-the street interviews in The New York Times conducted after the election, “some” Jewish respondents in Brooklyn’s Boro Park (which voted overwhelmingly for the Republican ticket) cited Trump’s stance on immigration as a reason that they supported Trump. The Forward’s own pre-election coverage featured a trio of Jewish Trump voters; all three mentioned the president’s tough stance on the Islamic State group, and two specifically referenced keeping America safe from terrorists as motivations for their votes. Anecdotally, many people in my social circle applaud Trump for finally focusing attention on America’s vulnerable borders.
Imagine the howls of indignation if conservative Jews had rebuked Jack Lew, President Obama’s former chief of staff, for failing Modern Orthodox Judaism while serving in an administration that many on the right judge as hostile to Israel. Politically conservative Jews never could have gotten away with such a statement, nor should they have.
For many liberal Jews, liberalism defines our religion; social justice has replaced a great deal of how Judaism has traditionally been observed. One need not look further than the barrage of critical statements aimed at the Trump administration by the Union for Reform Judaism, as well as rabbis affiliated with the organization’s left-leaning political arm, the Religious Action Center. But this year may expose some uncomfortable truths to liberal Jews; Judaism is not necessarily defined by political liberalism.
While one can (and should) argue about the constitutionality of Trump’s new immigration policy, its acceptability within a Jewish framework is far less clear, as evidenced by how overwhelmingly popular Trump’s campaign was in Orthodox Jewish enclaves, including Lakewood, New Jersey; Boro Park, and Monsey, New York.
While some liberal American Jews apparently feel disappointed and embarrassed by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Trashing another Jew’s Judaism on the basis of mere politics is antithetical to our religion and is disappointing and embarrassing.
Kushner and Trump, given their proximity to power, have an obligation to serve as Jewish role models; but that does not mean they must champion only liberal priorities to measure up. Delegitimizing their commitment to Judaism just because they aren’t liberal may not win the pair any plaudits from social justice warriors, but it does speak to how little some American Jews on the left value ahavat yisrael, a tenet of our faith.
Bethany Mandel is a regular contributor to the Forward. Follow her on Twitter, @bethanyshondark