Future historians will puzzle over this question: When Donald Trump ran the most bigoted presidential campaign in modern American history, why did America’s most powerful Jewish organizations remain silent?
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When even Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan denounced Donald Trump’s attacks on Mexican-American Judge Gonzalo Curiel as racist, why did The Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations say nothing? Why didn’t it issue a single press release criticizing Trump during the entire campaign? Why did AIPAC not only invite Trump to speak at its annual policy conference but provide him with several standing ovations?
The answer lies in a fundamental transformation in organized American Jewish life, one now so taken for granted that most American Jews no longer even think about it. American Jewry’s two most influential groups no longer take moral responsibility for the country in which their members live.
For most of the twentieth century, American Jewry’s most important communal leaders struggled to build a more democratic, more equal, United States. Louis Brandeis, who founded the American Jewish Congress and led the Zionist Organization of America, was America’s foremost crusader against monopoly capitalism. Rabbi Stephen Wise, who led the American Jewish Congress in the 1930s, was a life-long activist for women’s rights, the labor movement and against American imperialism. Louis Marshall, who helped found the American Jewish Committee, served on the board of the NAACP.
AIPAC, by contrast, which focused exclusively on defending Israeli policy, was marginal until the 1980s. In the 1970s, according to its then-director, Morris Amitay, people often confused it with OPEC. Why was AIPAC marginal? Because the idea that organized American Jewry should focus on defending Israel to the exclusion of bettering America was marginal.
Why did that change? First, because during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, American Jews grew more assimilated. As they did, they exited Jewish organizations. Liberal Jews kept championing the causes that Brandeis, Wise and Marshall had. But they no longer felt the need to do so via specifically Jewish groups.
The Jews who remained within American Jewish organizations were more tribal. Like other American Jews, they had felt a surge of Zionist pride following the 1967 war. And more than other American Jews, they felt alienated by the left’s growing support for the Palestinian cause. So they reshaped organized American Jewish life: putting the defense of Israel against what was then called “the new anti-Semitism” at its core. Old organizations like the American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League added this Israel advocacy to their longstanding domestic activism. But AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference, which focused only on Israel, had a natural advantage.
Over the last two decades, two other factors have accelerated this shift toward an Israel-centric American Jewish establishment. Demographically, Orthodox Jews— who care more than their non-Orthodox brethren about Israel and less about social justice at home-- play a much larger role in American Jewish groups than they did a generation ago. Economically, because of rising income inequality, American Jewish groups are more dependent on mega-donors like Sheldon Adelson. Many of these mega-donors believe in passionately defending the Israeli government. Fewer believe in challenging bigotry and inequality at home.
The result is that America’s most powerful Jewish organizations can only summon outrage on Benjamin Netanyahu’s behalf. They protest furiously against the Iran Deal, UNESCO and the BDS movement. But when it comes to events inside the United States, they’re agnostic. They judge American politicians by one standard: Do they support the Israeli government no matter what?
By that standard, Trump was fine. His views on Israel were conventional. Jewish organizations that still focus on domestic concerns like the Anti-Defamation and Bend the Arc condemned him vigorously. But AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference, which wield more political power, gave him a pass.
Behind this silence lies a theory: that Jews should look out solely for ourselves. In the early and mid twentieth century, leaders like Brandeis, Wise and Marshall campaigned against domestic injustice because they saw the welfare of American Jews as intimately bound together with the welfare of other historically persecuted groups. They supported civil rights not only because it was morally right, but because they believed that securing equality for black Americans would help secure equality for American Jews too. Ignoring Americans facing discrimination, in their view, constituted a betrayal of Jewish history. In his book Torn at the Roots, Michael Staub quotes the American Jewish Congress as declaring in 1958 that, “We have all gratefully honored those Christians who, at the very risk of their lives, aided Jews to survive the holocaust of Hitlerism. It would be ironic if after expressing our admiration for those who helped save the Jews we should now condone the rationalization that we ought to do nothing on behalf of the Negro because it may jeopardize Jewish security.”
America’s most powerful Jewish groups no longer subscribe to that theory. Which is why they said nothing when Trump called for banning Muslim immigration, falsely accused Muslims of celebrating 9/11 or denounced Judge Curiel because his parents hailed from Mexico.
But then, over the course of the 2016 campaign, something interesting happened. Trump, having incited hostility against Muslims and Mexicans, began flirting with anti-Semitism too. He told a Jewish crowd that, “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.” He retweeted an image of a Jewish star covered by dollar bills. He adopted the slogan, “America First,” which was made famous in the 1930s by the anti-Semitic isolationist Charles Lindbergh. His final campaign ad featured images of George Soros, Lloyd Blankfein and Janet Yellen alongside phrases like “control the levers of power in Washington,” “global special interests” and “put money into the pockets of handful of large corporations.” Trump supporters began bombarding Jewish journalists with anti-Semitic messages. The attacks have only escalated since Trump’s victory. At least two Jewish journalists have been threatened at home.
Still, AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference say nothing. Benjamin Netanyahu is not publicly outraged so neither are they. America’s most influential Jewish leaders have decided that in order to keep Jews safe, they will ignore Donald Trump’s assault on America’s most vulnerable communities. And, in a bitter irony, American Jews now feel less safe than we have in a very long time.