American Jews are beginning to wake up. And they are getting ready to take on Donald Trump.
There is not yet much hard evidence that this will happen, but it will. And I suggest that it will begin at AIPAC next week. As a gutsy if non-specific statement by Reform Jewish leaders indicated, they intend to use the occasion of Trump’s appearance at AIPAC to protest his policies, and there is word that many others at the convention intend, in one way or another, to do the same.
This is, to say the least, a departure from past practice. The delegates to the AIPAC conference are there to cheer on Israel and go out of their way to avoid choosing sides among the political parties or favoring one candidate over another. But not this year. American Jews, looking around in stunned disbelief, are concluding that protocol be damned; enough is enough. The address of the most divisive figure in American political life at the largest gathering of the organized Jewish community is pushing Jews to engage in precisely the sort of partisan intervention that AIPAC delegates of all persuasions have always been careful to avoid.
The interesting question is why it has taken so long. It’s not that we Jews had any doubts about who Trump is. His bigotry, meanness, and zealotry were clear to us from the first day of his campaign. But we have been silent because his politics of division were so ugly and crude that they seemed almost farcical and — you will excuse me — even occasionally funny. It was as if he were a bad, slightly drunk comedian at a seedy nightclub. And we told ourselves that he was not a real threat. Any minute now, we said, the American people would catch on.
Americans love their country, and American Jews, a deeply patriotic bunch, love it more than most. Could a rich, race-baiting reality TV star be elected our President? We believed that it couldn’t possibly be. Soon enough, we assured ourselves, the fundamental decency of our fellow citizens would cast aside this quasi-entertainer and babbling buffoon and spit him out.
But it didn’t happen. Like so many others, American Jews misread the depth of the anger that propelled Trump’s rise. And not only were the American people slower to react than we expected, and seemingly indifferent to the hurt and hostility that he inflicted, but Trump was shrewder, cleverer, and better at the political game than we ever imagined.
Might protests at AIPAC hurt Israel’s cause? They might. Will an ongoing, organized Jewish effort to battle Trump’s bigotry adversely impact Jewish security and well-being in America? If Trump is elected President, it could. But no matter. American Jews are seeing things that they never expected to see in their country, and they are dismayed and frightened.
First, of course, are the attacks on Muslims, Mexicans, and immigrants of all ethnicities. To be sure, there are legitimate issues of policy to be debated here, but serious debate is not what Trump is giving us. And we Jews, who have borne the burden of oppression, must forever be about inclusion. And we know better than anyone that those forces that come after one of us in the morning are looking for the rest of us in the afternoon of the same day.
Second, there is the anti-Semitism. Yes, anti-Semitism. And we don’t care a bit that Trump has many Jewish friends and a daughter who has converted to Judaism. What we know is that in his appeals to nativism and populism, Trump has called forth an endless stream of vicious anti-Jewish attacks from right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis who have rushed to defend him from his critics. The best people to ask about this are the Jewish Republicans and conservatives who have attacked Trump from the right. Bethany Mandel, a conservative essayist and Trump critic who writes for The Federalist, a conservative-libertarian journal, has been subjected to a continuous stream of online insults, ranging from “you deserve the oven” to “you slimy Jewess.” So too has John Podhoretz of Commentary magazine. Does Trump himself believe these things? Probably not. But he has encouraged them with his sly, barely-camouflaged appeals to thuggery and mob violence, and seems content, if not delighted, with the chaos he has unleashed.
Third, there is Israel. I am a Zionist dove, and I don’t expect Presidential candidates to express lock-step agreement with the policies of Israel’s government. But I do expect a coherent, pro-Israel policy, rooted in a consistent and knowledgeable approach to foreign affairs and in a broad commitment to American leadership in the world. Trump has demonstrated none of these things, and seems to know hardly anything at all about Israel, the challenges she faces, and how the Middle East actually works.
And there is more, much more. And this is why Jews will be speaking up at AIPAC, and in their synagogues and communities. This is why, if Trump is nominated, Jewish conservatives and Republicans will be voting for Hillary Clinton. This is why rabbis will denounce Trump in their sermons, pushing the law about non-partisan pulpits to its very limit. And this is why Jews will be hoping and praying, for the sake of everything that we hold dear, that anyone other than Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey.
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