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U.S. Jews' Unprecedented Dilemma: Stuck Between Twin Disasters of Trump and Netanyahu

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US President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after delivering a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. May 23, 2017
US President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after delivering a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. May 23, 2017Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

As we move toward the most sacred days of the Jewish calendar, American Jews face an unprecedented dilemma. At home, a president who threatens the most basic values and historical experiences of our community, and who is leaving U.S. support for Israel by the wayside. In Israel, a prime minister whose disdain for American Jews threatens a rupture never seen before.

We remain proud of our American Jewish organizational life, vibrant, contentious and diverse, evidenced by our passionate pluralism and furious public debate, our greatest asset. And Israel, at the moment, faces no immediate crisis: she has a strong army and economy, good relations with the U.S., and yes, politics that combine chaos with corruption, a mixture reasonably typical of the democratic world.

But when we consider the long-term, the Jewish situation is much more alarming.

A candlelight vigil held for the victims of the violence in Charlottesville, Va., August 13, 2017.Credit: Stephen Swofford/AP

The greatest threat to Jewish and Israeli interests, of course, is posed by Donald Trump. For Jews, the basics of the Trump story are not complicated. 

Let’s begin with the fundamentals: Trump is no anti-Semite. As journalist Zev Chafets has noted, anti-Semitic bigots do not have Jewish cronies, Jewish senior advisors, Jewish business partners, and daughters who have converted to Judaism. Trump does not lack for prejudices, but anti-Semitism is not among them. Furthermore, swayed by his Evangelical supporters, he speaks with a pro-Israel accent.

But beyond that, everything that the man is and does threatens Jewish values and interests. 

A non-anti-Semite, he has been consistently slow to speak up against anti-Semitism. In Charlottesville, he would not condemn fascists and Nazis. And in order to further his internecine struggles with more traditional Republicans, he has shamelessly engaged in an on-again, off-again dance with fringe elements of his base, some of whom speak the language of Henry Ford and Father Coughlin.

Let me be clear: I do not believe that Jews are physically threatened in any way in America. But Trump has given legitimacy and visibility to bigots of every sort. 

And right-wing Jews who defend him by cherry-picking his speeches and tweets are disregarding the most basic rule of Jewish defense organizations in America: When bigotry appears, call it out, confront it, and fight it with every political weapon at your disposal. If you do not, it will come back and punch the Jews in the stomach. 

And just as serious, Trump is a disaster for Israel. He ran as a nationalist and isolationist and is governing as one. 

Jewish conservatives who continue to support him, most of whom are either very religious or very rich and/or very reactionary, have been played. Some listen to his "love of Israel" rhetoric. Some look at his appointment of kippah-wearing Jews to positions of seeming importance in promoting a peace deal.     

Confederate monument marked with the word 'shame' and a photograph of Heather D. Heyer, killed by a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville, Va. Aug. 16, 2017Credit: Steve Earley | The Virginian-Pil

But while the President talks a good game, he delivers nothing. The Syrian deal is a disaster for Israel, handing territory on Israel’s northern border into the hands of Russia and Hezbollah. Iran extends its reach not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Yemen, and throughout the Middle East. And while blustering and bloviating about North Korea and ISIS, Trump forswears the tough diplomacy and sensible policies that would make America - Israel’s indispensable protector and patron - a force to be reckoned with in the world.  

And the final reason for Jewish concern is the rupture between Israel and American Jewry that is without precedent in Israel’s history. Haredi parties have always had clout, and American Reform and Conservative Jews have been understanding of Israel’s political realities. But all knew that red lines existed, and that Israel’s government would never permit small, extremist parties to humiliate American Jews. 

But for reasons that only he knows, Benjamin Netanyahu decided to cancel the Western Wall agreement that he himself had negotiated. And he decided to grant the Haredi rabbinate a conversion monopoly that even many Orthodox rabbis object to. 

Perhaps he did this because he is a political coward, caring more for his political survival than for his country and Jewish unity. Perhaps he no longer sees mainstream American Jewry as a strategic asset for Israel. Perhaps he believes that Israel does not need the backing of the American Jewish majority - and that Trump, the Evangelicals, and the Republicans will do the job. Who knows? 

File photo: Jewish activists protest against the Orthodox monopoly over religious rites at Western Wall in Jerusalem, January 2017. The sign on the left says "Bibi, I'm also Jewish."Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

What we do know is this: For the first time in Israel’s history, Diaspora Jews are cancelling meetings with the Prime Minister because they feel they have been treated with disdain and disrespect. For the first time in Israel’s history, the Prime Minister is visiting New York and avoiding meetings with large numbers of Jewish leaders - not because he is short on time, but because he fears the questions he will be asked and the hostility he will face. Who would have thought such a thing possible? 

As the High Holidays approach, will we focus on the good news or the bad?  On both, it seems to me. The Talmud (Rosh ha-Shanah 16a), in offering an explanation of the Akedah, states: "Thus are your children destined to be caught in iniquities and entangled in misfortunes, but in the end they will be redeemed by the horns of a ram." Let us acknowledge our misfortunes. Let us admit our iniquities. And let us hope, as a result of our repentance, for God’s redemption.

But that redemption will not come with passivity on our part. We must insist on our co-partnership with God, as we work to recover America’s greatness, restore the unity of the Jewish people, and make ourselves weavers of dream and keepers of the flame of justice, in both Israel and America.  

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

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