As a Jew, a liberal, and an American patriot, I have had a very bad few weeks.
I believe in my country, her values, and the role that she plays in the world. And I believe that American greatness has always been dependent on the quality of her leadership.
But where are America’s leaders today? And where are American Jews to turn in an era of moral blindness and of a deep and growing despair among so many Americans?
The problem of leadership begins, of course, at the top. Not even five months into his term, President Trump continues to crank up his nativist and chauvinist appeals. Those who hoped his crudity and egotism would be restrained by high office have been profoundly disillusioned.
Never in our history has a President spoken like this, stirring up contempt for the courts, inflaming the culture wars, and inciting his supporters with ugly appeals to their basest instincts. While he doesn’t always say so precisely, his targets remain immigrants, Muslims, and outsiders of every variety.
Worst of all, his incendiary rhetoric is intended to distract Americans from the broken promises of his campaign. At a time of unprecedented prosperity for the richest among us, the President has offered a phony infrastructure plan, tax reform to benefit the wealthy, and a health care plan leaving tens of millions Americans with grossly inadequate health insurance or none at all. More and more of us will slip through the cracks into a netherworld of misery and suffering.
The Republican establishment, humiliated by Trump during the primaries, has now embraced the President. All they needed was for Mr. Trump to drop his faux populism and go back to the business of working for the rich and sucking up to the billionaires who bankroll the party. If the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson are happy, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are happy too.
This should be a golden opportunity for Democratic champions of decency and humanity. But such Democrats are hard to find. In a particularly depressing spectacle, Hillary Clinton emerged from her self-imposed isolation two weeks ago and gave a lengthy interview. I have long admired Mrs. Clinton. And I expected her, as the nominal leader of her party, to acknowledge her campaign mistakes and to address the fears of working class and middle-class Americans.
But in a stunning display of self-absorption, Mrs.Clinton said barely a word about a failing economy that has thrown millions of people on the junk heap. Yes, she was right to point out that James Comey and the media treated her badly and that the Russians outrageously intervened in the electoral process. Nonetheless, Americans did not need to hear whining, excuse-making, and the absurd claim that she lost because of a lack of money.
Some Democrats are doing better, but the party has yet to find its voice or its champion. And it must, and quickly. Otherwise, the poor and disadvantaged will simply give up and abandon politics altogether.
As for the working and middle-class, their mood is sour and churlish. Seeing that, the President and his Republican minions intend to feed them a diet of fear, immigrant bashing, and more promises to "make America great again."
The President’s hope is that many of them will be too dumb or passive to give voice to their despair, even as their health insurance disappears, their debt increases, and their status plummets. His alternative plan, I suspect, is that, egged on by rightwing conspiracy theorists and alt-right sympathizers, they will blame not the President but the Hispanics and Muslims that Mr. Trump is trying to keep from our shores with walls and travel bans.
In the long term, the Trump strategy won’t work. The American experiment is rooted in social decency and human dignity, and Americans will ultimately resist Trump’s attack on our most fundamental values. But in the shorter term, the prognosis is far from clear.
It’s also unclear what all of this will mean for America’s Jews. Mr. Trump is no anti-Semite. He has surrounded himself with observant, kippah-wearing advisors, and relies heavily on the Jewish members of his family. At the same time, his retinue includes Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, men of questionable virtue on Jewish matters.
And the President has demonstrated that he is comfortable with far-right crazies ranging from birthers to Alex Jones, the talk-show host and right-wing nut job. When Senator Sherrod Brown expressed concern to the ZOA about anti-Semitism in the White House, some American Jews dismissed his comments while others grimly took note.
But the political uncertainties of the moment are the real issues. Jews have always found a secure refuge in America. Only rarely, during times of political instability or economic collapse, has there been a blip on the screen. The question now is whether President Trump has recreated the uncertain conditions that might lead to danger for the Jewish community.
Let us imagine a cornered President Trump, threatened by impeachment and with the lowest poll numbers of the modern presidency. Consider the chilling possibilities: The President foments an international crisis. Or, the President seizes upon a terrorist attack to upend the political climate and suspend civil liberties. Or, the President turns to his loyal base, generating a grassroots backlash over what he will present as a liberal plot to overturn a legitimate election.
These scenarios might overlap, and any of them - and particularly the last - could take us down an anti-Semitic path. The conservative media is already claiming that the Mueller investigation is more an effort to discredit a president than a true inquiry into the facts. What are the chances that such a backlash, once unleashed, will exclude the Jews?
And if these seem like improbable scenarios, think again.
We already have an incompetent, wildly unpredictable Chief Executive who flails frenetically at his enemies. Who’d have thought that our President would fire James Comey and threaten to fire Robert Mueller? Who’d have thought that America’s leader would cozy up to the Russians while refusing to affirm the joint defense principle of NATO? Who’d have thought that Mr. Trump would endlessly spout macho rage and tweet childish doggerel, offending our friends and most reliable allies?
This is America’s reality; don’t tell me the Jews are safe and secure.
To be sure, the Jews are not the primary issue. America’s well-being is the primary issue. And the best way for the Jews to look after themselves is not to focus on self-defense. It is to join with concerned Americans to blunt the extremist agenda of our President and his party. It is to build coalitions of decency rooted in a passion for justice. It is to prod Congress into preserving sensible health care for every American. It is to insist that our President put amateur night behind him and become a president worthy of the office that he holds.
To protect ourselves, to protect America, and to do what is right, American Jews must do all of these things. This is the only way to transcend despair and to keep America safe, secure, and truly great.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie