Trump and His Circle Have Triggered an Irrevocable Split Between U.S. Jews

Trump and his appointees, not least Israel envoy David Friedman, have taken a mallet to the basic norms of civility that barely kept an already fragile and fractured community together | Opinion

Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
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Donald Trump's chief of staff Reince Priebus (L) talks with his chief strategist Steven Bannon during a rally in West Allis, Wisconsin, December 13, 2016.
Donald Trump's chief of staff Reince Priebus (L) talks with his chief strategist Steven Bannon during a rally in West Allis, Wisconsin, December 13, 2016.Credit: Evan Vucci/AP
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

It’s not just America that is splintered, with our political and cultural divisions illuminated and exacerbated by the campaign and election of Donald J. Trump to the office of president. 

It is also the American Jewish community. Trump, it turns out, is the unexpected mallet fracturing the American Jewish community, perhaps once and for all.

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We were already like a crystal cube bearing a growing number of cracks — some larger and more obvious, others spider-web thin but present nonetheless. 

Religious identification and demography are major reasons for the attenuation of the sense of a united Jewish peoplehood. Interfaith marriage and Jewish disengagement are at all-time highs thinning out the Jewish people at one end of the spectrum, even as Haredi birthrates grow the other end, at an astonishing pace.

Israel is another key example. Young American Jews are far more alienated from the Jewish state than their grandparents and parents. Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government have amplified the alienation — even for older, more-attached Jews — by stringing along the non-Orthodox about building Western Wall prayer space at which they can feel comfortable and legitimized, for instance.

Despite it all, I and so many others have long felt keenly the core foundational value of the Jewish people’s solidarity with one another, and for communal responsibility: as the Talmud puts it, kol yisrael areivim zeh ba’zeh – all Jews are bound up with one another. 

Today, under the harsh light of Trumpism, never has that felt less true.

It is shocking to see this non-Jewish real estate magnate with a golden pate and love of gold plate, this fearsomely destabilizing force on the world and domestic stages, quickly proving to be the instrument that permanently fractures the American Jewish community once and for all.

Trump is hiring like-minded and similarly extreme-voiced advisors and cabinet members faster than you can say “dog whistle.”

David Friedman is, of course, the latest and clearest example. The newly nominated U.S. ambassador to Israel and backer of Jewish settlement in the West Bank invoked the most extreme reference possible when he referred to the anti-Occupation lobbying group J Street as “worse than kapos,” or Jews who informed on other Jews in Holocaust death camps. He doesn’t attack just his ideological foes. He told Jewish Insider, on the eve of the election, that he considers the ADL’s leaders “morons” for calling out his candidate for inflammatory rhetoric during the campaign.

We are at a deeply disturbing moment when those on the political right are not in the least bit fazed by such disturbing rhetoric. A respected conservative political insider I interviewed about Friedman’s nomination attributed Jewish liberals’ upset to their naivete. When asked how he felt about Friedman’s name-calling, he shot back that it sounded like I was siding with the progressives.

Trump’s election has made grotesque name-calling acceptable, even to otherwise well-behaved people, as long as they agree with his politics.

One not need to be liberal to find the acidity washing through the Jewish community, as through politics in general in these Trumpian times, deeply disturbing.

I long for a community leader whose wise words could echo across the gulfs between segments of the Jewish community, someone with the stature to be heard, who could say “Wake up! You are creating more danger every time you name-call other Jews. We must stand together for common values, even when we disagree on policies.”

It is an ever-receding dream, I know.

Though we don’t know just how it will play out, this alienation and confrontation, the meanness and acrimony, will usher in an increasingly dangerous time for Jews in America.

We need to be careful; the shards of glass from a splintered people are dangerous. And they will cut us all.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen, a frequent contributor to Haaretz, has written about diverse American Jewish communities for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter: @DebraNC