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Trump, not Israel, is the biggest divider among Jews

When speaking of political divides in the American Jewish community, it’s all too easy to get sucked into a conversation about Israel. The truth is, though Israel, home to half of the world’s Jews, is not unimportant to American Jewry, it is not the most challenging issue the American Jewish community faces in the coming years.

If polls and our constitutional tradition of peaceful transfer of power hold up, then the Trump presidency is in its final months. A healthy majority, certainly two-thirds or more, of American Jews will support the Democratic ticket in November. But a 25% minority is not trivial. It’s one in four people. Institutions that purport to represent a cross-section of the Jewish community, as well as individual Jews looking to build or rebuild their communities in a post-covid world, will struggle to heal the wounds created and exacerbated by the Trump years.

One of the major themes of this week’s Democratic National Convention has been empathy. It is former Vice President Joe Biden’s strongest personal asset against an opponent who has been unmoved by the deaths of 170,000 Americans from coronavirus and seems to only ever feel sorry for himself.

Empathy for those who are like you is painless. It would probably be more accurate to call that an exercise of self-interest, a language even President Trump seems to understand. It is empathy, or merely even respect, for people whose views and ideas you can barely tolerate listening to that allow us to sustain large and diverse communities.

Yet, if I must be honest, I cannot access even briefly the state of mind that leads one to think Donald Trump possesses the qualities to be President of the United States, let alone in challenging times that require one to think beyond his narrow considerations.

I am capable of pragmatically forgetting a friend or family member supports Trump to get through the evening, a favor which is often not reciprocated, but I can’t respect the suspension, or total lack, of basic decency required to support an openly cruel and racist government such as the one operating from the White House today.

After Trump leaves office, there will be at least three political forces tugging the leadership of our community in different directions. The first, from the center-left, will seek to situate American Jewry firmly in the camp working to undo the Trump legacy and repudiate those who took part in it. Another group will understand the urgency to reject Trump’s policies but will seek, perhaps implausibly, to immunize our community from the bitter national reckoning to come. The last contingent will be unapologetic supporters of President Trump, groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Council of Young Israel, who will do their utmost to elevate Trump’s image and honor members of the community who served him.

Instinctively, I belong to the first group. I have little to no interest in being part of a shared community with unrepentant Trump supporters. It will prove difficult enough to share a country with them. This does not mean I can’t be friends with or speak to Trump supporters; but after the last four years I will not voluntarily join a milieu in which they are entitled to power.

Living in New York, and within a social circle of college-educated millennials, virtually no effort will be required of me to maintain this distance. But I am cognizant this won’t be an option for everyone. It would be unfair, for instance, to expect progressive Orthodox Jews — who live in a subset of the community with higher levels of support for Trump — to spurn important organizations, synagogues, and communal functions. Leaders in the apolitical Jewish nonprofit and social service sectors will need to balance their progressive values with their ability to do their jobs effectively.

Navigating the Jewish community through what will almost certainly be an intractable and painful period of American history will be the defining problem for the next generation of community leaders. One hopes the country will one day be in a place where rejection of Trump and his ideas represents the dominant consensus. But that is unlikely to occur in the next 10 or 15 years, during which time another generation will be raised in a toxic political environment.

I do not have easy answers. In truth, there may not be a solution at all except to muddle through with the rest of the country and hope for the best. But if the leaders in the American Jewish community want to proactively repair the community after Trump, they will need to listen to American Jews who were most abused by this administration — Jews of color, undocumented Jews, and trans Jews — and allow them to lead the way forward.

If there is to be an effective process of tshuvah, it must come from the victims who are under no obligation to be magnanimous. We can’t paper over the last four years and build a consensus of false unity on their backs.

Abe Silberstein is a freelance commentator on Israeli politics and U.S.-Israel relations. His work has previously been published in the New York Times, Haaretz, +972 Magazine and the Forward.

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