The Trump administration is not even a week old, but there are already tantalizing signs of what American Jews and Israel can expect from our new government. And what they can expect is not good at all.
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Right-wing Jews, in both America and Israel, have been blithely confident that President Trump will be an Israel-loving president, devoted to Jewish welfare and Israel’s well-being. While it is very early, I want to suggest that, based on preliminary evidence now available, these right-wingers are wrong. American Jews and Israel are in for a rough ride.
Let’s look at four assumptions that right-wingers are making and why they are mistaken in each case:
1. President Trump is deeply committed to Israel
Wrong. Anyone who doubts this should reread the president’s inaugural address. He is committed to American interests as he understands them and he believes in his ability as America’s leader to protect and defend those interests.
“America First” was his theme yet again – a phrase that is both self-evident on the one hand and that possesses a chilling historical resonance on the other. Beyond that, Trump’s speech suggests that, apart from protecting immediate American interests, he believes in nothing and is committed to nothing. The speech did not mention Israel or any other foreign country. And more importantly, it did not put forward a framework of values that would guide him in determining what America’s interests are and what they are not.
Is America committed to Israel because of our common democratic heritage? Not at all. Trump specifically noted that how other countries choose to live is none of our concern. To be sure, the president now sees support for Israel as being in America’s interests. But if, in Trump’s mind, America’s interests in the Middle East change, there is no reason to think that backing for Israel would continue. If Putin were to offer a deal on Iran that Trump liked and Jerusalem hated, or if Netanyahu were to anger the new president, or if Trump were simply to be distracted by other matters more important to him, all bets are off.
It is worth noting that President Obama had a commitment to Israel far different than that of President Trump. As expressed in his speech in Israel in 2013 and then again at Adas Israel Synagogue in 2015, his feelings for the Jewish state were rooted in deeply felt ideological convictions. It is virtually impossible to imagine President Trump giving such a speech. To be sure, there are those who took great exception to how President Obama chose to implement his convictions. But there can be no doubt that he was tied to Israel by values grounded in history, democracy, and faith. For President Trump, Israel is a matter of interests and politics.
2. President Trump will move the American Embassy to Jerusalem
Wrong. I can’t be sure, of course, but that is my take. In my view, there is a case to be made in favor of such a move, although it is not a simple matter. But if it were going to happen, the strong likelihood is that it would be done in the very early days of the new administration. And it is already clear that President Trump has no intention of acting quickly on this. What will probably happen is either an endless process of study and delay, similar to what other administrations have done, or a largely meaningless symbolic action, such as asking the American ambassador to spend more time at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem – which he has already pledged to do. Either way, the embassy will stay put.
3. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump will be the saviors of Israel and the champions of Jews everywhere
Wrong. There is value in having two committed Jews as part of the new president’s immediate family, but the hopes and expectations attached to them are wildly overblown. I do believe that their presence might prevent an impulsive, impatient, and unprepared president from doing something rash in the Middle East that could be harmful to Israel. On the other hand, they might end up serving as cover for growing anti-Semitism directly attributable to the atmosphere of intolerance, disdain and contempt for foreigners and minorities that the president has fostered since beginning his campaign.
Let me be clear: Jared and Ivanka are in no way responsible for the bomb threats and anti-Semitic calls that are inundating Jewish institutions throughout America. But neither will their presence in Washington and the White House prevent the insidious spread of anti-Semitism that some on the fringes of the Trump camp have embraced. And their presence may eventually be used to fend off those who demand a more emphatic response to this new wave of anti-Semitism than the president has been prepared to give.
And finally: Jared and Ivanka should not be seen as models of a new, modern, enlightened and engaged Orthodoxy. If American Jews insist on seeing them that way, their every act of Jewish observance or non-observance will become the subject of community discussion. I strongly suspect that they do not want that, and neither do we. It will distract us from confronting issues of policy in which they are involved and which are a proper subject of communal concern.
The hubbub about their recent decision to ride on Shabbat to attend inaugural balls, after receiving a rabbinical “dispensation,” was ludicrous on every level. The “dispensation” was absurd, but it was not the community’s business. And why should the Kushners be put on the defensive and be required to deal with all of this? From what I can see, they are a young couple committed to having a Jewish home, being part of a synagogue and providing their children with a Jewish education. For American Jews, that makes them good role models, and that’s all we need to know.
4. After January 20th, everything will change for the better for Israel
Wrong. Israel’s international standing was precarious before and will be just as precarious now. Will France, Russia, China, or the Ukraine, all of which voted against Israel in the United Nations Security Council on December 23, 2016, be any less inclined to vote against Israel in the future? Will anti-Israel and pro-BDS activity on American campuses be less strident and visible now? The chaos and uncertainties of Trump's foreign policy will make the world a more unstable and less orderly place. And Israel can only be endangered by a world in which America’s friends are unnerved and her enemies are emboldened.
In short, the euphoria experienced among right-wing Jews, in Israel and America, is misplaced. It flows, I suspect, from a mistaken but nonetheless deep distaste for President Obama and from a monumental misunderstanding of American politics. It flows as well from a very selective reading of statements from Trump and his entourage. Right-wing Jews listen to David Friedman, the settler champion who's Trump’s choice for American ambassador to Israel, but ignore the ugly, populist nationalism, tinged with racism, that pours out of Trump’s mouth. Trump’s words, together with his isolationist foreign policy ravings, should be scaring Jews instead of delighting them.
But blinded by their misconceptions, the right-wingers have gotten it wrong. This is a dangerous time for Israel and the Jews. Let us hope that Jewish leadership, in Israel and America, is up to the challenge.
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