Most American Jews awakened on Nov. 9, 2016, in a profound state of shock, fury, fear, bewilderment and disillusionment. That is not a partisan statement. It is a political fact.
Donald Trump was passionately opposed by most American Jews. Trump’s administration finds even fewer supporters among them.
What happened a year ago was unlike any other dramatic transfer of power in Washington in recent history. “The election of Trump has exacerbated every tension and fault line that existed in America — political, cultural, racial, economic, psychological — and has done similarly in American Jewish life,” says Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Trump’s ascendancy accelerated trends that were already challenging the dominant narrative of the contemporary American Jewish experience. Jews can no longer think of themselves as a safe, secure model minority — not with the bursting forth of anti-Semitism from the right, which, unlike the anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism on the left, has been sanctioned by Trump himself.
No longer can Jews rely on the automatic protection of civic institutions like Congress, the judiciary and the media to hold government and powerful economic interests accountable — not when the president and his acolytes are systematically trying to undermine democratic norms and values, and respect for the rule of law.
No longer can Jews count on a civil public discourse. Not with the president dragging the country into the gutter in 140 characters or less.
To compound the challenge, these assaults on the civic status quo are occurring when many legacy communal institutions are struggling to survive, when a growing number of American Jews are becoming unaffiliated with organized religion and when there’s an increasing disengagement from Israel.
But this is also a moment alive with opportunity. As Kula notes, “At the same time that there is this increased polarization and fracture, just like in the American body politic, there is in the Jewish body politic increased political activism, civic engagement, grassroots activity, community organizing, and religious and cultural creativity.”
In the seeds of all that’s gone wrong in the last year is the chance to make some bold, new choices. As Rabbi Sharon Brous told her IKAR community in Los Angeles on Rosh Hashanah, “It is precisely in our moments of greatest danger that we must affirm exactly who we are.”
So a year after Trump’s cataclysmic election, who are we and who should we be?
To begin with, who is this “we”? Do the majority of American Jews who profoundly disagree with Trump try to build bridges and understand the minority of American Jews on the other side — especially since some of them hold substantial political power and still retain a fair amount of control over communal spending?
Rabbi Shai Held, one of the founders and presidents of Mechon Hadar, isn’t sure. “I think the Trump fault line is more complex than right versus left,” he tells me. “It’s Jews on the left and in the center, and many Jews on the right as well, who understand that Trump is entirely unfit for office, that he lacks even a modicum of intellectual curiosity, moral probity or emotional maturity. More, he holds many of America’s most sacred institutions, like an independent judiciary and a free press, in utter disdain.”
“I think people of conscience need to be much more focused on protecting American values and institutions than on outreach to the Jewish Trump camp.”
Personally, I struggle with this. I believe in dialogue and mutual respect. When on Rosh Hashanah my rabbi told the congregation that we don’t necessarily have to like other Jews, but we must strive to love them, that resonated with me. It’s important for Blue State Jews to understand Red State Jews, and vice versa. It’s important that all of us question our assumptions and conclusions.
But I appreciate Held’s finer point: The fault lines in our community and in our country run dangerously deep. These distinctions go well beyond differences over the best policy on immigration or health care reform or an Iran nuclear deal; debating those issues seems almost quaint.
America’s most sacred institutions are at risk, and though we must never demean or disenfranchise those with whom we disagree, it is urgent that the bedrock constitutional foundations that have protected Jews and so many others for centuries be defended. Productively critiqued, yes. But fearlessly defended.
In the last year, Rabbi Joanna Samuels, executive director of the Manny Cantor Center at Educational Alliance, tells me, “we woke up to the fact that the 38.5% of our fellow country people [who continue to support Trump] want very different things than most of us, and want a future — or at least a present — that is in great opposition to the one that we want.”
At other times and places of fear and unrest, hunkering down and protecting one’s own has worked for Jews, but this time and this place demands a different approach, she says: “That means that large communal organizations will have to contend with standing up to donors who support the current administration, which will be painful and will have consequences; it means that synagogues become places where rabbis can lead — first and foremost by telling the truth as they see it — which will, too, be painful and have consequences. It means that we will not always be thanked and honored by allies for doing the work of justice alongside of them, which will be painful and will have consequences.”
“This is a battle for the soul of our country and the Jewish community needs to be on the only side that matters — the side of integrity.”
Standing up for others, not just ourselves, is especially hard when anti-Semitic incidents are at a level not seen in many years. The virulence and frequency of attacks on Jewish journalists and other public figures has abated lately, but white supremacists are still marching, threatening and sometimes drawing support from the White House. This development has scrambled the assumption that American Jews were safe within the American context, and had to fear only those who hate or wish to harm Israel.
As Brous said on Rosh Hashanah, “it is communal malpractice to focus our collective outrage and resources on the left while excusing, minimizing and even ignoring anti-Semitism from the one place it’s ever presented an existential threat to our people: the armed and state-supported far right. As if BDS, problematic as it is, poses a greater danger to the Jewish people than Nazis emboldened by the President of the United States.”
Our challenge is not only to be vigilant to all forms of anti-Semitism, but to act on them in a way that does not harden the Jewish self-perception of victimhood and the impulse to care only about ourselves. For while American Jews are indisputably more at risk, we also have been made aware of our extraordinary privilege: the privilege of having communal institutions ready and able to defend us; the privilege of a sympathetic public; the privilege of being a mostly white, mostly prosperous and deeply admired religious and ethnic minority.
As I’ve said since last year, when hateful emails replete with Holocaust imagery soiled my inbox and the inboxes of my staff, our new vulnerability must awaken our compassion. Now we have a glimpse of what it feels like to be threatened with deportation, bullied in the schoolyard, subject to discriminatory laws or derided when facing a humanitarian crisis.
America turned upside down last November, and so did the American Jewish community. Our complacency about our protected role in this country, and about the civic institutions and democratic norms we have come to depend on, has been shaken to its core.
But it’s also a moment of creativity, clarity and purpose. Jews can act as America’s conscience. In fact, we must.
Jane Eisner is the Forward’s editor-in-chief. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.