As An Orthodox Jew, I Pray To Return To Jerusalem. As An American, I Feel At Home. by the Forward

As An Orthodox Jew, I Pray To Return To Jerusalem. As An American, I Feel At Home.

The Book of Lamentations, read at synagogues this Saturday evening in observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av, concludes with the prayer, “Bring us back, O Lord, and we will return to you.” In general, the traditional framing of the Jewish diaspora experience depicts a people in exile, living as foreigners, and yearning to return home. This framing is taken for granted, for example, by a traditional liturgy that constantly asks God to restore the Jewish people to the land of Israel and the sacrificial service to a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, as well as the belief in the coming of a Messiah who will preside over the ingathering of the exiles.

That framing feels especially fraught to me this year, because the stakes are higher - they aren’t just about what it means to be an Orthodox Jew and an American citizen, they are also about America itself. Simply put, the more emphatically we assert that being Jewish in America means passing through someone else’s country on our way back to our own national homeland, as a traditional Tisha B’Av observance would have it, the more we find ourselves tacitly agreeing with the rising voice of ethno-nationalism, encouraged and echoed by President Trump, that is at odds with what America has always been about.

This way of thinking was perfectly encapsulated in a recent op-ed written for the Orthodox audience of Mishpacha Magazine. In the oped, New Hempstead’s Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger reflected on his community’s self-interested coverage of the recently passed New York State rent control reforms. “Has our collective economic comfort, coupled with our acceptance into society, caused us to forget that we are in [exile], so that we don’t care how we are viewed?” wrote Neuberger. “Do we realize that we are guests in a host country?”

In fact, the idea that nobody in America is a “guest” in a “host country” is what America is all about. It has always been an animating principle at the very core of America’s self-perception, going all the way back to the Founders themselves. Perhaps nobody put it better than George Washington himself, who, addressing the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, wrote in 1790 that “happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

Washington’s perception of America stands in stark contrast to that of President Trump, who tweeted his frustration over four minority members of Congress. These four women of color, in Trump’s view, are “viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run,” and ought to “go back” to the countries they came from. (All four are American citizens, and only one is an immigrant.)

Trump apparently believes that America belongs to certain groups of people and not others, regardless of whether they are citizens, or even elected representatives. By basking in chants of “Send her back,” at his next rally, he made it very clear whom he believes are full-fledged Americans, and who needs to be careful not to overstep their welcome.

Opinion | As An Orthodox Jew, I Pray To Return To Jerusalem. As An American, I Feel At Home.

And despite the President’s support of Israel, he has made it clear that he considers even his Jewish supporters to be less than fully American. He referred to Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu as “your Prime Minister” while addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition, just as upon arriving in Pittsburgh following the massacre at Tree of Life synagogue, he met with Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer before local Jewish community leaders. He also called Israel “your country” when addressing Jews at a Hannukah celebration.

In this way, Trump reflects the ethno-nationalist leaders he admires, including Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Russia’s Vladamir Putin, both of whom protect their Jewish communities from anti-Semitic violence and invest in Jewish communal infrastructure, yet simultaneously rally popular support by exploiting anti-Semitic tropes and bogeymen.

The message they send is that Jews are welcome guests in their countries but are not native; Jews are not Hungarian, nor are they Russian. And now, according to Trump, American Jews, like many other ethnic minorities, are not fully American.

Opinion | As An Orthodox Jew, I Pray To Return To Jerusalem. As An American, I Feel At Home.

I believe that for an Orthodox Jewish community that explicitly tries to wall itself off from much of popular American culture and tends to treat political engagement in transactional terms, this arrangement is fine. At the end of the day, Rabbi Neuberger argues that his community should take a broader view of the rent control issue because he is worried at how Jews, living in exile, are perceived by Americans. He stops short of arguing that, as fellow Americans, the Orthodox community should approach the issue from a sense of responsibility to the broader society.

But the overwhelming majority of American Jews do see themselves as fully American. This divergence of perception may be part of the reason that the Orthodox community generally supports Trump, while he is anathema to the greater Jewish community.

This is, of course, not a new issue; it has played out in countries across Europe since the Enlightenment, as Jews were freed from the ghettos and shtetls and tried to find their place in general society. Still, in my own lifetime, I’ve enjoyed the relative privilege of having my cake and eating it, too; I can inhabit the Jewish people’s story of exile and diaspora on Tisha B’Av, and still feel fully secure as an American, without needing to resolve the tension of those two conflicting identities.

Opinion | As An Orthodox Jew, I Pray To Return To Jerusalem. As An American, I Feel At Home.

But thanks to an administration that is deliberately weaponizing that tension, it feels more and more like a binary. In other words, as I prepare to mourn the centuries ago fall of Jerusalem and pray for redemption and return, I feel that I am also, on some level, contributing to a framework in which a Muslim-American can be told by the President of the United States and a cheering mob to go back to where she came from.

That is, itself, worth mourning next Saturday night.

Rabbi Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY. Follow him on Twitter @AvBronstein.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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