Opinion

Jews Have No Special Obligation to Oppose Trump

The notion that Jews are required to abide by a higher moral standard than others is essentially an anti-Semitic trope

President Donald Trump (R), standing next Gary Cohn (L) and Steve Mnuchin, delivers remarks at the Trump Tower in New York, August 15, 2017.
Drew Angerer/AFP

Since Charlottesville, American Jews have been chastising other American Jews who work for or support Donald Trump by calling on them to crawl out of their hole, admit they were wrong, publicly condemn the president and resign.

Senator Brian Schatz from Hawaii called on all Jewish members of Trump’s cabinet to resign. In the Washington Post, columnist Dana Milibank called Gary Cohn, Steven Mnuchin and Jared Kushner a “disgrace” and argued they have a “particular obligation as Jews” to speak out. In the New York Times, self-identified Jewish rightist Bret Stephens called Kushner “beyond embarrassment” and admitted that he was among those so enchanted by Trump’s promise to deliver carte blanche “pro-Israel” policies that they misjudged his character. Authors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman wrote an open letter to all Jews of the planet imploring them to take a stand against Trump: “Any Jew, anywhere, who does not act to oppose President Donald Trump and his administration acts in favor of anti-Semitism; any Jew who does not condemn the President, directly and by name, for his racism, white supremacism, intolerance and Jew hatred, condones all of those things.” Possibly the most notable call came from 300 former Yale classmates of Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, imploring him to resign because “We know you are better than this, and we are counting on you to do the right thing.”

But why is he “better than this?” Simply by virtue of being a Jew? It doesn’t work this way. In his statement unequivocally defending Trump, Mnuchin used his Jewishness as authority on the matter: “Third, as someone who is Jewish, I believe I understand the long history of violence and hatred against the Jews (and other minorities) and circumstances that give rise to these sentiments and actions.” That may be so, but the fact remains that Mnuchin is a Jew who is proudly serving under a Nazi sympathizer. Whether other Jews like it or not, being Jewish did not stop him from signing up for the Trump administration. So why would it stop him now?

The expectation that Jews who work for Trump should now, post-Charlottesville, put their foot down is ill-conceived for two primary reasons: First, these Jews knew what they were getting into from the start. Second, it is problematic to assume that all Jews will necessarily feel the moral obligation to combat racism, even when it is directed at them. However abhorrent and unfathomable it is for many of us, Jews, too, are just people. And people can be shitty. They reserve the right to be like anyone else, which means, in this case, being active participants in a government that has been peddling racism, misogyny and hate of all kinds from the very start – the latest manifestation of which is anti-Semitism.

Chabon and Waldman’s effort to emotionally shame someone like Mnuchin into having some common sense and “self-interest” misses the fact that as far as Mnuchin is concerned, he is doing just that. He has chosen to work for Trump, presumably because he identifies and believes in him. He has chosen to advance himself in this way. He’s not actually a different person at heart. This is who he is.

No Jew is required to abide by any other Jew’s definition of what is Jewish morality. The notion that Jews are required to abide by a higher moral standard than others is essentially an anti-Semitic trope. This includes any Jewish group or individual who applies a specific understanding of Judaism on other Jews. The plea Jews should be making after Charlottesville is with all those people who share their values – not their religion/ethnicity.

When Trump was elected, concerns over his bigotry were constantly mitigated by the fact that his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner were surefire bulwarks against the possibility of an anti-Semitic administration, simply by virtue of being Jews (observant Jews no less). But what defines them is not solely or even primarily their identity as Jews, but their actions and their choices. And what Kushner and Ivanka do is work for Trump. Even now, after white nationalists chanted “Jews will not replace us” and Trump did not directly condemn it, Kushner and Ivanka are still by his side.

When Unite the Right activist Christopher Cantwell said in the now-famous VICE News report from Charlottesville that he hopes someone will come along to lead the U.S. who is like Trump but “who does not give his daughter to a Jew,” it reaffirmed how alive and well Nazi ideology is in the Trump era. In Cantwell’s eyes, and in the eyes of many white nationalists and other racists, Ivanka Trump is not actually a Jew, and she never will be. Under Nazism, a Jew remained a Jew regardless of whether he or she converted. And an Aryan remained an Aryan, at least conceptually. The notion that people are inherently defined by their biology is a mainstay of the definition of racism. It is a morbid reminder why it is so crucial to judge people by their actions, not their innate identity.

The insistence that Jews resign from the Trump administration is of course understandable. When a specific group is targeted – especially a minority, and certainly one that has suffered perennial persecution and genocide – the natural response is for that minority to unite and fight for their rights as a group. But this insistence follows the same essentialist logic: That if you are a Jew, you must necessarily be against Trump and against anti-Semites. This is simply not the case. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Jewish state, is the most obvious case in point.

Mairav Zonszein is a journalist, translator and editor. She blogs at 972mag.com