Deepening Schism: Trump Lectures American Jews

Donald Trump has always admired the leadership style of a tough-guy dictator. This is because a tough-guy dictator was and still is what he aspires to be. Thus, he publicly applauded the leadership of Egypt, the Philippines, Russia and, yes, Israel as well. Israel, in particular, was important to him because of the power of the Jewish lobby in the United States, and until recently, Trump considered the authoritarian Benjamin Netanyahu something of an alter-ego—someone fighting to assert himself against democratic fetters.

It should come as no surprise that Trump’s support for Israel has nothing to do with the country’s increasingly suspect claim to being “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Instead, Trump adopted Israel’s discriminatory domestic policies and aggressive foreign goals as causes to sponsor. But then, because those same practices have alienated many Jews, Trump has periodically taken it upon himself to lecture and castigate Jewish Americans—he does this even though he now holds no official office and has been reduced to the “president” of a community sowing lies and harvesting hate.

In mid-December, Trump declared that U.S. Jews “don’t like Israel or don’t care about Israel.” This reiterated earlier claims such as “Jews don’t love Israel enough” and “Jewish Americans who vote for Democrats are being disloyal to Israel.” Oddly, Trump’s complaints imply that U.S. Jews are at fault because they do not exhibit sufficient dual loyalty.

American Ultra-Orthodox Heading for Israel

In the meantime, the English edition of the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz announced that the American “Ultra-Orthodox Aliyah [immigration] to Israel Is Breaking Records.” This would indicate that there is at least one sub-group of U.S. Jewry that doesn’t warrant Trump’s charges. This particular migration to Israel is surprising because the Haredim, as they are also called, traditionally remained aloof from Zionism. They once insisted that there could be no legitimate state of Israel until the coming of the Messiah.

Why should these U.S. Jews, the most religious of them all, now be moving to Israel? The reasons given range from anti-Semitism in the U.S. to economic issues such as the increasing cost of living. Significantly, many cite Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020 (75% of the Orthodox are Republican or lean Republican) and the “rise of the progressive left” as a reason for leaving. Haaretz noted that “Haredim in the United States were among Trump’s staunchest supporters, sharing many of same ‘family values’ – i.e., opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights – as his evangelical base.” One Haredim leader is quoted as saying, “Today, we are witnessing the rapid decline of morality and values in the U.S.”

Just to complicate this part of the story, one can note that as the U.S. Haredim rationalize their move to Israel with “the rapid decline” of American morality, at least some Orthodox Jews native to Israel are questioning the alliance between religious Jewry and the Israeli state. They fear that this alliance has undermined traditional Jewish morality—essentially asserting that when religious leadership becomes too closely wedded to state power, ethical values become corrupted.

Orthodox Judaism’s “Addiction to State Power.”

In Mikhael Manekin’s The Dawn of Redemption: Ethics and Tradition in a Time of Power (Evrit, 2021), the author says the main challenge of Zionism has always been the “integration of political power into a religious vision that would maintain a moral compass developed over centuries.” Manekin, who is at once an Israeli progressive and an Orthodox religious Jew, concludes “that religious Zionism has failed that test.” Instead, it has brought forth a new sort of Jew, “convinced that power, not mercy, stands at the epicenter of religious life.” So, while the “ritualistic practices” of Judaism “remain operational … its moral foundations have collapsed into a vision of sovereignty through conquest.” One of the more recent false prophets leading this march into hell is none other than the American-educated (MIT Sloan School of Management) Benjamin Netanyahu—Donald Trump’s Israeli alter-ego.

Manekin’s conclusion is not new or unique. It follows in a long line of Jewish religious thinkers, both rabbis and lay leaders. Yet, these warnings have been to no avail when it comes to most contemporary pious Jews, among them the Haredim now exiting the U.S. for another promised land where “power is perceived as a divine gift.”

Reform Judaism’s Fractures

As the Ultra-Orthodox pack their bags, other American Jews remain in place and continue an increasingly heated debate over the impact of Israeli behavior on the worldwide Jewish community. This includes American Reform Jews, who are on the opposite end of the Jewish religious spectrum from the Orthodox.

Reform Jews may also be Zionist. Back in May 2021, Reform Rabbi Wendi Geffen told her Long Island-based Congregation Israel that “anti-Zionist Jews are ‘Jews in name only’ who must be kept out of the Jewish ‘tent.’” She took this position just prior to the release of a survey by the Jewish Electoral Institute that reported 25% Jewish respondents believed that Israel is an apartheid state. Some 34% think Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States, and 22% think Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians. It would make no difference to Rabbi Geffen that these findings reflect assessments about the policies of a state—the state of Israel—and not Jews as a people. Just like the Haredim making aliyah, this reform rabbi appears incapable of telling the difference between a Jewish population of multiple nationalities living across the globe, and a specific political institution controlling limited territory and pushing expansionist and racist policies. And, doing so falsely in the name of all the Jews.

Geffen’s myopia is shared by other high-placed American Reform Jews. Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch is the spiritual leader at the Steven Wise Free Synagogue of New York, as well as the former head of Arza, Reform Judaism’s major Zionist organization. He insists that “we need to pressure Reform Jews and ask are you committed to the Jewish Nation…. Do you believe the Jewish Nation, like all other nations, has the right to self-determination – or are Jews somehow different?”

