Is the Trump Era Creating a New Jew?

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Members of Jewish organizations and other groups at an anti-Trump demonstration in Manhattan, November 13, 2016.
Members of Jewish organizations and other groups at an anti-Trump demonstration in Manhattan, November 13, 2016.Credit: Jennie Kamin

What is happening today among the Jews of the United States is something that has not been seen in at least four decades. Jews getting together, as Jews, to protest against their own government’s policies. Not since American Jews joined the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and Soviet Jews demanded rights in the mid-1970s have we seen anything on the scale of the protest against the Trump administration, by Jews who are not only organizing and identifying as Jews in their protest, but insisting there is something inherently Jewish in doing so. 

Beyond solidarity with Israel

For decades, the only time Jews in the Diaspora have, as a group, protested against their government is to demonstrate solidarity with Israel. This could be a pivotal moment, not only for American Jews, but for the creation of a new global Jewish identity, one that is not necessarily connected with Israel or narrow and outdated interpretations of Jewish tradition.

Why has it taken so long?

Partly for positive reasons. In recent decades, for the first time in history, being a Jew almost anywhere in the world where Jewish communities exist has been comfortable and even secure. Ninety percent of the world’s Jews now live in comfortable democratic Western societies (this includes Israel which, for Jews at least, is a democracy), where they are healthily represented among the political, cultural and financial elites and nearly almost any hint of overt anti-Semitism is frowned upon and suppressed. Even in less democratic societies, like Russia and some of its former satellites, the governments have been respectful and protective of local Jews. The only established Jewish communities still living today under openly anti-Semitic regimes are in Iran and Venezuela. 

Comfort has bred complacency. Why protest as Jews when we have so little to complain about? This unparalleled and unprecedented period of Jewish security even led some to talk stupidly of Jews as “privileged whites,” who can’t understand what it means to be a vulnerable minority. This was of course ridiculous, especially when among many Jews, particularly older ones, there is still a lingering reluctance of speaking out for fear of awakening the old hatred.

Searching for an identity

Another major reason for the absence of Jewish protest is the lack of an alternative narrative or identity that is detached from either religion or Israel. If a Jew isn’t particularly observant, is not a member of a religious community, doesn’t live in Israel or feel passionate about it from afar — whether through support for or criticism of the country — what singles him or her out as Jewish in the 21st century?  

When women, people of color or LGBTQs protest against discrimination and social injustice, they do so with a clear sense of identity and a sense of what they are actually struggling against. But when protesting something which isn’t connected to Israel or some narrow religious issue, can Jews clearly articulate what they are protesting about?  

Please don’t say Tikkun Olam. Because Tikkun Olam in the Jewish tradition doesn’t mean fixing the world and making it a better place for everyone. It comes from “le’taken olam bemalchut Shadai” — fixing the world according to the plan of God’s kingdom. And it is part of Aleinu Leshabeyakh, the most anti-Goy text of Jewish supremacy in the siddur. Aleinu is so dismissive of non-Jews that at different periods in history, some of it was taken out of the siddur to make sure it wouldn’t be used as a pretext for anti-Semitism. There’s nothing Jewish about taking “Tikkun Olam” out of context and making it a cover name for the basic list of Western liberal values. 

Calling those values “Jewish” just because you can find a verse somewhere in the Tanakh or Talmud saying something vaguely similar isn’t enough. You can also draw up a list of racist and supremacist principles and back them up with ample ancient Jewish stricture. These are very convenient texts which can serve whatever purpose you seek. The bible is a 3,000-year-old religious book — of course it’s filled with misogyny, violence, homophobia and xenophobia just like any other ancient text.  

Everyone likes user-friendly quotes from Hillel the Elder; a group of young Jewish activists who have raised the banner of #JewishResistance has adopted one of them for their name:“If not now.” They are probably less acquainted with another Hillel quote on the same page in the Mishna: “One who doesn’t study (Torah) deserves death.” It wouldn’t look good as a hashtag. 

I have to admit I was at first dismissive of hashtag social justice warriors whose Judaism seemed little more than a fashionably superficial social media trend. I can’t quite pinpoint when I realized I was wrong. Not having been in the United States in recent months, it would be wrong of me to over-analyze the process, but it’s clear we’re at a watershed moment. Whether, from the sheer range of people of different political views and religious affiliations within American Jewry — and not just the usual suspects — expressing themselves as Jews on all forms of media, against Trump and his cohorts. And from the fact that it’s already spread to more “establishment” organizations like ADL and their ilk, something is happening.

The telling difference: U.S. Jews vs. U.K. Jews

From my perspective, the most reliable proof that we are in new and uncharted territory is the contrast between the way so many American Jews are now standing up and protesting the wave of racism both emanating from this administration and enabled by it and the shameful silence of British Jews last year during the Brexit campaign. Just like American Jews voting for Hillary Clinton, the great majority of Jews in Britain voted in the referendum against leaving the European Community. What else would you expect the fortunate descendants of immigrants who found sanctuary from persecution and genocide in Europe to do? But while as individuals, most Jews instinctively understood the dark xenophobia underlying much of the pro-Brexit campaign, they were scared to speak out as Jews, both before the vote and in the aftermath when a rash of racist incidents occurred.

The only thing that the Jews of Britain can say in defense of their cowardly silence is that the dramatically rising levels of intolerance and xenophobia didn’t seem at first to be directed at Jews. That is a very poor excuse, rendered even more hollow by the recent CST report that shows a spike in anti-Semitic events in the U.K. in the six months following the Brexit vote. Jews should know that when there’s an ill wind of intolerance towards minorities and immigrants stalking the land, even if Jews are not being specifically targeted right now, that moment can’t be far off.

Another clear sign of how different this moment is can be seen in the recent pathetic attempts by Benjamin Netanyahu to give Trump some cover. Both during his visit last month to Washington and in a statement this week, Netanyahu tried to assure the world that Trump is resolutely against this wave of anti-Semitism. Protesting much more than the president himself. Bibi is finally waking up to how angry American Jews are getting, and he’s worried it could ruin his wonderful friendship.

But will it last?

It’s much too early to try to classify these new, self-confident and articulate Diaspora Jews emerging in the Trump era. Will it merely be a passing wave of protest, defined more by the hatred of others than by their own Jewish identity? Will they succeed in transcending the intra-religious divides that usually keep Jews apart? Will their differing views of Israel make it difficult for them to unite and will unlikely alliances and sometimes unsavory bedfellows sabotage what could be a great new moment in Jewish life?

It is sad but probably inevitable that it took a sharp outburst of anti-Semitism to really jolt Jews out of their zone of comfort. What will happen if this is but a short and passing phase? After all, Trump might not be around for that long anyway. That is all the more reason for Jews, not just in America but across the Diaspora and especially in Israel, to make clear once and for all that Netanyahu and his collaborators, who head the grandly-named Jewish “congresses” and “major organizations,” do not and have never spoken for the majority of us.

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