Did they know it in the moment, or is it a story they told themselves later? It’s a question I ask myself when reading about the many heartbreaks in Jewish history.
Did the Jews of Sefarad know their golden age was coming to an end? Did the generation of Jews born outside of the ghetto know that progress would disappear from the horizon?
In the past, this was an idle curiosity. Listening to American Jews in the aughts and the Obama years talk about their unprecedented prosperity and integration, I felt they were fools for not acknowledging how quickly a paradise can turn on them. But then again, I fled as a child to America from an empire that collapsed.
During the Trump years, this went from an idle notion to an active one. Were the Jews who chose to stay in Berlin and Warsaw fools? Judging with the benefit of hindsight is far easier than seeing clearly in the fog of the present.
I write this in the immediate days after Trump’s loss, as I try to answer the question: Why did we choose to stay?
Opinion | We made it through Trump era. But why didn’t Jews leave?
I want you to have some context, about the stories we told ourselves leading up to this moment. Let’s set the clock back before the Trump years. In the 1990s, America enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. No military peers on the global stage. No ideological war of ideas spanning the globe. A booming economy. American food, music, and film was ubiquitous across the globe. Capturing the spirit of the era, or so I tell myself 25 years later, Thomas Friedman wrote confidently that countries with McDonalds are unlikely to wage war against one another. The American order of free trade and democracy was on the march globally.
At home, as an immigrant kid I saw people who looked like me, with funny last names like mine and that of my other Russian-speaking friends, shaping American culture. Whether they were fighting vampires or just being Jews in New York, the land of immigrants seemed to celebrate its Jews.
I was skeptical about the narratives American Jews told themselves on how “it” could never happen here. Yet I was sure that this country would continue to celebrate, integrate, and elevate its immigrants, Jewish and gentile alike, for many years to come.
There were reasons even in the 1990s and 2000s for Jews to have at least some doubts that this narrative of peace, prosperity, and welcoming the stranger was a consensus view. Until 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in American history was committed by a man motivated by white nationalism. The relatively recent rise of influential Jewish and pro-Israel organizations began to be challenged not just from the basements of extremists but in polite society, in ways that many Jews felt harkened back to familiar old tropes. The senators of the nation of immigrants repeatedly tried to reach a deal to help bring millions of immigrants out of the shadows. They failed, facing a backlash from their White voters. Similarly, when America elected its first Black president the backlash was enormous, but it was nothing new.
Did anything really change with the rise of Trump? Dispassionately, it’s a challenging argument to make. Even in the post-war era, American institutions had been utilized for cruel immigration policies. The government had cracked down far harder on the intelligentsia in the 1950s than it did today. Richard Nixon came to power on a wave of White backlash in the face of civil rights gains. Both Nixon and Trump relied on Jews while also believing in conspiracies about them.
What I can say changed is that cracks began to show in the faith in American exceptionalism among American Jews when Trump won. In the year Trump was inaugurated, Nazis began to march, literally chanting “Jews will not replace us.” In the month before the 2018 midterm elections, Trump began relentlessly promoting a conspiracy about a migrant caravan heading for the American border as some sort of invasion that was supported by a Jewish financier. The Jewish financier and other prominent Jews received bombs in the mail during that time.
A white nationalist, citing his belief that Jews were engaging in a conspiracy to socially engineer America out of a White majority, stormed a Pittsburgh synagogue on Shabbat and murdered 11 Jews. It was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack on American soil. It was not the last. Nor was violent antisemitism a monopoly of White nationalists.
In New York, which is home to over a million Jews, antisemitic violence rose every year since 2016. It came from all ideologies and none at all, but disproportionately targeted the visibly Jewish Hasidic and Orthodox communities. After a deadly shooting by Black nationalists at a kosher supermarket and an attack by a mentally ill man at a rabbi’s home during Hanukkah in the span of days, Jews marched against antisemitism by the thousands. Amidst this rise in overt hatred towards Jews and a record pandemic exacerbated by a government as incompetent as it is racist, a record number of Jews began to think about or actually leave for Israel.
The “jokes” about leaving that picked up when Trump first ran for president gave way to quiet and anxious conversations behind closed doors, which all centered on one theme: Is it time to go?
American Jews who just a few short years ago touted their unprecedented integration and prosperity, began to sound like Soviet Jews. On the Upper West Side, Shabbat conversations in Central Park turned to gallows humor about whether it’s better to go to Australia which speaks English but burns, or to Israel where the domestic political challenges are not different enough anymore.
We gamed out what would happen if Trump lost and rejected the results. Worse still, we contemplated what would happen if he won reelection.
Amidst far-right violence directed at left-wing protests, we asked when, not if, the President’s supporters would again target Jews.
In July of 2020, my partner asked me in her own peculiar way if it was time to go by inquiring on whether the Israeli Rabbinate would hassle me because of my Soviet origins if we sought to get married in Israel.
I write this in America after the election because we never left. The same is true of most of our communities. Each of them had their own reasons for staying. In my eyes, what made the difference was witnessing the unprecedented mobilization of a multi-racial coalition fighting for racial justice in every American city, driving change before there were even elections. Unlike many times in American history and many times in Jewish history around the world when hatred paired with power, the targets of that hatred did not find themselves alone in the fight against it. Their solution to hatred included more democracy and more protections for minorities.
Opinion | We made it through Trump era. But why didn’t Jews leave?
A country that can mobilize tens of millions to fight for its most marginalized and brutalized is one I still believe in.
There is still much work to do. Nazis will not disappear overnight just because of an election. There is still the thorny problem of how to handle antisemitism when it arises from the partisan allies of Jews.
Our rosy narrative of American Exceptionalism may have evaporated, but in its wake comes the understanding that there is an America worth fighting for.
Put another way, the decision to stay came in much the same way it did for my Soviet parents: Will my children have a future here?
For now, I believe they will.
Alex Zeldin is a contributing columnist for the Forward. His work has been featured in Tablet Magazine and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @JewishWonk.