It is an interesting way of putting the problem. Hirsch is implying that if the “Jewish nation” (here he means people) is like all other nations, then the Jewish state also cannot be expected to act differently from other states, nor should it be judged differently. However, for many of those Jews who are appalled by Israeli behavior, a Jewish state can only be representative of Jewish tradition if it is different from the world’s other states. Different because it upholds “universal Jewish ideals,” which comes close to the modern concept of human rights.

Hirsch will have none of this. He believes that the experience of the Holocaust and subsequent anti-Semitism demonstrates that such ideals as “universal brotherhood” and international law are but dreams. “Western liberal values would not prevent the murder of Jews” he says. Hirsch insists that what is now meaningful is Jewish peoplehood defended by the state of Israel. Indeed, he insists that there is no future for Reform Jews in the U.S. “if we aren’t anchored in Jewish peoplehood and Israel.” Given this point of view, Hirsch concludes that Israel is necessary to Jewish survival and therefore questioning that state’s claim to represent all Jews is anti-Semitic—despite its dehumanizing behavior. “There is a large wave of antisemitism,” he says, “which is hard to identify because they often hide it behind rhetorics of human rights and apartheid.”

Peoplehood vs. Human Rights

Hirsch’s position is easy to understand in light of the Holocaust. That tragedy is so near in history that it is hard for many Jews to believe that the diaspora, which sustained Jews for thousands of years, is safe unless there is a fortress state to retreat to if history repeats itself. On the other hand, it is significant that Jews who made it to the United States after the Holocaust often reached a very different conclusion, based on their own experiences. Here in the U.S. they fought in the Civil Rights Movement, they went into the helping professions, they adopted a stance against intolerance. They recognized that it is the diaspora’s multiethnic, multinational quality that is the key to its tolerance and their safety.

Indeed, the only time we find anti-Semitism or any other anti-ethnic/group attitude reaching the point of murder and mayhem is when in-group identity or “peoplehood,” to use Hirsch’s term, is exploited to excess. Of course, it is true that somewhere in the world, or perhaps several places, at any particular time, this happens, and then one group will ghettoize, persecute, murder, or expel another because of some exaggerated ethnic or economic difference. One can think of Myanmar and the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims; Rwanda and the genocidal persecution of the Tutsi; the behavior of the Serbian leaders during the Bosnian civil war; ethnic warfare in Darfur and Southern Sudan; the slaughter in Cambodia; and the massacres conducted by the so-called Islamic State. To be forthright, it is the fear that Israel is approaching this level of extreme peoplehood that now motivates the concern of progressive Jews.

A sure sign of this concern was publicly presented in mid-May 2021, when an open letter signed by 93 rabbinical and cantorial students (cantors lead the singing during Jewish worship) asked American Jews to rethink their relationship with Israel. In essence, the letter asked Jews to apply the same human rights standard for Israel as they do for interracial relations in the United States. The letter reads in part:

“This year, American Jews have been part of a racial reckoning in our community. … How are we complicit with racial violence? Jewish communities … have had teach-ins and workshops, held vigils, and commissioned studies.

And yet … so many of us ignore the day-to-day indignity that the Israeli military and police forces enact on Palestinians, and sit idly by as Israel upholds two separate legal systems for the same region. And, in the same breath, we are shocked by escalations of violence, as though these things are not a part of the same dehumanizing status quo.”

This letter was met with “thundering silence” by all official U.S. Jewish organizations, the leaders of which probably hope that this too shall pass. However, among the rabbis who did counterattack was Ammiel Hirsch, who, as noted, sees Israel as the foundation of Jewish “peoplehood.” This stood to reason, for what the open letter did was reassert that “universal principles” such as human rights are of foundational importance for Jews—that they are synonymous with that “moral compass developed over the centuries,” and thus serve as a baseline for both Jewish individual and group behavior. A Jewish “peoplehood” that behaves in violation of these principles has gone seriously astray and cannot provide a safe haven for anyone.

Conclusion

If we want to get biblical about this, today’s Israel cannot be a “Jewish” state and simultaneously be a state just like all others. It can’t be both because it would go against the Hebrew God’s plans for the Jews: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to … bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). One would assume this command helped shaped traditional Jewish mores. So, what is Israel going to be: (1) just another run-of-the-mill, vulgar, armed-to-the-teeth-and-ready-for- slaughter, greedy, racist, self-centered nation-state or (2) a community with principles like those, for example, set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

It might be noted that we have never witnessed a state (Jewish or Gentile) that is principled and law-abiding in the way Isaiah 49:6 would have it. This may or may not have something to do with human evolution and genetic propensities. But, to the chagrin of the political Zionists, this absence offers no excuse for breaking the bonds of Jewish moral standards when it comes to Israeli behavior. This problem has caused all manner of psychic disturbance within the Jewish diaspora, sustaining a growing schism among Reform Jews and generally establishing fault lines between the political Zionists and idealistic progressive Jews.

And that is where the Jews are at this moment in history. The pressure is on, and as the old saying goes, if you are not in support of the solution—Israel becoming a truly democratic and humane state for all its citizens regardless of ethnicity or religion—you are really part of the problem.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.