Opinion

Under Trump, Orthodox Jews' Profile Has Never Been So High, and Their Moral Standing So Low

The Goldins want Orthodox U.S. Jews to lobby leaders to do more to return their son's body, held by Hamas since 2014. But a community wedded to Trump and Netanyahu won't rock the boat

Zur Goldin, brother of Israeli soldier Hadar Goldin, talks to the media outside the family home in Kfar Saba, August 2, 2014. Goldin's body is still being held by Hamas
Reuters

Taking their efforts to recover the abducted body of their soldier son Hadar from the grip of Hamas, Hedva and Simcha Goldin arrived at the Young Israel Synagogue in New Rochelle in one of New York’s wealthier suburbs to speak to American Jews in hopes of raising awareness about their so-far unsuccessful and frustrating struggle. 

Just a week earlier, I had heard Simcha’s complaints on Israeli radio that the Netanyahu government had "abandoned" his son’s remains in Gaza, where they remained since being taken during the first moments of the Egyptian brokered cease-fire of the 2014 war. 

Now, on their way to lobby the annual UN General Assembly participants to put pressure on the powers that be, they were telling their story to a gathering of Jews in this Orthodox synagogue in Westchester County.

Along with a video that reiterated the facts, including an unequivocal statement by former President Obama "condemning" the actions of Hamas and their refusal to return Hadar’s body, the parents tried to impress upon their audience that we had some sort of power or leverage to help right this wrong. 

In answer to a question about Simcha’s public dissatisfaction with the Israeli government’s efforts, Hedva shifted uncomfortably and said that when they are abroad, they consider themselves "ambassadors of Israel" and don’t want to say anything negative. 

Then she turned the question around and claimed instead that Israel and its authorities listen "carefully" to what American Jewry says -  "especially the Orthodox Jews." 

As much as I sympathized with the heart-wrenching position the parents are in, and the tragedy of the loss of their really remarkable son, I could not help but cringe at this comment. 

First Lady Melania Trump, US President Donald Trump, Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara  at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem. May 23, 2017
GALI TIBBON/AFP

The Goldins, like so many Israelis, seem to be unaware that increasing numbers of American Jews feel alienated from the Netanyahu government and in fact believe that the Jerusalem government has no interest in listening to any opinions they have about Israel, as the most recent division over prayer at the Western Wall, demonstrated yet again. 

Certainly, when it comes to the question of the two-state solution, as the Pew Surveys have made clear, American Jewry’s stance seems as far from this Israeli government as is possible. 

Moreover, the attitude toward the Orthodox among most American Jews is also less than admiring.

Indeed, for many American Jews who remain overwhelmingly liberal and progressive, the Orthodox among them are seen as deeply out of step, highly identified with the political right wing and more sympathetic for Christian evangelicals and their worldviews than with the rest of Jewry. 

Few accept the messianic and often xenophobic attitudes of the Orthodox or their support of right-wing politics. 

A mural resembling the work of elusive artist Banksy depicting President Donald Trump wearing a Jewish skullcap on Israel's West Bank separation barrier, Bethlehem. Aug. 4, 2017
Nasser Nasser/AP

For many American Jews, their Orthodox co-religionists seem far too close to Trump, and to the corruption of Netanyahu, both of whom enjoy overwhelming Orthodox support.

To be sure, the Goldins may be correct about the louder voice that the Orthodox have these days, both in the Trump administration and Congress (and certainly among its envoys to Israel) but that volume is only there because, at least until now, the American Orthodox have been firmly on the political right and essentially give an "amen" to Trump’s pronouncements as well as what the New York Times’ Roger Cohen called "Netanyahu’s No-State Solution."  

Whether the Orthodox influence would be able to move the Netanyahu or Trump governments to become more vocal and insistent on the Goldin matter if it did not suit the two administrations is not at all clear or obvious. 

These days, many of the Orthodox, although politically more influential than at any time in American history, find themselves, like many Evangelicals, having to deal with the dilemma of moral failings that have become increasingly public, whether they are the arrests in the Lakewood yeshiva community for welfare fraud or the repeated reports of rabbinic sexual scandals.

The ongoing resistance to the Orthodox (even by other Jews) is prominent in many American towns, often from non-Orthodox Jews living there. Indeed, the very synagogue in New Rochelle in which the Goldins spoke was for years opposed by its neighbors

Arguing that the Orthodox voice could and should be heard above the other American ones, as the Goldins did, is not a powerful argument to be made here, as was clear to me when I noticed a prominent Conservative leader in the audience stand up and leave after that comment. 

Identifying their cause with Orthodox Jews risks turning it into a right-wing agenda item rather than the humanitarian issue it is, thereby losing the needed support of all Americans and supporters of human rights and human dignity.

Jewish activists groups protest PM Netanyahu's betrayal of the agreement for pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall. The placard read in Hebrew "Bibi, don't divide the Jewish People." Jerusalem, July 1, 2017
Reuters/RONEN ZVULUN

The Goldins hoped that with the change in administrations in Washington they might find more support and better results in their quest to pressure Hamas. But are they correct? 

True, they have met with Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s lawyer and Middle East negotiator, who expressed his support. However, noting that they had never managed to secure a meeting with former Secretary of State John Kerry, but only with his assistant, they never even mentioned any hopes of getting to current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, perhaps realizing his far more limited influence. 

One cannot blame the Goldins for thinking that the Trump White House and America’s Orthodox Jews will offer them the help they so desperately want, but I am afraid that such hopes may be overly optimistic. Both represent a minority of Americans and increasingly find their moral standing eroding because of actions they have taken in the past and present. 

In the end, after all, the return of the body of Hadar Goldin is a moral issue. And only moral leadership coupled with political power will help assure it.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.